Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Classic Daily Show Segment

I hate to post a video two days in a row, but this is just classic:

Beth swears that Frosty is just trying to get publicity, but I'm not so sure. I think he's a failed comedian who's trying to show off to the pros.

In any case, the giant bowl of God's anger is a classic.

Booklog, The Ski Mask Way, 50 Cent and k. Elliott

The Ski Mask Way
50 Cent and k. Elliott
Pocket Books Trade Paperback, 213 pages

You heard me right. Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent, is a published author. Or at least a co-author, with k. Elliot (an author obscure enough not to have a Wikipedia page, although he or she has published at least one or two other books, according to Amazon) he has written and published The Ski Mask Way, and in a lot of ways it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect.

The plot hinges on Seven, a NYC native who has been transplanted to Charlotte afte NC after serving time for drug dealing, and who runs with Butter, a lowlife thug known more for his brutality than his smarts. The book opens with the two of them sitting in an Impala listening to hip-hop (the artists are all identified in the book, although not being a fan of the music I can't really comment on it), smoking weed, and talking about movies and life. By the end of the first half-dozen pages, they're planning robberies, and by the end of the first chapter they've made some "paper", in the book's lingo.

As the book continues, we meet Seven's "baby-mama", an ex-prison guard named Adrian who lost her job because of her relationship with the then-incarcerated Seven, and their three-year-old son Tracey. Tracey has an unspecified disease that makes it impossible for him to walk, and much of what follows will happen because Seven needs to have the money for his son's operation that will allow him to walk and be rehabilitated.

That's not to say that Seven is a family man. He has a hot girlfriend names Elise who helps to set up victims for his robberies, and who eventually leads him to Reno, a big-time gangster in the relatively small town. Seven's original plan is to get Elise to seduce Reno into giving away the location of his stash of drugs and money, then to break in and rob the more-powerful man. But Reno is no fool, and sees right through the trick, gaining Elise as his girlfriend in the process.

If this all seems a bit strung-together, that's because it is. This all takes place within the first forty or fifty pages, and I've barely given it less description than the book itself -- there is no metaphor or real description to speak of here, but simple dialogue that spells out direct motives for the character's actions, and a long series of sketchily-described locales.

By the end of the book, people die (although not always who you expect) and a whole lot of money changes hands. The characters remain barely two-dimensional stick figures that live violent lives absolutely free of any police intervention (except one very short scene involving mall security) and who seem to have no real inner lives to speak of. Even Seven, the protagonist of the piece, fighting to make enough money so that his son can learn to walk, never seems to have any real depth of character, and a short scene in which he tears up over the life he has to live in order to give his son a new lease on life is perfunctory at best.

The book ends with snippets of two other 50 Cent-authored pieces, both of which seem better than this one, so it may be the Elliott simply isn't a very good coauthor. This book is clearly meant to be a sort of modern-day analogue to the dime novels of the "pulp fiction" era, and in a lot of ways I think it fills the same role. While the writing doesn't stand up to, say, Raymond Chandler's, I'll bet there were dozens if not hundreds of hack writers banging out crime fiction in 1940 that would've read exactly like this, if one switched out the Italian crime bosses for African-American drug dealers, and inserted the word "nigga" approximately twice per page.

It's easy to look at this sort of thing as the collapse of Western civilization, but while there's absolutely no reason to ever buy this book for its literary merits, it does sort of make sense as a dumb sort of thrilling crime fiction. I can't comment on the "reality" of the situations it describes, but there's really no insight here that can't be gotten in a dozen generic gangsta movies or rap videos, and the plot is so thin that I've read cheap erotica with more depth and emotional heft.

Oh, and there's this bit from page 88:
Antonio sat in the front, Butter and Seven sat in the back. Squeeze put in a G-Unit mix tape and pulled off in a hurry as they bobbed their heads to the latest Lloyd Banks song. "Yo, that nigga Banks is nice. I like his delivery," Squeeze said.

"Yeah, but I think Tony Yayo is the nicest," Antonio said.

"Hell, that nigga Fifty is the nicest to me. I mean, this nigga is getting his marbles. They can hate if they want, but he has an empire -- clothes, music, video games, Vitamin Water..." Seven said.

That's right, Fifty name-checks himself in his own book. Raymond Chandler eat your heart out.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Booklog, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee
Harper Perennial Modern Classics Trade Paperback, 323 pages

A few days ago, I wrote a booklog review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, in which I basically said that it was a fairly simple "good" book, with surface-level allusions that would make it easy to teach to teenagers. I didn't mention it at the time, but I was mentally connecting McCarthy's book to To Kill a Mockinbird, as my memory of the book (and the movie of the same name) was that of a basically simple, straightforward pair of stories that connected only in the most spurious ways.

Well, I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Reapproaching the novel as an adult, I was amazed at the overall quality of the writing, at how structured and (at times) wickedly satirical Lee's voice in the novel is. Teaching it to every ninth grader in America is actually a disservice to the book -- 14 year olds just really don't understand this book, and the movie (good as it is) only aids the confusion.

In case you're one of the half-dozen people in North America who's never read it, let me give you a synopsis. Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout) narrates the story of how her older brother Jem broke his arm when they were both small children in small-town southern Alabama around 1932. In order to tell the story, she starts by telling about Boo Radley, the adult man who lives with his mother and father next door and who hasn't been seen in about twenty years, and about her lawyer father Atticus Finch's unsuccessful defense of an African-American man named Tom Robinson, who is on trial for his life after being accused of raping a poor white girl. The novel is basically disjointed, spending about half of its time on the idyllic childhood of Scout, her brother, and their friend Dill who visits during the summers, and the other half on coutroom theatrics involving a racist jury putting an innocent black man to death, despite the clear moral and legal voice of Atticus.

Except that the version I gave above is the way people remember the story later on. At least, that's basically the way I remember it, and it's basically the way the film version goes. But in reality, Lee's achievement is much deeper than a simple morality play set in rural Alabama -- her fictional Maycomb county is an absolute delight, filled with saints and sinners (who are not always on the side of the fence we think they're on, and who sometimes don't seem to know there's a fence at all) going about elaborately controlled social lives and relating to one another in a variety of subtly interconnected ways.

Who remembers years after their reading that there's a Hitler reference late in the novel? Or that Scout's second-grade teacher is almost assuredly Jewish, and has a similar prejudice against "Negroes" that the Protestant ladies surrounding her do? Or that Scout's Aunt Alexandria, Atticus's sister, is such an effective tool of what in a later era would be called patriarchy, determined to make a "lady" out of the tomboyish Scout?

Who at fourteen would realize how special Atticus's childrearing methods really are? His small children call him by his first name, he is generally opposed to violence but buys them air-rifles anyway, never talks down to his children and even taught Scout to read the newspaper so early that she considers it as natural as breathing. Even by the hopefully more-enlightened standards of the early twenty-first century, Atticus's parenting comes across as revolutionary and progessive in all the right ways, with little of the baggage of his times -- how radical must it have seemed in 1960, when the book was published, or in the 1930s, when Lee herself was being raised? (Atticus is based on Lee's own father, who was a lawyer who tried a similar case during her childhood.)

Much is made of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, a "nonfiction novel" which took scandalous events and transformed them through the devices of fiction into great drama. Since Capote was a dear friend of Lee's, and in fact was the inspiration for the character of Dill, it's suggested by many that Capote helped to shape the not-quite-fictional nature of Mockingbird, but given the adroitness of Lee's voice here, I'm not entirely sure it wasn't the other way around. Lee is always in clear command of her narrative voice, and while the meaning of certain sequences may not always be clear on a first reading, the overall structure is impeccable -- every word and every moment has its place in the scheme of the novel.

In short, this is a masterpiece. It's odd to think of one of the most popular books in the English language as overlooked, but I think it's clear that much of the novel goes over the heads of the teenagers who are assigned to read it. If you haven't read it since high school, you haven't read it: go check it out of the library or buy a copy and read it again. It's an utterly amazing book, and it's a tragedy that Lee never wrote anything else after it. The memory of this rereading of her masterwork will remain in my mind for a long time.

Youtube Link

I recently upgraded from dialup to DSL (probably the last person in North America to do so) and I'm loving my new access to videos and such. Here's a really funny pair of bits that Patton Oswalt did on the Conan O'Brian show a few months back.

Gotta love those gravy bowls.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

You Could've Just Said "No Thanks," You Know

So I'm running the register today, and a guy comes up to buy Culture Warrior. So he's already a bit on my bad side, but hey, if I got pissed at everyone who thought Bill O'Reilly was anything less than a total blowhard, I wouldn't get very far, would I?

One of the silly things that I have to do when running the register is mention the magazine offer. Basically, any customer with one of our spiffy discount cards and who uses a credit or debit card on their transaction, can get eight free issues of Time, Entertainment Weekly, People, or Sports Illustrated. And since apparently my employer made a sweet deal with the distribution house of those mags, we get to ask every qualifying customer, or risk a write-up.

So the guy uses his debit card, and has a discount card with us. And I ask, "Would you be interested in eight free issues of any of these magazines?" while gesturing to the little info card on the register.

(Sorry about the thumb in the pic -- I took it quickly when no one was looking, and didn't get the chance to preview it.)

His respone, in his deep, gruff voice: "Uh-huh. All those magazines are Communist."

Communist? Really? A momentary shock from me, while I nod to myself, hit "No thanks" on the register menu, and continue the transaction. He continues, "Yeah, People, Time... those are all a bunch of Communists. This one's okay...." He gestures towards Sports Illustrated. "And what's the other one?"

Ever-helpful me, I say, "Entertainment Weekly."

A pause from him. "That one's for idiots." I decline to mention my own Entertainment Weekly subscription.

"All right, sir. No problem. Here's your receipt." He takes it. "Thanks a lot, and have a nice day."

He walks out with the book, while I consdier the ramifications of the out-and-out Marxism of Time and People. And since he didn't claim Entertainment Weekly to be one of the proletariat-lovers, maybe he's convinced their editorial staff is a bunch of Ayn Rand-reading free marketeers. (I doubt it, though.)

Maybe I should have pushed the Sports Illustrated thing. I guess the glorification of guys beating up other guys on a playing field is the very personification of the Invisible Hand at work.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Booklog: The Road, Cormac McCarthy

The Road
Cormac McCarthy
Trade Paperback, 287 pages

I guess I've been sucked in by the Oprah hype, but I finally decided to just go ahead and read this thing. And for a book as good as this one is, I have lots of problems with it.

A lot of people questioned the inclusion of a book with child cannibalism and near-starvation into Oprah's book club, until now mainly known for picking feel-good chick-lit, but to me it makes perfect sense: the novel is fairly short, composed of simple straightforward (if very good) writing, and despite its postapocalyptic setting contains themes of hope in the face of adversity, the struggle of being a parent, and the power of basic human decency.

If you don't know the story, let me sum it up for you: in a postapocalyptic wasteland (probably after nuclear war, but it's never explicitly stated), a man and a boy (never named) seek warmer weather by walking along the eponymous road, and dodge cannibals and other unsavory characters along the way. The father (probably a doctor, given some specialized knowledge he has) is dying of some unspecified illness that makes him cough blood every morning, and both father and son are severely malnourished, often going days at a time without any food at all.

And that's basically it. I can't discuss it any further without going into spoiler territory (and the very real joys of this book require coming to it knowing as little as possible), so if you're still planning to read it leave now. Just know that I recommend the book pretty highly, with caveats.

Now that all the spoiler-averse have gone, let me discuss the ending a bit. Basically, the man dies of his illness, and the boy ends up in the care of a kind stranger and his wife, who have apparently been tracking them all this time. Why a kind stranger would simply allow the man to die, to simply allow them to nearly starve to death, to have their supplies stolen, to nearly be caught by paramilitary cannibals, is never even remotely explained. It's a happy ending (and the short description of the boy's life with the family has more in common with a Rockwell painting than the apocalyptic nightmare that make up the rest of the book) that the story doesn't earn, and that feels tacked on.

It's possible that this is part of the religious imagery of the book (and another reason Oprah picked it for her book club) -- the boy has been "redeemed" by the death of his father or some such. That the story is so clearly a parable (no character is ever named except for a blind old man wandering in the forest without any visible means of support, who goes by "Ely") helps to support this contention -- perhaps it's all supposed to be some religious allegory. But for this atheist, it really just seems like a copout.

In fact, the whole thing just seems like a bit of a copout. Despite the harshness of the wasteland described (and it's about as harsh as I've ever seen in a postnuclear novel), these characters never really seem to be in any danger to me. In any sort of reality, this small kid (thankfully not a "cute" kid, but one hardened to the world around him) and his sick father would end up being entrees in a paramilitary pot roast -- McCarthy often has them escape death more by luck than by wit or skill. At one point, they literally stumble upon a store of canned food left behind by now-dead survivalists, perhaps more evidence that the book is really some sort of religious allegory.

Overall I won't be surprised at all to see this book taught in upper-level high school classes in a few years. It has the kind of complexity that goes well in those sorts of classes, as it has a fair amount of symbolism and straightforward "themes" that make it easy to teach. And, as I mentioned above, it really is exquistely written, filled with images and dialogue that evoke the world and the characters in very real ways. That I find myself disappointed with the book speaks more to my own experience with postapolcayptic science fiction (there's little here that wasn't done forty or fifty years ago in pulp science fiction magazines and books) than with the quality of this book.

I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend a book I enjoyed more that touched on some of the same things. David Brin's The Postman (yes, the one on which the movie was based, but don't hold that against it) may not be quite as bleak as McCarthy's work, but it is much more concrete in detailing the kind of society that might survive a nuclear war, and the way it deals with the responsibilities of government and warfare regularly inform my own political views. Instead of ending with a deus-ex-machina, it earns the sense of hope for the future that informs its final chapter. All that and some great action scenes, too.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Sentimental Picture

The store has a whiteboard on which the day's tasks are split up among the associates. Occasionally, it's also used for other purposes.

A minor tribue, to be sure, but one that made me slightly happier that day.

A Particularly Fun Customer Interaction

"Can I help you?" Slightly tall, young, shaven-head gentleman.

"Yeah, I need help finding a book."

That's why I'm here. "Sure, what do you need?"

"You know that movie Requiem for a Dream? I'm looking for something really intense like that."

"Hmm." I walk to the computer, type for a bit. "Requiem for a Dream was a book first. By..." I think. "Shelby. No, Selby. Hubert Selby." Typing some more: "selby requiem" into the search bar. "We may have some more of his books." I know he also wrote Last Exit to Brooklyn and at least one or two others, but I haven't read them.

And of course, all we have in the system is Requiem for a Dream, which is order-only. Shit.

"Nothing in stock. Let me think..." I continue, trying to help the customer.

"I just read How I Paid for College, y'know, something like that or Requiem for a Dream. Have you read it?"

Nope. Looks interesting, though. "Not yet. Hmm. So what exactly is it you're looking for?"

"Just a kind of weird, intense book. I've tried Chuck Palahniuk (he mispronounces it "palaniak"), but I can't really get into him."

Now he's piqued my interest. "Which Palahniuk have you read?" (It's paul-un-ook, by the way.)

Can't remember the title, the one wth the con artist..."


"That's it."

"I haven't read that one, but I've heard that one isn't his best." I'm motioning him to follow me over to the P's in fiction. "Other than Fight Club, I think Lullaby is really good, and Haunted has some really good bits, although it doesn't really cohere very well."


"Yeah. Lullaby's kinda like Palahniuk with a horror novel. And Survivor is really messed up, told in reverse order sort of, and involves a plane hijacking."

The customer nods, looking at the books I've been handing him.

"Let's see, what else can I recommend..." I'm getting into it now. "I read a bunch of messed-up stuff, this one over here..." Walking over there. "...Perfume, is about this eighteenth century serial killer who makes women into perfume. Only it's not really about that at all -- it's about the most misanthropic book I've ever seen." Pause. "If you're looking for something more humorous, you could go for some of the works of Elmore Leonard. He wrote the book that eventually became Jackie Brown, as well as Get Shorty and Out of Sight." I pause. "To be fair, I haven't read those particular books, but I've read a couple of his other books, and he does these kinds of low-rent criminal capers really well."

"That's cool."

I'm still wandering a bit, looking for good books to recommend, when we pass by the "Our Favorite Trade Paperbacks" table, which is really a, "This Company Has Lots of Copies of these Trade Paperbacks" table. He asks, "Are the books on this table pretty good?"

"Generally, yeah, from what I've read." I'm glancing over the titles, noting that I actually have read a fair number of them. "Running with Scissors is pretty messed up. It's the story of the childhood of this guy whose mom and dad were both messed-up alcoholics -- she takes him to live with this psychiatrist, and he's even more messed up. He tells the stories of this horrible childhood, but he does it in a really low-key, matter-of-fact kind of way. Like, he's repeatedly raped by this guy, but he's more like," and here my voice drops to practically a whisper -- thankfully no customers were around, "'...my boyfriend raped me again. I didn't like it much. His cock tastes bad.'" (Oh Holy Jesus, I just said the word "cock" to a customer! He's taking it in stride, though, so I press on.) "It's messed up, and really funny at times."

The guy's laughing. "Sounds interesting."

Then my eyes light on the book I should have recommended from the get-go. I walk the guy back over to the fiction, in the L's I pick up a copy of Darkly Dreaming Dexter with Michael C. Hall on the cover. "This is the story of this serial killer who kills other serial killers. But it's really amazingly darkly funny, and the sequel is even funnier. They made it into a series on Showtime, but the book is tighter and funnier."

"Yeah, I think I saw that advertised a while ago."

"Check it out -- it's really good." A pause. Should I go for it? Why the hell not? "But if you're looking for something really intense and weird, check out the most recent novel by Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day. It's over a thousand pages of really dense text, took me over six weeks just for an introductory read, but it's filled with bizarre stuff."

"I don't know if I have the patience for that. If I can't read a book in a week or so, I get restless."

"I know the feeling. But this one... well, let me put it like this. There's this bit where there is this intelligent dog, 'trained in the French arts', as it were. And this guy gets the dog alone in a room and decides to, hmm, take advantage of the situation. And just as he's getting ready to do the dirty deed, the dog bites him you-know-where."

His eyebrows shoot up. "Wow."

"Even better, it takes place on page 666 of the novel. Let me show you." I open it up to the page and let him glance through. "It's filled with this kind of stuff."

He holds the book under his arm, along with two or three others, including the first Dexter book. "I've got to get back to the customer service counter, but I've got one more for you. One of my all-time favorite books. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. It's this parallel narrative that takes place partly in World War II, and partly in a present-day (well, late nineties) software company. And it's a really cool book, if you're a geek like me, which I'm guessing you are."


"So anyway, take a couple of books, sit down and see if there's anything you're interested in. That's all I can think of off the top of my head."

"Thanks a lot, man. Lots of good books here to check out."

"No problem. Let me know if you need anything else."

Yeah, sometimes the night is good to me.

(And if you think I'm only including this because it gives me a chance to talk about a bunch of cool books that I wanted to mention, you may be right. But all of this happened, more or less.)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes

Kurt Vonnegut died last night.

Beth send me a great link to Pandagon about it, and I thought about just posting that and being done with it, but while all that's said over at Pandagon is true, Vonnegut meant something to me personally.

I never met him. Never even saw him in-person. If I'd ever seen him, I'm not sure I would have even recognized him as who he was (despite his pretty unique appearance), rather than some other random old man. But his writing shaped me.

I had tried a couple of Vonneguts that were available from the Mobile Public Library when I was in high school. I don't remember them too well, and don't remember being all that impressed by them. Forgive me -- I was young. After high school, I got curious and bought a copy of Slaughterhouse Five, and it was a revelation. That a book could be so clear, so empathetic, while exploring these bizarre science fictional concepts in such a strange and hypnotic way....

So I began exploring Vonnegut's other fiction. I haven't read them all (shame on me!) but my favorites right now are two of his later works, Galapagos, in which the human race evolves into something a little more amenable to long-term survival, fish-catching otterlike creatures with tiny brains, and Bluebeard, the story of a modern artist whose paintings all fall apart because of an unfortunate use of materials. But Galapagos isn't really about evolutionary biology, and Bluebeard isn't really about art -- they are both perfect examples of Vonnegut's essential sense of human kindness.

And that, more than anything else, is what Vonnegut tried to teach the world. You can talk about literary stylings all you want, or his importance as an early science fiction writer breaking out into the "slicks" (and both of these are important), but for me what I take from Vonnegut is the sense that while we may be impotent against an uncaring universe, if we can all just lean together and do our best to care for each other, maybe we can get through it. Of course, Vonnegut usually described what happened if we didn't all lean together, but that only makes the message all the more powerful.

Vonnegut's humanism shines through every word he wrote. He was a brilliant, wonderful man, and from everything I've heard an amazing human being. He will be sorely missed. And so it goes....

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Mundane Interaction with a Customer

I walk up to the customer service counter, having put away a stack of books that customers had left on a table, looking for yet another stack of books to put away.

There's a customer looking at me in that way that I've come to recognize as, "I'm a customer, I need help, I haven't gotten it yet, why aren't you helping me yet?" So, obviously, I say, "I'm sorry ma'am, do you need help?" She's middle-aged, standing alongside several other persons, among them two small children.

"I need help finding a book." Yeah, you and everybody else.

"Sure. Come on over to this section of the counter, please." She does, and I continue, "So what can I help you find?"

"Do you have any books on the Canadian Railroad?"

Pause. I start typing 'canadian railroad' into the computer. "So are you looking for a kid's book, or...."

"No." Slightly displussed. I look at her more closely, and notice that the kids I saw were with another customer being helped by another employee. "I'm thinking of something more like a travel book."

"Oh." I scroll through the listings, glancing at the descriptions. "The system shows several books sort of about the Canadian Railroad. Um.... Looks like mainly history books and picture books...."

"No travel books?"

"Hmm, well this one's kind of ambiguous. Might be a sort of travel book." I point it out to her.

"Well, what section is it in?"

"It's order-only, have to get it from the warehouse. All the books I'm showing are warehouse-only titles. We don't have anything in-store on that subject."

"Why not?"

Maybe because you're the first person I've ever heard of looking for books on that topic? I shrug, "We carry lots of books, but nothing in-store about the Canadian Railroad. Your best bet might be to try our website." I give her the address. "And if you want us to check stock status of a particular book, or to order it in-store, you can just give us the ISBN and we can probably have it shipped here for you."

"So you don't have anything in store?"

"No ma'am. I'm sorry about that."

She sighs. "All right. Thanks for checking, anyway."

"No problem. Let me know if there's anything I can at least try to find for you." A smile, and we're done with one more routine interaction in my daily life.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Booklog: The Colorado Kid, Stephen King

The Colorado Kid
Stephen King
Hard Case Crime Paperback, 184 pages

Okay, Stephen King's just fucking with us now.

I can't say I've always been a big fan of King's. His myriad horror novels were all the rage when I was in junior high/high school, and there were and are plenty of otherwise really smart people who just go gaga over King's particular brand of horror. And, you know, more power to them -- far be it from me to dictate what other people should enjoy.

But I never really got off on it. And during his heyday, it was nearly impossible to not read Stephen King somewhere or other. So I never really respected his talent as much as maybe I should have -- the earthiness and popular nature of his prose and his stories just never worked for me.

But a funny thing happened as the years passed. Once the millions of books were already sold, and once King's horror fans got a little older or a little wiser, it turned out that King had plenty of other stuff to offer, and he started to garner some of the critical respect that maybe he always should have had.

Everyone probably already knows this by now, but there's a lot more going on in that old noggin of King's than just monsters and goblins. Case in point: The Colorado Kid.

Looking at the cover, this looks like a standard noirish mystery (like all the other books in the Hard Case Crime series) -- from the title, it seems more like a Western (I've got to say that the vague soundalike to the Kieselguhr Kid from Against the Day made this one pop in my mind towards the top of my to-read list), but it's really anything but. It's a tale told by two very old newpapermen to their young but whippersmart colleague about an unsolved mystery that they were involved with twenty-five years before. And, bear no mind, the case remains unsolved; at the end of the book we are no closer to a solution to the puzzle in the story than we were at the beginning.

So what the hell is King up to here? I think he's really telling us a story about stories; the theme of a "through line" in newspaper stories comes up several times, i.e. the "hook" needed to keep a reader interested. He's showing how incredibly unrealistic most "murder mysteries" really are, in that searching for the kinds of minute evidence that a show like CSI (name-checked in The Colorado Kid) makes its trade is often impractical, impossible, or unneeded for political reasons.

The mystery is this: some guy in his late thirties or early forties is found dead propped against a wastebasket in a small Maine town on April 24, 1980. With a small piece of partially chewed meat in his throat, apparently the cause of death. It takes nearly a year to even get an ID on the guy -- he was an artist from Colorado, hence the title. Was he alone when he diead? Was it murder or accident? How did he get from Colorado to Maine? All mysteries, none of them ever really solved.

And yet, this doesn't really feel like a cheat, for King gets the whole thing done with quickly (this won't even be an afternoon read for most people -- it's more of a novella than a novel) and has obviously researched a lot of details that feed into his fiction in a way that make the reader feel like there is a solution buried in there, but time has worn away so many facts that it's going to be impossible to suss out.

Overall an interesting book, one that I'm glad I read, and it's a mark of King's storytelling prowess that an essentially pointless story is so compelling. Mystery readers are apt to be a bit put off by this title, but if you're looking for an elegant piece of storytelling to while away most of an afternoon, look no further.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Booklog: Intuition, Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman
Dial Press Trade Paperback, 385 pages

I found this book referenced on Acephalous, and knew I had to check it out. (BTW, despite what Acephalous says, the book clearly states it takes place in the mid eighties on page four, and there are several contemporary-to-the-eighties references throughout the novel.)

Basically, the book takes place in a small research lab affiliated with Harvard where biomedical research involving cancer is being done. Goodman makes the science understandable by not ever really talking about it, so that the reader has no idea what these characters actually do all day, but she seems to have gotten the social and political aspects of being in a lab just right.

The story follows the research of Cliff, who is trying to use R-7 to cure mice of their tumors, is told by his superiors that it's a dead end, and then miraculously starts getting good data out of the project. The pressures that this sudden success places on his relationship with another postdoc, Robin, eventually lead to a falling-out between the two of them, and Robin's inability to get R-7 to work on any other groups of mice leads her to call fraud on the drug.

Along the way, we meet maybe a dozen or so other main characters, all of whom Goodman gives rich inner lives -- she's very good at clearly delineating her characters from one another based on motivation, and making the reader see the way in which personal biases affect each person's response to the situation in front of them.

It is kind of a small book though, despite being a touch overlong. It has no clear meaning, and the ending is I think ambiguous in a bad way. It's a fascinating look at the world of real-life research, but I would have preferred it to be a bit more technically savvy, and to be a bit tighter. I did enjoy the way the author keeps the reader on his/her toes regarding the central mystery, though -- it's only towards the last pages of the book that we understand what really is happening with the mice, and no one other than the perpetrator could have really understood the resolution there.

Overall, a nice read, with good characters, but nothing all that special.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Booklog: Polaris, Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt
Mass-Market Paperback, 384 pages

Chad Orzel reviewed this a while back on Uncertain Principles, and I thought it looked interesting. (I blatantly stole his booklog concept for use here, as well.) I had tried reading The Engines of God a while back, but couldn't get into it, so I came at this one with, well, not exactly high hopes.

And you know what, this is actually quite a good book. It's the second Alex Benedict novel (the first, A Talent for War, was not in-stock at my store and I haven't read it), a science fiction mystery that entertains even when the mystery isn't quite as mysterious as maybe it should be. There are two main characters, Benedict and Chase Kolpath (the book's first-person narrator), who work as antiquities dealers in the far future (at least four or five thousand years from now). The Orion Arm of the galaxy has been pretty well explored and settled, and hundreds of world hold human populations -- these worlds are organized into something called the Confederacy, which holds a sort of loose reign over the planetary governments.

The book opens with an extended sequence in which a research vessel Polaris, on a VIP trip to see a neutron star destroy Delta Kay and its planetary system. As the neutron star passes through the star, and all the other research vessels hyperdrive to safety, something happens on board to remove the passengers of the Polaris, while leaving the ship intact.

Sixty years later, the main action with Benedict and Kolpath begins. It turns out that there are some items from the Polaris that have been released by the local government, and Benedict sees a money-making opportunity. As the thing develops, we see attempts made on Benedict's and Kolpath's lives, and a mystery develops which eventually leads back to what happened on that ship sixty years before.

Overall this book reminded me of some of the later Asimov, although McDevitt's writing style is superior and much-better attenuated to modern sensibilities. Like Asimov, McDevitt envisions a future in which even after millennia of star travel and hundreds of colonized worlds, people still behave much the same way that our contemporaries do, with conversations and motivations that would be at home in today's world. While this convention is perhaps a bit unrealistic, it is necessary at least in McDevitt's case, for it allows for a fairly standard "locked-room" mystery plot with several reasonably compelling action scenes.

I didn't find the mystery to be all that convulted, as the basic motivation for the thing becomes clear early on, Benedict and Kolpath keep up with the reader, and McDevitt plays fair by not using artificial means to withhold information. In fact, the way in which clues for the mystery are laid in front of the reader while seeming to be simple worldbuilding is quite elegant, and I found myself respecting McDevitt's authorship repeatedly.

The book is perhaps a touch too long, and some of the action scenes felt a bit obligatory to me, but overall this is a good book, well worth picking up if you're looking for a bit of easy genre fiction, and good enough that I may go back to give Engines of God another try sometime.