Thursday, September 03, 2009

BooksFirst - August 2009

Books Bought

Venus On The Half Shell by Kilgore Trout
One Fearful Yellow Eye by John D. MacDonald
Dress Her In Indigo by John D. MacDonald
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine by Tom Wolfe
Crazy Hair by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
What's So Funny by Donald Westlake
Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck
100 Years of American Newspaper Comics by Maurice Horn
Vermillion Sands by J. G. Ballard
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

Books Read

The Masters of Deception by Michelle Slatalla and Joshua Quittner
This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams
Persepolis 2: The Story Of A Return by Marjane Satrapi


As you might surmise by the length of the Books Bought section, I went on a bit of binge this month. While in Pittsburgh, we kept ending up in the Oakland area which is home to Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon. Where there are good universities, there tend to be good bookstores. I found two within blocks of each other, Townsend Booksellers and Caliban Books. At nice used bookstores I almost feel obligated to buy something, anything. The 100 Years of American Comics was a particularly serendipitous find since I fancy myself a comics aficionado. My test search in these cases is Travels With Farley, an obscure west coast comic that my scoutmaster claimed to be the inspiration for. 100 years had quite a good entry on it, thus proving its comprehensiveness.

A book that has been on the bookshelf next to my nightstand (as opposed to on the tall stack of books on the floor next to the bookshelf next to my nightstand) is The Masters of Deception which was cowritten by Joshua Quittner. Quittner was an early journalistic pioneer on the cyberspace beat once famously registering and holding ransom (for charity) I don't know where he is now, but MoD is a inside look at what the subtitle calls The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace. Hyperbole aside, the book is now a great nostalgic look back at the pre-internet world where dial-up modems and BBSs roamed the earth.

As a 'gang' the Masters of Deception were fairly tame by today's standards. A lot of the book deals with petty feuds with other hackers like the equally preposterously named Legion of Doom. These were kids playing with toys and trespassing into places they didn't belong. Their biggest crime was stealing phone card numbers so they could modem dial long distance into remote corporate servers. Only one ended up serving time and the rest went back to their nerdy post-adolescent lives.

I read the book nearly a decade and a half after the events it describes trying to think how the online world has changed. Bulletin boards have all but disappeared but the concept lives on with the ubiquitous message boards like 4chan and others. With broadband everywhere and services like Skype available stealing long distance phone service is a fool's errand. Real hackers can do identity theft far more maliciously now. It makes one yearn for the simpler days when the virtual world was young.

Walter Jon Williams is one of the most under-rated writers in science fiction. I met him at a meet-the writer brunch at Magicon (the 50th World Science Fiction Convention) where he talked about how he kept challenging himself as a writer. No two books of his are alike and even within the genre he is tough to pigeon hole. He has written cyberpunk, urban fantasy, space opera, and flirted with mainstream cross-over books.

The protagonist of This Is Not A Game which is set ten minutes into the future is a woman that could be a thinly disguised authorial avatar. A mid-level science fiction writer whose career is destroyed by bad publishers, she falls back on her college fantasy role-playing buddies to set herself up as the director of elaborate publicity stunts that are part online treasure hunts and part LARPs Gone Wild. When she uses her online resources to crowdsource her rescue from a third world country, she realizes she is onto something bigger than just games.

One of the clever gimmicks of the book is that the "This Is Not X" construction carries through all the chapter titles in rather appropriate ways. For example, the "This Is Not A Flashback" chapter is the chapter AFTER all the flashbacks. The story itself is a bit predictable but not without interesting characters and a well-plotted if perhaps a bit underwhelming denouement. Williams deserves some break-out success but he has written better books than this one, which still is not bad at all. I am loathe to use the cliche phrase 'page-turner', but I read this entire book over a long weekend. I wish I could find more books this engrossing.

Another quick read was Persepolis 2. When I finished the first book in Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel memoir, I was frustrated when it ended right as she went off to school in Europe. The second volume covers her high school years in Europe where she defies her prim Iranian upbringing and sleeps around and develops a drug habit. Upon returning to Iran, she enrolls in art college only to be frustrated by the Kafka-esque morality police running the country. For example, anatomy drawing classes must be taken with the models completely covered in burkhas. As a graphic novel, the stark black and white line drawings are very evocative and add just the right mood to the narrative.

The book gives very interesting insights into both the Iranian people and the Iranian theocratic government both of which seem to be strongly at odds with each other in many ways. I have a half-joking half-baked thesis that Islam is just Christianity, only six hundred years younger. The laughable-if-it-weren't-so-tragic censorship and religious intolerance of Iranian society (and perhaps more so in Saudi Arabia) reminds me of episodes in European history ranging from the Inquisition (which nobody expects) and Cromwell and the Puritans ruling England. Because it covers more time and more episodes than the first volume, this half of the story is a little more disjointed. But it is a fascinating and compelling look into a creative mind suffering under both too much freedom and far too little.


Sue T. said...

yellojkt, have you heard of How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely? I think you'd enjoy it.

yellojkt said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I went and reserved it at the library and I am 6th in line, so it must be popular.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the book reviews. Always looking for something new to add to my own stack my the nightstand . . .