Saturday, February 26, 2011

BooksFirst - January 2011

Books Bought
The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Kindle)
The Complete Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (Kindle)
Penrod by Booth Tarkington (Kindle)
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (Kindle)
Tears Of A Clown by Dana Milbank

Books Read
Penrod by Booth Tarkington
Star Island by Carl Hiaasen
Zero History by William Gibson
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Life, The Universe And Everything by Douglas Adams

Books Heard
Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon


To get National Just Read More Novels Month off to a brisk start I quickly read Penrod, a short novel by Booth Tarkington that I had bought for the Kindle because Roger Ebert tweeted that it was only 99 cents, presumably because the book is in the public domain. Penrod Schofield is the titular boy who has a series of adventures from about a century ago. Splitting the historical space between Tom Sawyer and the Our Gang movies, this is the small town America that everybody always gets so nostalgic for.

The adventures which are fairly episodic with no real narrative arc do overlap and have recurring characters. The hijinks are humorous and only center around Penrod trying to pull something off on somebody. He scams his way out of a dance class recital. He tricks the town dandy into drinking an awful concoction. He third wheels the wooing of his sister's suitor only to have the same happen to him by the younger brother of the girl he is sweet on.

Also indicative of times in which the tales are set, there is some casual racism which would be deemed offensive by today's standards. But the two neighbor African-American kids hold their own and the primary antagonists in the stories are class-based, not ethnic. There is some bullying which is the closest the stories get to something of contemporary concern. Still, the stories are sweet without being cloying and an interesting window into the mores of the past.

I am a huge fan of Carl Hiaasen and deliberately saved up Star Island for NaJuReMoNoMo. With twelve novels and three 'young adult' books under his belt, Hiaasen is the reigning master of the whacky-Florida genre which he practically invented. Star Island casts its sights a little wider with the main character being the publicity double of a troubled singing starlet. This allows Hiaasen to ridicule the celebrity industrial complex as well as the usual excesses of South Florida.

Cherry Pye is a talentless barely legal singer whose primary occupations are scoring guys and scoring drugs, often simultaneously. Her Dina Lohan-ish mother in deep denial about her daughter's destructive behavior is self-aware enough to hire Ann DeLusia to make public appearances when Cherry can't. When a sleazy-by-even-paparazzi-standards photographer decides to snatch Ms Pye and gets Ann by mistake the usual Hiaasen hilarity ensues.

Part of the problem with the story is that it is impossible to outflank Hollywood on the crazy side. Cherry Pye who is an unholy amalgam of Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan doesn't even approach some of the better known real-life rocketing off the rails actual celebrities habitually indulge in.

And it wouldn't be Hiaasen if there weren't whacky minor characters. Perhaps indicating how often he has gone to the well, The Former Governor Known As Skink shows up suspiciously conveniently a few too many times. A bodyguard with a weedwhacker prothesis seems like a refugee from a far grittier Elmore Leonard novel.

And despite the general low intellectual level of all the characters, even the smart ones keep doing ridiculously stupid things just to keep the plot churning along. The book is far from bad, but like Cherry Pye's stage act, at points Hiaasen seems to just be going through the motions.

My other must-read this month was the third installment in William Gibson's Bigend saga, Zero History. The history in this case being that of Milgram, a character from Spook Country (reviewed here). Also returning is Hollis Henry, the punk rock frontwoman turned writer. The macguffin in this novel is a brand of clothing so cool you have to be invited to be allowed to wear it.

Set mostly in London with side excursions to Paris, the novel follows the trail of trendsetters and fashion forward hipsters. As with most Gibson novels, the heroes are up against forces they can barely even recognize let alone deal with. While that adds to the suspense of the novel, the Big Picture never gets revealed to the end. And even then it's a little tough to fathom who did what to whom and why.

But that is hardly the point. Gibson is a master of imagery and he doesn't fail to impress here. Like Bigend's suit which is too blue to view on a computer, Gibson's prose is too poetic to describe. There is a mood that pervades the book.

I have seen just about every version of a Jane Austen novel filmed in the last quarter century, but inexplicably I have only read Pride and Prejudice. To remedy the situation, I dove into the similarly alliterative Sense and Sensibility. While not as famous as its sibling, the tale of the Dashwood girls as they make their way in society is perhaps more encompassing of the times. Set about a hundred years before Penrod, the world of English society seems so much more foreign. The culture of manners and thinly veiled civility is astoundingly different from contemporary society.

The enduring appeal of Austen owes as much to her rapier wit as it does to the romantic storylines. The rationalizations John Dashwood must engage to pauperize his step-mother and half-sisters viciously funny. And the various matrons who serve as the gatekeepers to society are always delightfully daffy. While the romantic outcomes are not hard to discern to even those who haven't seen several film versions, the twists and setback are ever so entertaining.

It has been over twenty five years since I read Pride and Prejudice and I am resolved to pick up the pace so I can complete the Austen oeuvre in less than a century.

I have been flying far more briskly through a more modern quintet of books, having finally completed Life, The Universe and Everything, the third novel in the rather inaccurately named Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy. (See my earlier reviews of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe here.) The forward of the book gives some history of the series and casually inserts that this volume is the one with no connection to previous radio or television versions and it shows. And not to its favor.

Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect (who I now realize is a pun completely lost on my American model) and Zaphod Beeblebrox once again save the universe, this time against the robots of the planet Krikket. And while I assume that greater familiarity with the peculiarly British sport of cricket would make the humour funnier, it's not an effort I'm willing to endure.

The plot is flimsy and arbitrary even by Hitchhiker's Guide standards and the enduring geek culture touchstones are few and far between. I invested in the Kindle version of the complete series because the cost was less than the three book I still had to read purchased separately. Let's hope that wasn't money wasted.

I am a big fan of Larry Niven and less so of his frequent collaborator Jerry Pournelle. I saw the both of them a few years ago at Balticon and watching them in person revealed a lot about how their personalities mesh in their writing style. Niven is the Idea man and Pournelle is the story guy. However, for the most part, I don't know who did what for Inferno, their update on Dante's trip through Hell.

In this version, cynical agnostic science fiction writer Allen Carpentier awakes from a premature accidental death to be met by his guide through the underworld. The conceit of the book is that Allen keeps trying to interpret the theology of Dante through the prism of science fiction tropes.

And like how Dante populated his Hell with the people he hated in real life, Niven and Pournelle take the time to take a few potshots as well. While not named, Kurt Vonnegut is abused for his inventing of satiric religions as well as for his refusal to embrace his reputation as a science fiction writer. In Vonnegut's defense, he famously said that the problem with being put in a drawer marked 'science fiction' is that so many critics mistake it for a urinal.

Vonnegut at least gets off easier than L. Ron Hubbard who is encased in a much deeper circle. Published in 1976, some of the politics and science discussed in the trek has not traveled well. The Cold War harangues about missile defenses seem quaint now, although to their credit, a space shuttle disaster episode was prescient.

The theology, however, is timeless and did pique my curiosity about the original, just not enough to make me want to read it.

Another audiobook I picked mostly for its ability to be listened to in a single business trip was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Told in the first person through a teenager who is clearly on the deeper end of the Autism Spectrum (although that word is never used in the book), Christopher is a high-functioning math and science savant with negligible social skills. When he stumbles across the murdered dog of his neighbor who accuses him of doing it, he seeks to find the real killer.

The real purpose is to show him interacting with his neighbors and teachers as well as dealing with the loss of his mother from two years earlier. What he finds in his inquiry pushes him well out of his comfort zone both physically and emotionally. While not wholly medically accurate, the writing style is a tour de force with a peculiarly precise narrative style full of idiosyncratic repetitions and phrasings. The character's understanding of math and science seems very accurate and illuminates much of his thinking and acting.