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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Residents of the Dark Ages Issue More Threats to Publisher

As difficult as most of us find it to fathom being angry enough to maim or kill someone because of what they say or publish in a book, it is a fact that there are enough people around the world who refuse to become citizens of the 21st century that this kind of thing is still a real threat. Once again, from the Telegraph comes further news on the controversy involving The Jewel of Medina.
Buying the British and Commonwealth rights to the Sherry Jones novel last week, Mr Rynja described it as a "moving love story".

But the radical cleric Anjem Choudhary said the book was an insult to the Prophet Mohammed's honour, something he said would warrant a "death penalty" under Sharia law.


...
...the radical cleric Anjem Choudhary, who lives in Ilford, east London, said he was "not surprised at all" by the attack and warned of possible further reprisals over the book

"It is clearly stipulated in Muslim law that any kind of attack on his honour carries the death penalty," he said.

"People should be aware of the consequences they might face when producing material like this. They should know the depth of feeling it might provoke."

He denied any involvement in the attack but said he "understood" the feelings of the perpetrators.

"If the publication goes ahead then I think, inevitably, there will be more attacks like this - this is the thin of the wedge," he said.

Speaking from Lebanon, the radical cleric Omar Bakri, added: "If anybody attacks that man I cannot myself condemn it.
Unbelievable.

Shelf Life

I first read Shelf Life shortly after its initial publication and I remember being somewhat disappointed in it because it seemed to promise so much more than it delivered. I didn’t record my feelings about the book after finishing it that first time and, because the passage of time mellowed my disappointment in it to a large degree, when I stumbled upon it again last week in a box of old books I decided to give it another try. I just knew that it would work for me this time around.

I was wrong.

Like most bibliophiles, especially those fast approaching retirement age, I’ve often dreamed of working in a bookstore so that, for once in my life, I could get paid for doing something I love in an environment I enjoy. Suzanne Strempek Shea’s book recounting her first year’s worth of experiences as a novice bookstore clerk seems like a natural choice for anyone dreaming of living the same life for themselves one day. Unfortunately, however, Shelf Life is written in such a dry, rambling, and often obtuse style, that the author eventually had me wondering if I could possibly last a whole year in the boring job she describes.

Suzanne Strempek Shea, in the midst of recovering from cancer treatments and not yet up to working on her next novel, realized that she needed to shake up her life a bit before she would be ready to resume her writing routine. She needed something to take her mind off of her recovery and lack of physical stamina and when an opportunity to work at Edwards Books (Springfield, Massachusetts) came up, she jumped at it. As things turned out, she brought many skills and ideas to the bookstore and Edwards Books was as lucky to have her as she was to have walked into the job.

I have to suspect that working in an independent bookstore, or even one of the big box bookstores, for that matter, is a lot more interesting than Shea makes it sound. She does pass on some interesting insights into the inner workings of a bookstore regarding the ordering process, how returns and markdowns work, how to best handle incomplete customer queries, how the location of a book within a store directly impacts the number of copies it will sell, etc. But her tendency to include long lists of trivial detail or to go on and on about every holiday display she built for the store in her entire first year becomes very tedious and distracting reading.

Simply put, as much as I sympathized with Shea’s situation and envied her opportunity to work in a bookstore setting as she moved back into the world after her medical treatments, she never quite managed to breathe life into Edwards Books and its employees, something that still surprises me on this second reading, especially considering the fact that she is primarily known as a novelist.

Rated at: 3.0

Monday, September 29, 2008

Jewel of Medina Author Calls for Apology

...and I agree with her because much of the problem and current danger pertaining to the author and the book's publisher stems from the actions and comments of one woman who seems to have purposely stirred this whole thing up. From today's Telegraph:
Controversy over the book has been stoked following comments made in the US media by Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and an expert on the life of Aisha.

The professor was originally approached by Random House for a comment or "blurb" to put on the cover of the book but she was apparently appalled by it.

She was then quoted as saying that it took "sacred history" and turned it into "softcore pornography" and that the novel constituted a "declaration of war" and "a national security issue".

Author Miss Jones has now called on Professor Spellberg to retract her comments, saying they are "unfair" and "slanderous".

Miss Jones said: "She used the most inflammatory language she could possibly have used. If you want to incite heated emotions from any religious group you just use the word 'pornography' in the same sentence as their revered figures.

"She ought to take back her words because it is in no way an accurate description of my book. There are no sex scenes in it.

"I have not dishonoured the Prophet. I wrote it with the intention of honouring him."
Spellberg took things even further than indicated only by these particular quotes. She contacted people who helped stir things up in the Muslim media and world, leading to the firebombing that occurred in London on Saturday. I believe that what she did was wrong and very dangerous and that she should take some responsibility for her recklessness. I seriously doubt, however, that she will ever do so.

Skylight Confessions

Alice Hoffman is another of those writers of whom I’ve been aware for a number of years despite not having read any of her work up to now. Based on my rather uninformed impression of the kind of fiction she wrote, I simply never felt compelled to pick up one of her books. And, frankly, if the audio book choices at my library had not been so limited a few weeks ago, I would not have chosen Skylight Confessions to entertain me on two week’s worth of my daily commute.

Skylight Confessions is one of those books in which not all of the main characters are living, breathing entities. In this case, one of them is the house in which most of the major characters live at some point in the novel’s progression. That house, an architectural marvel known locally as the “Glass Slipper,” gives new meaning to the old saying about “people who live in glass houses” because those who live there have to adapt to the fact that this house, so largely constructed from glass, allows much of the outside world to intrude on their personal space and privacy. Sadly, no one who lives in the house really seems to enjoy the experience but that is not all the house’s fault.

Hoffman’s story begins in another house, the one in which seventeen-year-old Arlyn Singer is alone and grieving the very recent death of her father. Arlyn is a romantic girl who earnestly believes in fate and destiny. She has convinced herself that the man of her dreams, if she is has the patience to wait for him, will soon present himself at her front door and that the two of them will live happily together for the rest of their lives. When John Moody, a college student who has lost his way in search of a nearby party, stops to ask directions, Arlyn happily seduces him in the certainty that he is the man for whom she has been waiting.

Arlyn is only partially correct, as it turns out. True, she will live with John Moody for the rest of her life - but she will be dead well before she is thirty, leaving John and her two children on their own. Skylight Confessions is the story of the largely dysfunctional family that Arlyn leaves behind: six-year-old Sam, a difficult child who eventually turns to drugs in order to get him through a life without the mother he adored, a baby girl named Blanca who grows into an angry young woman who resents her father and the woman he married soon after her mother’s death, and John Moody, the man Arlyn so confidently married and who has learned to draw comfort from his frequent sightings of her ghost around the house.

Skylight Confessions is filled with characters in addition to the Moody family who have confessions of their own to make. These include Arlyn’s old friend, Cynthia, a woman who offers John Moody the comfort of her bed even before Arlyn is dead and buried, and George, the window washer who kept the house walls and roof clean for so many years, a man Arlyn feels more love for at the end than she feels for her husband. All of these characters have problems and, at one time or another, all of them behave badly, making them more memorable than likable in the eyes of the reader.

But even the novel’s most consistently noble character, Meredith, the woman who appears from nowhere and accepts a job as mentor to the two Moody children a few years after Arlyn’s death, has a confession to make. Like John Moody, she sees Arlyn’s ghost and she followed Moody home after first noticing him and the ghost together far from the family home. Meredith bonds with the two children and inserts a note of normalcy into their lives but remains reluctant to admit how and why she first entered their lives.

Mare Winningham offers an accomplished reading of this six-disc audio book, perfectly capturing the emotions of the various characters as she reads their words in the various stages of their lives but, bottom line, Skylight Confessions doesn’t have much new to add and the story and characters fall a bit flat, a disappointment to a first-time reader of Alice Hoffman.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Extremists Attempt to Burn Out London Publisher of The Jewel of Medina


London's Gibson Square, publisher of the new novel about Mohammed's child bride, was firebombed yesterday and three men and one woman have been detained for questioning about the crime according to London's Telegraph.



The blaze yesterday, which led to people being evacuated from the house, may have been started by a petrol bomb pushed through the letter box.

Initially, three men, aged 22, 30 and 40, were detained at around 2.25am yesterday after a fire broke out at a property in Lonsdale Square, Islington. Two were stopped by armed officers in Lonsdale Square, and the third was seized when a car was stopped by armed police near Angel underground station.
...
Speaking before yesterday's attack, Mr Rynja said: "In an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear. As an independent publishing company, we feel strongly that we should not be afraid of the consequences of debate.

"If a novel of quality and skill that casts light on a beautiful subject we know too little of in the West, but have a genuine interest in, cannot be published here, it would truly mean that the clock has been turned back to the dark ages. The Jewel of Medina has become an important barometer of our time."
...
Police also searched four addresses around north-east London yesterday - two in Walthamstow, one in Ilford and one in Forest Gate.

The men, who were arrested on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, were being questioned at a central London police station.

Later yesterday a fourth person, a woman, was arrested at a property in Ilford for allegedly obstructing the police, a spokesman for Scotland Yard said.

The police confirmed that there had been small fire inside the property in Lonsdale Square, which had to be put out. "At this early stage it is being linked with the arrests," the spokesman added.
Some still live in the Dark Ages - and they want the rest of us to join them. This is disgusting.

Previous Posts on The Jewel of Medina:

Did Random House Chicken Out (August 7, 2008)

The Jewel of Medina Finds a Publisher (September 5, 2008)


Saturday, September 27, 2008

No Man Can Eat 50 Eggs

Paul Newman, as I'm sure the whole world is now aware, has lost his battle with cancer - and the world lost one of its greatest ever actors.

That wonderful treasure chest, aka YouTube, has supplied me with a link to one of my favorite movie scenes of all time, the great egg-eating bet from Cool Hand Luke. Now the scene is a little long, so if you want to get to the actual egg-eating part sooner, just place your cursor about half-way through and watch from there. I first saw this movie at a drive-in theater, if you can imagine, and I've never forgotten it. Look at the faces in the prison barracks and see how many you recognize; you'll be surprised.



Rest in peace, Mr. Newman. Thanks for the memories.

Turning Little Boys into Readers

My wife and I raised two daughters, both of whom are now schoolteachers, so until I had a couple of grandsons of my own, I never thought a lot about the differences between boys and girls when it comes to learning such a basic skill as reading. Our oldest grandchild is a nine-year-old little girl who absolutely loves reading, someone who usually carries a book with her whenever she leaves home just in case she is forced to endure some boring downtime along the way. The two boys, who are six and seven, don't seem to care much one way or the other about reading. They are happy enough to have their favorite stories read to them, but they show little desire to crack the code for themselves.

Both the boys, though, absolutely love action heroes and all the movies, toys and comic books associated with those characters. And that fascination seems to be inching them ever closer into the category of people who read for pleasure because both have a great desire to know what is being said inside their comic books now. They have finally outgrown the stage at which little boys are happy enough to just look at the pictures and create their own stories inside their heads. Now, they want to know the real scoop and they have a new incentive to read on their own and for themselves.

Stacy Garfinkle, of the Washington Post, has noticed the same thing: that when it comes to boys, the reading material available to them makes more difference than anything else that a parent or teacher can offer.
When it comes to instilling a love of reading, husband and I have done everything right -- or so we thought. We read together with the boys during the day and at bedtime. We go to the library regularly as a family. And through the years, the boys have shown their love of books by falling asleep with piles of children's page turners on their beds.

But when it comes to getting 6-year-old to actually read by himself, well, that's another matter entirely. Early reading books simply aren't engaging him.
...
According to Jon Scieszka, I'm not alone in having a boy who is not finding reading material that truly engages him. Scieszka, who spent years teaching, is the author of "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales" and is the Library of Congress' first national ambassador for children's books. He'll be in Washington this Saturday for the National Book Festival on the mall from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

"We've had this problem with boys not achieving and reading for a long time," Scieszka says, noting that although we're generalizing about boys, there are always exceptions.
...
The biggest change we can all make in giving boys a love of reading is to expand our definition of reading beyond fiction, Scieszka says. Research shows that boys will read with their friends and want to be readers, but they want it on their terms. "They'd rather read nonfiction or humor, graphic novels, science fiction, action adventure, audio books, or online reading and magazines," Scieszka says. Much of this reading, boys don't even think of as reading, he notes. Also key: Include boys in choosing their reading material. Often books that were favorites of mom or teachers (who are mostly female) and librarians (also, mostly female) will feel like "going to the dentist" for boys, Scieszka asserts.
Take a look at the article, especially if you have young boys in the family, for a few suggestions of books that should create some reading enthusiasm in little boy readers.



Jon Scieszka has a good website of his own that offers more thoughts about young readers, especially as it all pertains to boys. You might want to take a look there, too. Click on the "Guys Read" tab for some great source material and follow the links from there.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Grave in Gaza

One of the more interesting literary trends of recent years is the notable increase in the number of novels, mysteries and stories set in the Middle East and told from the points-of-view of those born to the region. Some of this fiction is written by citizens of that part of the world and some of it by Westerners who have spent significant segments of their own lives there. Regardless of the author’s origin, however, the best of this new fiction presents memorable insights into everyday Muslim culture that are seldom as memorably obtainable from histories or other nonfiction written about the area.

Matt Beynon Rees, himself from Wales, but living in Jerusalem, has written one of the better ones with A Grave in Gaza, the second novel in his Omar Yussef mystery series.

Omar Yussef, in his mid-fifties, is the principal of a U.N. sponsored refugee school on the West Bank where he also teaches history. As the novel opens he is accompanying his boss, a U.N. employee from Sweden, on what is to be an inspection tour of U.N. schools in Gaza. But some things are not to be and, because the two men discover almost immediately upon their arrival in Gaza that a local U.N. schoolteacher has been arrested on trumped-up spying and collaboration charges, the inspection tour is forgotten in their efforts to gain the teacher’s release before he is tortured or killed by those who hold him.

Yussef is a relatively simple man who has a keen sense of right and wrong, a man who loves his wife and grandchildren, and who feels a strong personal obligation to seek justice in a world gone mad, just the world he finds in Gaza. What starts as a simple quest to free a fellow teacher he has never met, becomes much more complicated when Yussef ignores a warning that there is no such thing as a “single, isolated crime (in Gaza)” and that his insistence upon freeing his colleague will anger and threaten some powerful and ruthless men who are willing to do whatever it takes to stop Yussef’s snooping.

In a matter of days, violence becomes the order of the day and Omar Yussef desperately struggles to make sense of the several, almost tribal, factions that compete to dominate what passes for local government in Gaza while trying to stay alive long enough to free both the schoolteacher and his Swedish boss who has by now been kidnaped by unknown gunmen.

A Grave in Gaza is a wonderfully atmospheric novel, especially in terms of the prolonged dust storm that dominates the area, and almost the story itself, during most of Yussef’s stay in Gaza. It leaves the reader with a feel for what everyday life in Gaza must be like for those who simply desire to live normal lives with their families amidst a society dominated by crime, corruption, violence, and a religious war that uses their children as disposable, human explosives. Some will consider A Grave in Gaza to be a political novel, some a mystery, and others will call it a thriller. However they categorize the book, most readers will agree that Rees has written a first rate novel and will look forward to the third Omar Yussef mystery.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

National Book Festival

The National Book Festival, an idea that Laura Bush brought with her from Texas, will be held in Washington D.C. this weekend. This is the eighth year of the festival and it's the eighth time I've missed it despite best intentions of being there. Hurricane Ike ate up what remained of my travel budget for this year (and more) but maybe next year I'll be able to make it. I'm really proud that Laura managed to get a national book festival off the ground, and even prouder that the Texas Book Festival that she started in Austin when she lived in the governor's mansion is about to be held for the fourteenth year.

I imagine that most of you will be, like me, there in spirit only, so here's a link to the National Book Festival website where you will find podcasts of author interviews, a look at the festival poster and lots of other ways to enjoy the festival from afar.

Just take a look at this list of attending authors and drool along with me over all the great interviews, presentations, panel discussions and ARCs that we'll be missing:


HOME & FAMILY

Sponsored by Target

POETRY

Sponsored by National Endowment for the Arts

If any of you are lucky enough to be attending, I'd love to hear about it and see some pictures on your blogs or, if you aren't a blogger, via email. Maybe next year...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Presidential Election Comic Books

I've already expressed my desire to keep this blog politics-free, so I'm simply going to pass on the information about this October release of comic books telling the stories of both major party candidates. I think they would make great collector's items regardless of which side you're pulling for and, in fact, I think I'll be buying a copy of each of them.

In fifty or sixty years these things will be great for kids to drag to school to show their teachers and classmates what the election of 2008 was like.


The comics are being released on October 8 but you can pre-order now if you just can't wait.

Kansas City Creates Readers

A program to place books in homes unlikely to have them is beginning its tenth year in Kansas City and it sounds as if the program is having some success in creating a new generation of readers there. According to the Kansas City Star:
After 10 years and more than 700,000 donated books, Kansas City is growing a hooked-on-books generation.

“I’m seeing freshmen coming to school with books in their hands,” Schlagle High School librarian Shelia Blume said.

Not assigned books. Not homework. But their own books, she said.
...

Junior Amanda Chambers, who read more than 58,000 pages over the summer, figures on being an author, if not a fashion designer, or both.

Classmate Noradeli Lopez read more than 15,000 pages herself, pursuing her love of Laura Esquivel novels with the help of vision aids so that her fight with macular degeneration doesn’t slow her down.

What would they be without books? The two teenagers wince at each other just thinking about it.

“TV watchers,” Lopez said, with a tone that said she’d never let that happen.

Lopez came to Kansas City from Guatemala when she was 6, having no books at home and needing to learn English.

She recalled the first books she loved — the Clifford the Big Red Dog children’s books — and that brought a resonating smile from Chambers.

“Oh, they were awesome,” Chambers said.

...
The spreading of books in homes reaches in both directions. Younger children listen to their older siblings read and then take the books in their own hands. And sometimes an older generation catches on, too.

Lopez’s mother had enough of hearing her daughter talk about the novels. Now she’s reading them too, Lopez said.
I can't imagine having the time to read 58,000 pages over one summer, or the stamina to do so, for that matter. I'm a fairly quick reader and I average about 4,000 pages a month, but Amanda has read more than a year's worth of pages (at my pace) in less than three months. That's impressive.


(Photo by Peggy Bair, Kansas City Star)

Monday, September 22, 2008

It Has Finally Happened

After nine days, eleven hours and fifteen minutes, power has finally been restored to my part of the world. It took a long time, and I was starting to think that we would be among the last to regain electricity (actually, we were in the last 30%, or so, as it turned out), but it's finally happened. I've had electricity for the last three and one-half hours and I'm still thrilled with the luxury of it all. Believe me, folks, electricity is something you really don't appreciate until you've been without it for a few days. I will never take it for granted again.

Unfortunately, there are still at least 650,000 other homes without power and I really feel for them. And that's not even to mention the many thousands of people in Harris and surrounding counties who have lost a lot more than their electricity. Many of them have lost everything they owned in the world and they are, for the moment, homeless and struggling to maintain their sanity. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

Courage in Patience

The fact that so many children are sexually abused in their homes by their parents, step-parents or siblings, is a despicable little secret that most people manage not to think much about until they learn that someone they know has been victimized that way. It might be a neighbor or it might be a relative, but the shock is the same. But, as Beth Fehlbaum makes clear in Courage in Patience, we should not be so surprised.

Ashley Asher has been sexually abused by her step-father since she was nine years old and her mother does not seem to be aware that it is happening. For a while, Ashley even tried to pretend to herself that it was not happening and she created a place in her mind she could retreat to when it did happen. She has come to recognize the “whooshing” sound she hears in her head when faced with the approach of her step-father as a sign that she is tuning out the world, her way of coping with the ugliness around her. Her retreat allows her, in fact, to forget the details of what her step-father does to her and, once it is all over, she is never quite sure exactly what has happened.

But Ashley is no longer nine years old. Despite the six years of abuse she has suffered at the hands of the animal that lives in her home, she has become a bright, but emotionally scarred, young lady. She finally finds the courage to reveal what has been happening to her to a friend who, in turn, manages to get Ashley to speak with a high school counselor.

And that is how Ashley Asher found herself living in Patience, Texas, with the father she had never met.

As so often seems to happen in sexual abuse cases where a step-father is involved, Ashley’s mother refuses to believe that her new husband is abusing her daughter. She simply does not want to believe that her husband is capable of such a thing and she is so desperate to keep him that she works hard to convince herself that her daughter is a liar – or even worse, that Ashley is the aggressor and has been actively seducing her husband.

This lack of support from her mother has done as much damage to Ashley as the sexual abuse she has suffered. She is guilt-ridden and blames herself for much of what has happened. She struggles to fit into her new family, one that includes a brother she never knew she had and a woman who is more a mother to her than the one she left behind. Thankfully, Ashley Asher has found support groups, both at home and at school, that will help her to overcome the hard reality of having had her childhood so brutally stolen from her.

Courage in Patience is a hopeful book, one that will offer comfort and inspiration to those who have, themselves, suffered this kind of abuse. Perhaps even more importantly, the book is written in a way that makes it perfect for study and discussion in high school English classes around the world. It just might give young abuse victims the courage they need to save themselves from this kind of thing before it becomes too late for them. This is an important book, one from which I learned much about why sexual abuse in the home can go on for so many years without it being exposed, and one which I hope courageous high school teachers will embrace and teach for the benefit of their students.

Rated at: 5.0

Hurricane Recovery - Update 2

Just another quick note to explain my recent absence here – I am beginning Day 10 of no electrical power at the house and found it impossible to access the internet anyplace else over the weekend. Even my local library, which is right across the street from the courthouse and sheriff’s department remains without power, in fact, and all of the retail store wifi hotspots were completely overrun with customers.

On top of everything else, I attended the funeral yesterday of a young woman who grew up with my daughters, someone who spent many hours in my home from the time she was about three years old until everyone went off to college. I admire the courage shown by her parents in dealing with their loss and can barely comprehend how they are managing it.

I am somewhat hopeful that we will be reconnected to the rest of the world by the end of the week, but my Pessimism/Optimism scale has swung way over to the Pessimism side in the last couple of days. It feels strange to come in to work and become aware of everything that has been happening all over the world since I could last check. But, in one sense, being this isolated has been a bit of a blessing considering the way that things are generally sliding downhill – can you tell I’ve turned into a pessimist?

Houston humidity is back and daytime temperatures are approaching 90 degrees again, making for some uncomfortable sleeping conditions but the biggest problem, for me personally, is how long the nights seem to last. It gets completely dark before 8:30 p.m. and there’s barely a hint of daylight much before 7:00 a.m. the next morning. I’ve never been one to sleep much more than six hours a night, so I’ve been waking up around two or three in the morning and trying to read by a tiny light for a while or listening to the radio repeat the same old thing over and over for the rest of the night.

I’ve confirmed the fact that I am not even close to being pioneer material.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Not in the Flesh

I have been a fan of Ruth Rendell novels for more than three decades but her Wexford novels have never been my favorite Rendell books. Nevertheless, I have read each and every one of them and have found them to be consistently high-quality police procedurals always worth my reading time. Not in the Flesh, the twenty-first Wexford novel, does remind me that I generally enjoy Rendell’s standalone novels and her Barbara Vine novels more but, as always, this latest one is a welcome addition to the Wexford saga.

It all started when Jim Belbury and his truffle-sniffing dog found more than they were looking for on one of their regular attempts to put a few extra pounds into Belbury’s pockets. Jim knew that the dog had a real talent for unearthing the valuable truffles so he encouraged his dog to keep at it after it began digging in a likely spot. Unfortunately for Jim, rather than a large truffle, the dog came away with what was left of a human hand that had been buried in that particular spot.

When Inspector Wexford learns that the recovered body has been in the ground for some eleven years, Wexford and his team settle in for some old-fashioned police work and begin to interview everyone living in the vicinity of the crime scene. Matters get complicated when a second body is found within a stone’s throw of where the first was recovered. The second victim seems to have only been dead for eight years but Wexford does not believe in coincidence and is convinced that the two deaths have to be related in some way.

Rendell provides an array of characters from various levels of British society for Wexford and the Kingsmarkham police force to interview and it is through a long series of interviews that provide a series of interconnecting clues that the case is eventually solved. Some readers will solve the case before Wexford does but, after all, that can be part of the fun, and no mystery writer should be faulted for letting that happen.

Not in the Flesh has a subplot of sorts that offers Rendell the opportunity to explore the horrors of the genital mutilation suffered by countless young African girls, including those whose families have immigrated to Britain. Wexford, partially at the request of one of his daughters, spends some of his precious time trying to prevent just that horror from happening to a young girl whom everyone expects will soon be taken out of the country to suffer the process. It is a somewhat interesting subplot, particularly in the way that it explores the limitations faced by the British legal system in protecting potential victims but, ultimately, it is somewhat of a distraction.

Ruth Rendell fans will not be disappointed in Not in the Flesh, but first-timers might wonder a bit what all the fuss about the Wexford series is if they stop with this one. That said, I will definitely be reading the next offering from Rendell, whether it be another Wexford novel, one of her standalones, or something written under the Barbara Vine pen name.

(I still have no power at home but thank goodness for free wifi that is starting to come back up in spots around the area. I wanted to post this while I had a moment as a way of just generally checking back in.)


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Quick Note Regarding Hurricane Ike and Aftermath

This is my first opportunity to use electricity since the early hours of Saturday morning and I'll need to make this quick.

I just wanted to thank everyone for their good wishes and thoughts and let you all know how much I appreciate them. We are into our fourth day without power, have cleaned out the refrigerators (tossing a couple of hundred dollars worth of food), have cleaned up around the house as much as possible while waiting for the contractors to show up, etc. Luckily a "cold front" came through about 24 hours ago and it got down to about 58 degrees this morning, so life without air conditioning, even in Houston is not too bad. It's supposed to warm up again by Saturday, though, so we are hoping that we get power back up before that.

There are bad gasoline shortages, with lines of several hours in some cases, and in the northern suburbs FEMA has very little presence so there is no ice to be had. Of course, it's too late for anyone to save any frozen food by now anyway, so ice is not as important as it was a couple of days ago. Overall, I'd have to say that FEMA is doing a pretty poor job of getting things to the people who need them the most - those a few miles south of me in Houston and those in Galveston. The whole process seems to have taken at least 24 hours longer than it should have and Houston authorities seem very frustrated by the approach FEMA has taken.

Some grocery stores and other stores like Target and WalMart are opening and doing their best to make groceries and supplies available to the public. Bottled water is still almost impossible to find up here but most of us have running water and the water is supposdedly drinkable.

That's it for now. Again, thanks to everyone who left good wishes. I sincerely appreciate that and I'm looking forward to something close to "normality" sometime fairly soon.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ike and Tina

I saw this picture, or one with the same exact message on it, on a local television station earlier today and got a chuckle from it.

Officials are saying that some 600,000 people in the area are already without power. That number seems to have doubled just in the last hour or so, but it's a long way from the five million people they are estimating to suffer power loss before this is done.

Some of the folks in Kingwood, northwest of where I am, lost power more than three hours ago, but that's largely a function of the number of trees in that part of town. Those of us living north of Houston are largely surrounded by huge pine trees and a few hardwood types, so it's only a matter of time before branches and whole trees fall onto lines and blow out the transformers that provide the electricity for large numbers of homes.

Midnight CST: The lights have flickered twice in the last five minutes and it is finally raining outside. Both brief losses of power knocked me off-line and required a reboot of both my laptop and my modem. So I may lose power even sooner than I anticipated...

12:30 A.M. - Close to 800,000 people without power now, and about 65,000 of them are supposedly in my part of town.

12:46 A.M. - Local radio is describing a two-alarm fire at one of the older restaurants in downtown Houston, Brennan's. Despite the rain down there and all the wind, they describe flames coming through the roof at this point. The same kind of thing happened in Galveston earlier today with at least two homes and one big boat repair site catching fire. In Galveston the firefighters were unable to get to the fires because of all the flooding.

1:12 a.m. - This is a picture of Brennan's, the restaurant that seems to be burning to the ground in downtown Houston at the moment. It was well-known and revered for the Sunday brunches that it served every week.

















1:25 A.M. - The number of people without power has now reached almost 1.1 million. The center of Ike is about 30 miles south of Galveston and is fast approaching the city of Houston, so the majority of the damage is about to happen. I can't even imagine how many billions of dollars worth of property are just about to be destroyed by wind and rising water.

2:09 A.M. - This is a striking picture of the Galveston memorial to the storm victims of 1900 that was taken earlier today - way before Ike's real arrival there. It makes you think, doesn't it?














2:20 A.M. - People without power now total close to 1.4 million and radio reports indicate that downtown Galveston is under six feet of water. Even worse, the second half of the storm, some 180 miles in size, still has to cross Galveston. That's why every part of this area will be battered for hours and hours from start to finish of this thing.

We Have a Matrimony Winner...

I figure that my hours with electrical power can now be counted on the fingers of one hand, plus a couple, if I'm very lucky. So I've assigned random numbers to the eleven entries in the contest to win a signed copy of Matrimony and had a random number selector choose the winner.

And, as it turns out, the winner is the very first person to have entered the contest: Jen.

So, Jen, please send me your full name and mailing address and I'll, in turn, pass that on to the book's author, Josh Henkin, so that he can put the book into the mail to you.

Depending on what happens with the stupid storm, you should receive your book within a few days.

Thanks to all who entered. Let me say that even if you are not the lucky winner, you will enjoy this one and should take a look at it if the opportunity to do so presents itself.

Hurricane Ike Approaches

Things are getting crazy and Ike is still a couple of hours from actually coming ashore on Galveston Island.

On the light side, it's been rather amusing watching Geraldo Rivera get slammed around as he continues to insist on doing his live reports from outdoor Galveston. He's been bowled over twice today and come up sputtering both times, funny stuff. I always wonder why those guys really think that anyone is impressed by their willingness to stand up to hurricane winds and rain. Don't they realize that some random piece of storm debris has a pretty good chance of taking their heads off their shoulders at those wind speeds.

On the dark side, they are saying that something over 20,000 people actually ignored the order to evacuate Galveston and many thousands more (maybe 90,000) decided to ride the storm out in the communities on the Houston side of the bay. One official actually asked those who stayed behind in Galveston to do us all a favor by inking their social security numbers on their arms so that their bodies could more easily be identified after the storm. That kind of morbidly, sarcastic "humor" might be prophetic. I hope not.

The Post-American World

Bad news sells lots of newspapers, magazines and books and it does wonders for the ratings of television and radio news shows. Because of that, many of us who read or keep up with the news on a regular basis have been brainwashed into believing that the United States is in the midst of a terrible economic and societal decline from which it may never fully recover. In The Post-American World, author Fareed Zakaria offers a more optimistic view of the country’s current world status and how and why that status will change in the 21st century. I suspect that the truth is somewhere in between, but Zakaria’s book is definitely a persuasive one.

Zakaria’s theory is that the perceived decline of America is more to be attributed to the rise of the rest of the world than it is to an actual American decline. He sees the American example as having been a key element in the more-and-more successful globalization of the world that has allowed countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia to achieve remarkable economic growth and successes of their own. As those countries carve out a bigger piece of the pie for themselves, America’s dominance of the global marketplace will, by definition, decrease – not necessarily through any fault of its own.

The Post-American World emphasizes how important it is for the United States to adapt its foreign policy to one that places it in the position of the world’s “honest broker,” a position that will allow it to exert its influence on the rest of the world without it forever having to play the role of the “world’s policeman.” Zakaria believes that America’s geographical location will help make this possible because so many countries are likely to get along better with the U.S. than they do with their closer neighbors with whom they develop conflicts if the U.S. adopts a philosophy of “consultation, cooperation, and even compromise.”

Fareed Zakaria sees “the rise of the rest” as a good thing and as an opportunity for the United States to wield its influence in a way that will benefit not only itself but the rest of the world. He makes the case that what is happening to the global economy has the potential of creating a more peaceful world than the one we have seen in the past and that the United States has a major role to play in the process if it is to be successful.

Some will argue that Zakaria is being overly optimistic, and perhaps they are correct. It remains to be seen what will happen as a result of so many of “the rest” competing for the same limited natural resources and whether or not any resulting conflicts can be peacefully resolved – or if the U.S. is even willing, or able, to adapt itself to the new status predicted by Zakaria. One would like to believe that the author is onto something here, but only time will tell. The Post-American World presents an interesting theory in only 259 well-written pages, helping to make it a must-read for those interested in political and economic theory.

Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Book Giveaway Reminder - One More Day


Just a quick reminder - the drawing for a free, signed copy of Matrimony is set to officially end tomorrow evening, and it will if I still have power here. So far, there are seven entries for me to put into the random number hat. Those are pretty good odds, so this is the last call to round up any late entries.

All you have to do is leave a comment under the original announcement. Good luck.

Hurricanes and Books

Well, it appears more and more likely that Hurricane Ike will land near enough to Houston sometime around 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning to have a significant negative impact on the city and its suburbs. Even though I live about 25 miles due north of downtown Houston, it is not at all unlikely that hurricane force winds will make it up here. What is much more likely, though, is that lesser winds will hit the area around me but still knock out electrical power. When that happens the outage tends to last from several hours to two or three weeks, depending on the actual damage done. Houston is a very green city and the problem we have in storms like this one is all the falling trees that land in exactly the wrong spots - on top of electrical lines or homes.

Anyway, I'm mentioning this just in case the worst happens and I disappear for a few days. I've spent the last several hours bringing all the patio furniture, flower pots, etc. into the garage and trying to figure out how to still get both cars inside. Much of the area just a few miles south of me is under a mandatory evacuation order at this point so all roads heading north are pretty jammed up. Luckily, we did not plan to evacuate anyway and have taken in a goodly supply of groceries, batteries, water, and the like, and we are ready to see what happens.

Houston has not experienced a direct hit from a hurricane in almost exactly 25 years but the city planners seem to be pretty well prepared for this one as a result of the evacuation for Hurricane Rita we experienced three years ago and the experience of taking in well over 100,000 Hurricane Katrina refugees from New Orleans only a month before that (many thousands of whom are still here, by the way).

I'm hoping that any power outage will be short, especially since there will be no place to go and I'll have all this free time to read and blog. We'll see what happens.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lucky Billy

To guys of a certain age, Billy the Kid is still a legendary figure because, at one time or the other, almost all of us strapped on our six-shooters and pretended to be him. He looked so cool in western movies and television shows that we didn’t care that he was really one of life’s bad guys. We just wanted to be him.

John Vernon’s Lucky Billy, although a fictional account, is a much more realistic version of the life and times of Billy Bonney than the ones told in those old movies and TV shows. It deals primarily with Billy’s days as a New Mexico Regulator in the Lincoln County War of 1878, a power struggle between wealthy Irish ranchers and Englishman John Tunstall who operated a large general store in the county. The conflict turned violent soon enough and John Tunstall was murdered by a posse loyal to the ranchers. Billy, who had actually started out working as a hired gun for the Irish ranchers who dominated the area before Tunstall’s arrival there, had by the time of Tunstall’s murder sworn his loyalty to Tunstall and, as a Regulator, he desperately wanted to avenge the murder of his friend.

The Lincoln County War was a messy affair by any standard upon which it can be retrospectively judged. It was not easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and both sides seemed more than willing to shoot first and ask questions later. Local law enforcement was corrupt enough not to be trusted, and even the army troops stationed in Lincoln County threw their weight behind the ranchers and watched as what was left of the Tunstall group was routed in a battle in which the home they were hiding in was set afire. Billy Bonney killed several people during the various confrontations and his reputation is largely based on what happened in New Mexico.

Billy the Kid was never to leave New Mexico and, in fact, died there when he was gunned down without warning by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881. Garrett himself was to meet his own end at the hands of a murderer in 1908.

Lucky Billy is not an easy book to read because of the way that author John Vernon has cobbled together his story by telling it from several points-of-view and by jumping backward and forward in time from one chapter to the next. Vernon also reproduces letters and legal documents (based on actual documents) that are often difficult to follow and he seems prone to over-long descriptive passages that add little to his story or its atmosphere.

I found Lucky Billy to be a difficult book to read, at times, because I had such a hard time getting into its rhythm, that state of mind that allows the reader to absorb and enjoy a book at an almost effortless pace. That never really happened for me with this one. Vernon, on the other hand, does do a fine job when it comes to the “action scenes” in Lucky Billy, describing them in a vivid and exciting way that had me racing from one page to the next to see who would survive the violence. I do have mixed feelings about the last few pages of the book, in which Vernon describes that final encounter between Garrett and the Kid, because of a bit of bizarre behavior that Vernon attributes to Garrett after Billy has been stripped to be prepared for his coffin. So as not to spoil the effect of that particular scene, I will only say that I found the behavior to be both jarring and disturbing and, more importantly, unnecessary.

Rated at: 3.0

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

World Made by Hand

James Howard Kunstler is best known for nonfiction writing in which he speculates about whether or not “peak oil” has been reached and how an ever-decreasing oil supply might impact society from that point onward. Kunstler’s nonfiction paints a gruesome picture of what life will be like when there is no more oil to be had and he places that scenario in the relatively near future. I’m not particularly inclined to agree with what Kunstler has to say in his role of gloom and doom prophet, but I did enjoy World Made by Hand, the novel based upon his predictions of what is to come.

World Made by Hand, and the post-apocalyptic world Kunstler has created within it, can certainly be challenged as to the likelihood that a gradually disappearing oil supply would ever create such a drastic societal change. But if one reads the novel as simply a depiction of one of an infinite number of possible futures for this country, it starts to resemble science fiction and can be a good bit of fun.

The novel is set in Union Grove, New York, a little Adirondack community peopled by survivors of a series of catastrophes that have devastated the United States over the last decade. They have survived a major flu epidemic that seems to have wiped out a huge segment of the population, nuclear explosions in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, and the complete disappearance of the crude oil supply that made their former lifestyle possible. They have created their own little world, one without contact with anyone much more than thirty miles in any direction, and they have settled into a relatively apathetic new existence of making-do and doing-without.

The Union Grove area is already home to three separate groups when what appears to be a fundamentalist Christian sect searching for a new home suddenly appears in town, buys the old high school, and begins to create a new home for itself there. The townspeople themselves are, for the most part, people who had formerly lived a middle-class, white-collar lifestyle. There is also a self-sustaining group living a serf-like existence on a large paternalistic farm where they give up much of their independence in exchange for better food and a few of the luxuries, like electricity, that have disappeared elsewhere in the area. And there is a lawless group, living in trailers and whatever other shelter they can throw together on the edge of town, that is headed up by a ruthless leader determined to take from those weaker than himself whatever he needs or wants.

When conflict and violence threaten the citizens of Union Grove, distrust of outsiders has to be set aside and new alliances formed if any semblance of an orderly society is to survive there. World Made by Hand is the story of good people forced to adapt in ways they never expected to have to adapt, and not all of the changes pertain to their physical lifestyles. They are also challenged to change their whole concept of right and wrong, their willingness to use whatever force is necessary to protect themselves, and the way that they see their place in this diminished world.

Kunstler has created a post-apocalyptic world that still offers hope to those determined to live a moral life under such changed circumstances. His novel maintains a realistic atmosphere throughout until his unfortunate decision near the very end to give it a touch of the supernatural, a change of tone that largely diminishes the novel that it could have been. Whether or not Kunstler was having difficulty finding an ending for his book or not is only something he can answer, but his decision to end it the way he did, with a Cormac-McCarthy-meets-Stephen-King ending, was so jarring to me that I rated the novel a full point lower than I otherwise would have. That said, this one was still a good bit of fun.

Rated at: 3.0

Monday, September 08, 2008

Entrekin

I don’t claim to be an expert on short stories. In fact, I’ve read more of them in the last two years than I probably read in the previous ten, and it took a conscious effort on my part for that to happen because a love of short stories does not come naturally to me. But I knew that I was missing some important writing, and over the years I had accumulated almost 100 short story collections in my personal library, so I knew that it was way past time to kill my apathy regarding the genre. As a result of that effort, I’ve come to love short fiction and I continue to discover new writers all the time - and I’m finally justifying all the money I spent on those books so many years ago.

Entrekin is one of those instances where I’ve discovered a writer completely new to me, as I’m sure he will be to most of you. Will Entrekin has collected the best of his early writing into a collection that he calls simply Entrekin. The book is a collection of short stories, poetry and short pieces of non-fiction that reveal, I suspect, so much about the author himself that Entrekin is the perfect title for the collection,

Will Entrekin seems to be, first and foremost, a romantic. Several of his short stories share the wistful theme of a continuing search for that perfect woman who just has to be out there somewhere. The narrators of stories like “For Cynthia,” “Dear Author,” Wandering,” and, “A Little Heaven” (perhaps my favorite of the entire collection) may not always be lucky in love but none of them are prepared to quit the game. The narrator of “A Little Heaven,” for instance, connected so well with the French student he met at university that he found himself speaking perfect French and seeing France intimately through her eyes. It was the spookily perfect melding of two minds and he was certain that he had found the one - until he became as equally certain that it would never work. But despite a loss of even that magnitude, our hero still has faith that there is someone out there for him and he will continue the search.

Will Entrekin is a writer who may just be on the verge of a career breakthrough and his stories frankly reveal just how badly he wants that to happen. But, if his short fiction really is a reflection of the man, Entrekin would postpone that success long enough to find the woman of his dreams. Now, as someone who has himself dreamed of what it would be like to have success as a writer, I can easily feel the romance in his willingness to postpone success for love.

Entrekin is not an easy collection to describe because, in a sense, it is all over the map. In addition to the short stories and poetry, there are some very serious pieces here, especially Entrekin’s description of what he experienced in New York City on September 11, 2001. But there’s also the almost farcical comedy of “Donorhood” in which Entrekin recounts his experience as a potential sperm donor and there’s the rather touching account of the love he felt for his sister as a teenager, a love so strong that he could not say no when she asked him to help out in her ballet recital (“Man in Tights”).

And I found a little bonus at the end of Entrekin, the first two chapters of A Different Tomorrow, the time travel novel he’s working on now. I call this a bonus because I’m a total sucker for time travel stories all the way back to when I struggled through H.G. Wells books as a youngster. The first chapter, in particular, has me curious to see what Will Entrekin has in store for the characters he introduces here.

No, this is not a perfect book, but did you really expect a collection of an author’s earliest work to be perfect? As it is, though, there is a lot to like here and Entrekin is a fun look at the beginning of what just might turn out to be a very successful writing career - and you will have been there when it all started.

If you’re curious, Mr. Entrekin offers a download of the entire book for $2.50 and free downloads of several of the individual pieces from the book. You have nothing to lose and you just might enjoy what you find.

Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Win a Signed Copy of Matrimony

One of my favorite books from 2007, Joshua Henkin's Matrimony, is now out in a new paperback edition and I have some good news for you guys. Mr. Henkin has kindly offered to send a signed copy of the book's new edition to one lucky Book Chase reader and I'm going to keep the contest really simple. All you have to do to enter is leave me a comment saying why the book appeals to you. I reviewed the book last October and still consider it to be one of my better surprises of the year, so I'm pleased to be able to offer one of you the chance to experience Matrimony for yourself.

For an even better idea of what Matrimony is all about take a look at this nicely done YouTube video in which Joshua is interviewed about the book and talks about some of the similarities between his own writing experiences and those of one of his main characters.



One of the best things about writing a book blog (and reading so many great book blogs every day, like I do) is the chance to discover titles that would have otherwise just slipped through the cracks of my life, never making a blip, as if they had never been written. I'm one of those guys who distrust bestseller lists because of the way they encourage everyone to read the same ten or twenty books as if nothing else is worthy of their attention. It's all part of the great "dumbing down of America" that irritates me so much. Book blogs, for the most part, are the opposite of bestseller lists in that bloggers tend to get much more excited about books that don't hit the big lists at all, be they debut novels, books from small publishers, or simply books that excite us for lots of personal reasons.

Mr. Henkin has written an interesting piece about his experience with book groups since the publication of Matrimony and mentions just how difficult it is for a book to get anyone's attention in today's consumer culture:
Finally, if I were a benign despot I’d make a rule that no book can be chosen if over half the members of the group have already heard of it. This would take care of the biggest problem I’ve seen among book groups, which is that everyone’s reading the same twelve books. Eat, Pray, Love. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Water for Elephants. Kite Runner. I’m not criticizing these books, some of which I haven’t even read. I’m simply saying that there are a lot of great books out there that people don’t know about. There is a feast-or-famine culture in the world of books (just as in the world of non-books), such that fewer and fewer books have more and more readers. This is not the fault of book groups but is a product of a broader and more worrisome problem, brought on by (among other things) the decline of the independent bookstore and the decrease in book review pages. For that reason, it has become harder and harder for all but a handful of books to get the attention they deserve.
So here's your chance to give a worthy book some of the attention it deserves. Just leave a comment here and I'll do a random number drawing on Friday to choose the lucky winner. Good luck.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Politics and Religion

Are there two more dangerous things to discuss, even with friends and family, then political and religious topics? I have to doubt it.

In fact, when it comes to politics, especially as the U.S. presidential election draws closer and closer, I find myself going out of my way to avoid all the ranting, rumor-pushing, lying and media bias that seems to be everywhere. Frankly, it doesn't matter which side it comes from - all of it irritates me and I can't wait for the election to be over because of the way that the subject of politics is now creeping into even those few places I used to be able to go to escape all of that nonsense.

Political blogs are easy to recognize and that makes them easy to avoid. When it comes to magazines and newspapers, it's not too difficult just to skip the political commentary sections but I find myself generally reading magazines and papers less than ever because they tend to allow biased politics to creep even into their entertainment and news sections. I know which movies are little more than political propaganda, which directors seem to have gone off the deep end, and I can very easily ignore them. I know that most of the cable news programs, and even those on the national networks, are run by biased people, especially the talking-heads who host them, so I don't watch unless morbid curiosity gets the best of me.

Really, all of it is pretty easy to avoid. But now I'm seeing politics "discussed" even in book blogs, sports blogs, tech blogs and music blogs, and that bugs me because I read those blogs to relax and to learn about subjects that interest me. Frankly, when I read a blog about baseball, music, books, computers, and the like, I really don't want to hear about the blog author's political leanings. I don't care what they think about politics. I find the whole topic to be an irrelevant, but jarring, distraction that ruins the whole experience of the blog. And what is most irritating is that I sometimes find myself being sucked into a discussion that I later kick myself for getting involved in, an experience that ultimately leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I can't wait for things to get back to normal.

Friday, September 05, 2008

"The Jewel of Medina" Finds a Publisher



Almost exactly one month after Random House chickened-out of its deal to publish The Jewel of Medina, a novel about the pre-teen wife of the prophet Muhammad, author Sherry Jones has a new publisher and it appears that the book will now be published all over the world.




U.S. publisher Beaufort Books has bought a novel about the Prophet Mohammad's child bride a month after Random House canceled its release, citing fears it could "incite acts of violence."

The publishing house will release "The Jewel of Medina" in October and a sequel in 2009, Beaufort president Eric Kampmann said in a statement released on Friday.
...
In a statement, Jones said that she was pleased to have found a publisher "that wouldn't be spooked by controversy."

Deals have now been reached with publishers in Britain, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Russia, Spain and other countries, Jones's literary agent Natasha Kern said.

The novel traces the life of Aisha from her engagement to Mohammad, when she was six, until the prophet's death.
This is good news for the publishing world and I am looking forward to getting a look at the book.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Yellowknife

Canada’s Northwest Territory has always seemed a little unreal to me and, consequently, my imagination allowed me to create my own version of a larger-than-life world there, one populated by some of the hardiest people on the face of the Earth who found their way that far north for lots of bizarre and personal reasons. You know what I mean – a world something like the stereotypical version of what life was like in the American West in the 1870’s when residents were either gunslingers or people who were afraid of gunslingers, with not much in between.

Then along comes a novel like Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife and I start to wonder if what I figured was a farfetched distortion of what life up that way was like might only be off by a matter of degree. Zipp’s fictional Yellowknife is filled with the kind of people I imagined would be there, people who have been drawn to the remoteness of the Canadian North for reasons of their own and who relish living in an environment that scares most of the rest of us to death.

Some come to Zipp’s Yellowknife looking for the easy money they imagine to be there. Others come because they are fed up with people and big city life and imagine that immersing themselves in Mother Nature will ease their spirit. A few come because they need to get lost for a time or because they want to reinvent themselves among people who don’t much care about where they started from. Some, of course, have lived there for generations and can only chuckle and shake their heads at what they observe.

Yellowknife, much like the early novels of John Irving, is not the kind of book that a reviewer can ruin for its readers by revealing a key spoiler or two. There is just too much going on, too many stories being told as the characters come and go, interacting with each other and recombining in ways that are sometimes simultaneously surreal and brutally realistic. Zipp’s characters embody the deepest secrets, dreams, fears and plain old weirdness that the rest of us manage to keep hidden from everyone but possibly ourselves.

There’s a dog-food-loving, self-made private detective who calls himself Dan Diamond and who learned everything he knows about sleuthing from watching bad television. There’s the guy with a secret entrance cut into one of the walls of his home that opens directly into a mine tunnel from which he seems to illegally gather enough gold to support himself and his wife. There’s a government environmentalist so infatuated by mosquitoes that he allows them to feast on him during his field research and who discovers a snow white species of mosquito no one but him has ever seen. There’s the government-employed computer geek who can’t be fired because he’s so good at hacking into the system and erasing all records of his dismissal, and who just might have saved the world with the Y2K-solution virus he unleashed in late 1999. And that’s just the short list.

My favorite sections of the book, though, involve places as much as characters. Zipp’s description of the colony of misfits who live on the grounds of the town dump and mine it for the treasures they need to survive in the town’s warmer months is great fun. And the winter festival during which so many of the townspeople hope to turn a profit by selling something to their fellow citizens is a reminder that, despite it’s location, life in Yellowknife may not, deep down, be all that different from life in any small town. But best of all is when Zipp places his characters deep in the Artic wilderness and, ready or not, they are on their own and it is literally sink or swim.

Yellowknife is one heck of a ride and I disembarked still not quite sure what was exaggerated truth and what was pure fantasy. But maybe that’s the point. For readers like me, who have never seen the Northwest Territory, the mystery surrounding it remains intact, and that’s what just might get me up there one of these days.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Computer Crash

In my outrage at what I was reading last night about Governor Palin's young daughter I continued to follow link-to-link in an attempt to find out who was creating some of the lies and was most enthusiastic about the whole process of destroying a young woman's life that way. Well, I should have known better. When you go into a sewer you are going to smell bad when you come out of it.

That's what happened to me. My home computer system suddenly crashed and I have apparently picked up a bad enough virus that I will be lucky if the system survives it. I'm in the process of reformatting the hard drive right now, but you all know what that means: a computer with the original factory settings from three summers ago, no software, no internet connection, lots of garbage from AOL, Quicken, etc. to clear out.

I decided to reformat after everything else failed after more than 8 hours of trying for a fix. The bug even managed to disable my virus protection software so I have been unable to identify exactly what I picked up.

This is just a note to make you aware that I'm having a huge problem that will slow me down for a few days. I do have a laptop that might work to a degree if I can get it set up properly. But tonight I'm going to focus on the desktop to see if I can begin to get it back at least close to what it was before I picked up the virus I stepped in last night. (I only had three hours sleep last night and that, on top of a long day at the office, means I'm not felling real frisky at the moment, so I hope I don't make things worse - wish me luck.)

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Mars Life

I haven't read a great deal of science fiction in recent years but I grew up on the novels of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, and Ben Bova's Mars Life reminds me a whole lot of the style used so successfully by those guys. Those writers were at their peaks in socially simpler times, when the dialogue of books and movies seldom reflected the harsh reality of street language and the raciest sex scenes described were of the relatively tame James Bond style. Their plots were seldom over-complicated, their character types rather predictable and their dialogue not always very realistic sounding. But, taken as a whole, the style worked, and today many of their books are considered to be science fiction classics. So the fact that Mars Life reads like a throwback to that science fiction era is not at all a bad thing.

This book is actually the third in Bova's Mars series but readers like me who have not read the first two books in the series will have no problem reading and enjoying it as a standalone novel. In fact, Mars Life is actually the sixteenth novel in Bova's "Grand Tour" series begun in 1993, which also includes a book of "Grand Tour" stories.

Navajo tribesman, Jamie Waterman, discovered Martian cliff dwellings on his first trip to Mars and has ever since that time dedicated his life to keeping the Mars exploration program focused and well-funded. Now, much to the dismay of Waterman and everyone associated with the program, both governmental and private funding is drying up and the existence of the program is threatened. Partially, that is because the United States government is facing the tremendously complicated and expensive prospect of relocating a substantial portion of its population due to all the flooding caused in recent years by global warming.

But even more importantly, a group of religious fundamentalists known as the New Morality has become so powerful that it can determine the outcome of elections at both the state and national levels by simply choosing whom to support. And New Morality leadership sees the archeological work being done on Mars as such a threat to its core religious beliefs that it wants the whole project shut down. Private donors have been intimidated into withdrawing their support from the Mars program, and the President and members of Congress told to do the same if they want to have any hope of being re-elected.

Mars Life is a race against the clock during which anthropologist Carter Carleton tries to uncover as much of the Martian village and cemetery discovered beneath the cliff dwellings as possible before everyone is forced to leave the planet and Waterman desperately searches for new sources of funding. It is also an intriguing look at what might happen if the clash between science and religion were to get so out of hand that extremists end up with the power to shut down scientific exploration any time that it threatens their shaky religious beliefs, something that seems more and more possible every day.

Rated at: 4.0