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American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-56 (Library of America #227)
Gary K. Wolfe, Frederik Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, Theodore Sturgeon, Leigh Brackett, Richard Matheson

Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business

Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business - Lynda Obst Ever since Star Trek Into Darkness, I’ve decided I never want to see a new movie again. A calculated piece of brand awareness, it lacked any meaning or purpose. I have seen plenty of blockbuster, comic-book, franchise all-action movies before and enjoyed many of them, but until Star Trek Into Darkness, I had never seen anything that so blatantly made me feel like a dollar sign. Anyway, I know I’m not the only one who has felt a loss of interest in movies. Obst helps explain what happened to Hollywood studios. In the 2000s DVD revenue petered out and international box-office revenue blew up. Pitch meetings, where new ideas were worked out between producers and writers, were lost, and instead marketing departments now lead development. Everything now is about “preawareness” and franchises—-things that can be easily sold across languages and cultures.

Obst’s text is anecdotal and conversational. She goes on personal tangents, and drops in puzzling, non-essential details. She says things like, “She looks like a cameo in a locket but acts like a turbocharged Ferrari.” (Which is so nonsensical that in a different context it could be mistaken for a brilliant Bob Dylan line.) She lays too much blame on the 2007 WGA strike for jump-starting everything. But this is a first-hand, honest observation from someone whose entire world shifted beneath her feet in a period of less than a decade. She isn’t just lamenting a lost-past, and she doesn’t entirely hold herself blameless. Obst is as funny and sincere as new movies are calculated and heartless.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book 8

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book 8 - Jeff Kinney Eight books in and still good. Jeff Kinney is one of the most consistently funny writers/cartoonists working right now. Kinney has placed Greg Heffley in the same temporal suspension that all great cartoon characters suffer through. Like Charlie Brown or Eric Cartman, he will never grow older. And this is good, because that means Greg never needs to learn from his mistakes. And that means these books will always be funny. Charles Schulz’ famous rule about comics—it’s the art of doing the same thing over and over again without repeating yourself—is evident here. This book is the same as all the other ones—Greg misinterprets situations, tries to avoid doing work, hates school—but it is still all new and surprising. One of the great and consistently funny things in these books, and especially here, is how adults are portrayed. Grown-ups aren’t idiots and they’re not mean, they just don’t get it. In Hard Luck, there are things like the “Find a Friend” station in the school playground, the school’s “Hero Point” system for encouraging good behavior, and Greg’s mom’s stash of replacements of his old favorite stuffed animal. These are all hilariously misguided attempts to ease kids through emotional trauma--well-meaning, but entirely tone-deaf. I don’t know if the intended adolescent reader will ever see these books as laugh-out-loud funny as adults do. It’s too close to what they actually go through.

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie I thought I had found something here, but, no. The two most intriguing parts of this are: The main character used to be a sentient space ship; Her native language makes no gender distinction and therefore the first-person narration uses feminine pronouns for all the characters, including the males. So I was hoping for some old-fashioned Ursula Leguin-type Sci-Fi-of-ideas, but the author had something else in mind. It turns out this is just the first book of an expansive multi-part space opera. This is fine, it’s just not what I wanted to read. The story has two time-frames set a millennium apart and they are told in alternating chapters. In the present-day story, our hero Breq is dead-set on revenge against somebody, the other storyline details—slowly—the reason for her vengeance. At first, when I still thought I was reading the novel-of-ideas I wanted to read, I assumed the fractured storyline was supposed to be representative of how a former sentient spaceship with unlimited eyes and ears perceives time (or something like that.) But, no, it turns out that Leckie is just using the old TV/movie/bad-fiction trick of trying to build intrigue by delaying exposition. In the present-day storyline, Breq knows exactly why she’s doing what she’s doing, who she’s after, and what that person did to set her on this single-minded quest for justice. Since it is first person narration, there’s no reason we shouldn’t know, too. Leckie decides, for no reason but the creation of artificial suspense, to dole out that essential information in teaspoon size portions. It’s a trick and it’s cheap. I don’t have the patience for it. So, at about the halfway point, just as the big reveal was about to happen, I gave up.

I’m not giving this a star-rating. I’m not the reader for this book; someone who is will be better suited to judge it.

James Fenimore Cooper: The Leatherstocking Tales I; The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie (Library of America)

The Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. 1 - James Fenimore Cooper, Blake Nevius Cooper, have mercy. I give up. A quarter of the way through The Prairie, which is the last Leatherstocking novel left to read, I just can't take it any longer.

The Pioneers was interesting. The first appearance of Mr. Bumpo, he is actually a secondary character in an ensemble tale about an early western New York town. He just a strange white man who lives in the woods with his Indian friend and wins a holiday shooting contest. (There's always a shooting contest in these books) He doesn't become the Natty Bumpo we know and love until he saves the herione of the novel from a forest fire. A lot of our American Hero cliches seem to have been born in this book. Loner, wise-but-uneducated, reluctant to be a hero until the time is needed, rides off into the sunset at the end. (Literally. I'll give The Coop a pass on this one as he invented the cliche.)

The Last of the Mohicans is sort of hysterical in its wrongness. It's a nonstop adventure story, (nonstop in an early 19th century way)There are bad Indians and good Indians, an effete choirmaster used for comic relief, two maidens this time (one mixed-race) and another shooting contest. The best part is when Hawkeye (as he is called in this one) sneaks into a bad-Indian camp by dressing in a bear suit. So, these guys, who Cooper has constantly described as being so in tune with nature that they can tell a moose fart from a squirell's a hundred miles away, can't figure out that this bear is just a guy in a bear suit. And the bear suit actually gives Hawkeye Bear super-powers! He's able to wrestle the meanest, baddest Indian of all into submission while dressed as a bear. Anyway, I believe nothing about this historically or narratively, but it's still sort of entertaining.

The Prairie, I just can't handle. I sit down to read and suddenly everything else is a lot more interesting. It even made me check my Twitter feed for the first time in a year! There's something about a family on the prairie, and Bumpo is all old and looking back on his life. I know he dies at the end, and even the chance to see that doesn't make me want to move on. There's no reason I have to read all of these novels. So that's it, I'm done.

Well, maybe I'll skim through the rest and see if there's another shooting contest.

Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look

Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look - Pat Kirwan, David Seigerman, Pete Carroll, Bill Cowher Even if you think you already know a lot about football, mankind's greatest game, you will learn something from this book. This is football as it is played today with zone blocking, option routes, sophisticated blitzes all intelligently described. Do you really know the fundamental differences between a 4-3 and 3-4 defense? Kirwan explains. Published in 2010, the book is a little dated already (proving the ever-changing nature of football strategy.) There's a whole chapter on the Wild Cat, that quaint little trend from a few years ago. Surely a book published now about the read-option offense would look similarly dated in 2016. Easy to read, and very eye-opening, even if--especially if--you've watched football all of your life.

Small Town

Small Town: A Novel of New York - Lawrence Block Well, Lawrence Block has written so many things, he was bound to disappoint me at some point. Unlike his other books I've read, this is an ensemble piece with multiple protagonists and points-of-view. I guess this was his 9/11 novel, showing its after-effects on various New Yorkers in the year following. It doesn't fail because of its ambition (it's honest and unsentimental), and it doesn't fail because of its meandering tangents, (Block's tangents--Keller's stamp collecting, Scudder's AA meetings--are normally the most engaging parts of his books) It just sort of doesn't all come together. It's long, it's pace is off, the dialog isn't as sharp as it normally is. Maybe Block, just like his characters here, was just too damn weary after 9/11 to be totally on his game.

The Dragon Reborn: Book Three of 'The Wheel of Time'

The Dragon Reborn - Robert Jordan I do a lot of driving, and audiobooks fill up the time. This series should see me through to retirement. Like the Great Hunt, the ending actually is really good. But I guess it’s an epic fantasy requirement that every conversation, meal, and footstep has to be documented. These books have no concept of ellipsis. See, a lot happens in the Star Wars universe in-between the end of Star Wars and the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. But, wisely, we don’t spend five hours as the run-in with the bounty hunter at Ord Mantel unfolds in real-time. Instead, we get started right when the story gets interesting again. In the Wheel of Time books, there’s no prioritizing the interesting from the not interesting. Interesting: The concurrent fights at the Stone of Tear as the principal characters re-converge. Not interesting: The glacial-like journey each character takes to get to Tear (A distant land where people speak in fish metaphors.) I could say “spoiler alert” and tell you everything they go through, but I don’t need to bother because, one, nothing of any consequence happens and therefore there’s nothing to spoil, and, two, I barely remember what happened anyway. This book is 99% wind-up and 1% pitch.

Well, no, I’m wrong, not everything is documented. Rand Al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn himself and protagonist of the series is barely in this book. Jordan probably thought it was clever to leave Rand’s Achilles-moment off-page. (It worked for Homer, right?) And if so much uninteresting stuff wasn’t going on, it might have worked. But, instead, while Rand is off-screen mulling over his place in the Pattern, we see every other character having the equivalent of a run-in with a bounty hunter at Ord Mantell, or performing a little maneuver at the Battle of Tanab, or even falling into a nest of Gundarks. What I mean to say, is that everything that happens is something that can be skipped over. It just doesn’t matter. That is until the end, when Jordan wakes up, I wake up and things are interesting for a second.

The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It

The Civil War: The Second Year Told By Those Who Lived It - Stephen W. Sears The second volume of the Library of America’s primary-source history of the Civil War. What’s great about this series is the variety of voices. There are first-hand accounts of battles and political speeches, but also essays and other things from the likes of Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Frederick Douglas, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (19th century American literature is so amazingly rich.) This volume charts 1862, (spoiler alert) the year of the strongest Confederate advance and the Emancipation Proclamation. (If anyone cynically thinks the Emancipation Proclamation was just a pragmatic tool to keep England and France out of the war, read the essays by Douglas and Emerson reacting to it. American freedom in the sense that we know it was born with the Proclamation.) Also documented here is Lincoln's increasing frustration with General Wishy-Washy McClellan. We've all worked with McClellans--otherwise smart and capable people who constantly pull out excuses why things can't be done--and Lincoln barley maintains his Lincoln-esque demeanor in his letters to him. (Not included is when he finally snaps and tells him, I'm paraphrasing, "You're telling me your horses are tired? Really? Tired? What the hell have you been doing to make them tired? You haven't been doing shit.") The soldiers' accounts of battles all follow a similar pattern, no matter what the battle or which side they are on. They begin with tactics and some account of how they got to where they are, but then they all just become a catalog of gruesome horrors.

The only downside to this series is that with only contemporary and first-hand accounts of the war there can be a sense of "too many trees, not enough forest." Some context is provided by very brief introductions to each piece and some endnotes, but without familiarity with the events of the war, it's easy to get lost. I interrupted my reading of the first volume to listen to the "Great Courses" lecture on the Civil War to get me up to speed. If you don't know the Civil War backwards and forwards, some sort of overview is very helpful to have first.

Demolished Man (Sf Masterworks 14)

The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester One of the things I love about golden age sci-fi (well, I guess "love" is not the right word) is that, no matter how imaginative or prescient the envisioning of the future may be, somehow no science fiction author ever thought that the roll of women might change. Mind powers that predict the future and alter reality? Sure. Computer terminals that connect you to a mass of information? Right on. A woman might be something other than a secretary or wife? Say what? Impossible!

Any way, Demolished Man is good. Like the best of Philip K. Dick, it's a grab bag of sci-fi ideas--and this time it's delivered in a sort of police-procedural packaging. There's a very bizarre ending, and unlike Dick--who's at his best when he leaves you the most perplexed--Bester adds a wrap-up chapter that explains everything that happened.

Deadly Honeymoon

Deadly Honeymoon - Lawrence Block Early Lawrence Block from before he started using his sense of humor. A great hook here: Newly-wed virgins (I guess this was written at a time when this still happened) are about to spend the first night of their three week honeymoon at a remote cabin. Instead, they witness a gangland-style execution. The killers beat up the guy and rape the girl. They're young, scared and devastated. So what do they decide to do? Take the three weeks of vacation they still have and track down the killers and get their revenge. Whoo-hoo.

The evolution from naive kids to expert detectives and stone-cold killers is a little far fetched, but its a lot of brutal fun. Some of their investigation techniques, like calling the police and pretending to be an out of town reporter, are ones that Block uses again in later books as examples of bad sleuthing. I'm sure this was intentional on his part.

Lawrence Block has become my favorite genre writer. Even before he got down his style-chops and unleashed his sense of humor, he was cranking out this sort of delicious drugstore paperback work.

What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and the Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born

What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and the Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born - Michael  Walker A sometimes fascinating look at the state of Rock in 1973. No one will argue that 1973 wasn’t one of the best years for the Rock and Roll, being at its creative and cultural peak. Two years past the break-up of the Beatles, 1973 saw the last of rock as revolution and the beginning of Rock as commodity. Or so Walker suggests. To look back at 1973, it is overwhelming to realize the amount of essential rock and roll being made. Walker focuses on the 1973 albums and tours of Led Zeppelin (Houses of the Holy,) The Who (Quadrophenia) and Alice Cooper (Billion Dollar Babies) to argue his point.

Anyone who spent any evening of their adolescence at a festival-seating (read “no-seating”) concert in a basketball arena crushed against a steel barrier knows the era of rock and roll that 1973 launched. At this point, the Who were the old guard, a decade into their career. Led Zeppelin, shunned by the Lester Bang-school of rock critics, were the kid’s choice. Alice Cooper, through sheer force-of-will, were just at their peak of their meteoric career. Walker shows the proceedings from the points of view of the band, their management, the fans, and the rock press.Thankfully, unlike a lot of these sorts of books, the writer keeps himself out of it. The author bio photo, Walker circa 1973, is the only acknowledgement that he was living through these events, too. (However, he does throw in a few out-of-nowhere cheap shots at Grand Funk Railroad.)

Also, Walker does a very good job at not romanticizing things. While the title, the cover verbage, and the chapter headings seem to promise salacious backstage details, Walker does not indulge in any sort of “boys will be boys” dismissal of things. As it turns out, statutory rape and sexual assault really isn’t that fun when you get down to the details.

Rock may not be dead, but rock as it was in 1973 certainly is.

The Great Hunt: Book Two of The Wheel of Time

The Great Hunt - Robert Jordan Wow, what can I say. First of all, I listened to this on audio. The reader has a lot more patience with the text than I do and was able to make Jordan’s gegaw prose at least sound like it had some flow. In the past few years, I’ve been trying to make myself appreciate these late-90s fantasy epics. So far, the Wheel of Time (or WOT as the internet likes to call it) is the best. Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth is ridiculous fun at first and then just turns ridiculous. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is just boring nonsense. (Here are the points I’ve given up on the respective series: Sword of Truth, beginning of book 4. Song of I’ve seen Fire and I’ve seen Rain: Chapter 2 of the book, disc 12 of the audiobook, episode 4 of the TV series. (Holy cow, did I give Martin a lot of chances.) Wheel of Time: TBD.)

The Great Hunt is better and tighter than The Eye of the World. It’s almost as if Jordan had an idea of where he was going with the book and took some time to foreshadow events and develop some themes. Rand al’Thor’s archetypal devotion to duty and conflicting responsibilities is well illustrated. Egwene’s actions after being freed are believable and satisfying. The introduction of the sci-fi tropes of multiple dimensions and realities is intriguing. However, there are a lot of strange narrative cul de sac’s. Our heroes spend a lot of time trying to convince the Ogiers to allow them to use their Way Gate, but then, nevermind, it’s blocked by the same black wind that was blocking the last way gate. They risk life and sanity by using a Portal Stone, but then arrive at their destination at the same time as if they had just ridden horses. Nynaeve convinces Domon to allow them passage on his ship, but they never actually need his ship at all. It’s frustrating to have all this space devoted to solving these problems when it turns out that nothing was either gained or lost by these actions.

And the prose. Oh, the prose. There were many moments where I had to rewind the audiobook thinking I had missed something. One in particular I rewound so many times, and then went and found the same passage in the book and finally realized it’s not me, Jordan just got lazy. (This most perplexing moment was when Egwene first meets Elayne. First, they’s suspicious of each other and then all of a sudden, literally all of a sudden, they’re best friends. What happened?) And when Jordan tries, he’s even worse. When a character is frightened he speaks “with sweat in his voice.” When someone bleeds, it looks like “crimson fireflies.”

From just the first two books, I can see how the series lasts so long. It’s a gathering snowball of characters. There are no minor characters in Jordan’s world. If a ship captain is mentioned in the first book, then he gets significant attention in the next. (Even though Bayle Doman has absolutely no bearing on anything. He’s just there so that we can hear a lot of exposition about the Seanchan.) I can only guess that any character mentioned by name here, no matter how minor, gets major screen time in later installments. And any characters that character meets in later installments will get their own chapters in later books, and so on and so on.

But I say all this just to also say I didn’t hate this. I’m eagerly awaiting the Dragon Reborn to arrive on hold at my library. It is what it is, flaws and all. I drive a lot for work.

Eight Million Ways To Die: A Matthew Scudder Mystery

Eight Million Ways to Die - Lawrence Block Whoa, this is good. You can't say that it "transcends genre" because it is solidly to its core a hard-boiled mystery. You can't say it "elevates genre" because that would suggest that this sort of story can't be brilliant on its own. What is does is relish genre. It's brilliantly and violently a hardboiled mystery of the best kind.

William Faulkner: Novels 1926-1929: Soldiers' Pay / Mosquitoes / Flags in the Dust / The Sound and the Fury (Library of America)

William Faulkner: Novels 1926-1929: Soldiers' Pay / Mosquitoes / Flags in the Dust / The Sound and the Fury (Library of America) - William Faulkner Oh yeah, I'm just taking a break from Melville with a little Faulkner as a palette cleanser.

Trick Baby

Trick Baby - Iceberg Slim Not as good as Pimp, but still thoroughly entertaining. Two of my three stars are just for the character names. In addition to the mixed-race main character White Folks and his mentor/partner in the con game Blue Howard, there's Dot Murray, Memphis Kid and St. Louis Shorty, Livin' Swell, Vicksburg Kid, One Pocket, Dirty Red, Precious Jimmy, Old Man Mule, Butcher Knife Brown, and Buster Bang Bang.

Herman Melville : Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick (Library of America)

Redburn/White-Jacket/Moby-Dick (Library of America #9) - Herman Melville, G. Thomas Melerlle, G. Thomas Tanselle Moby-Dick is a book you need to read twice, because the first time you read it it’s entirely not what you expect. The second time around gives you a chance to know what’s coming-—yes, there will be an entire chapter about the color white—-and even then, the novel is just full of so many bizarre and beautiful images and amazing turns-of-language it can still suckerpunch you. (I mean, there’s a scene where Ahab stands in the middle of a typhoon waving a flaming harpoon!)

This Library of America volume puts Moby-Dick side by side with the lesser known Redburn and White-Jacket. These are both less story driven and more fictionalized documentary. Redburn, ostensibly about a young sailor’s first voyage, is really a series of chapters describing life as a sailor. What plot there is is fairly slight. White-Jacket is similar, only this time it is about life in the U.S. Navy aboard a Man-of-War. (These plot-free novels make all the plot-free descriptive chapters of Moby-Dick understandable in context. It's what 19th century readers expected when they picked up a book by Mr. Melville.) Both of these novels have their standout moments. Redburn has a chilling chapter where the young narrator on a layover in Liverpool watches a mother and her children starve to death over the course of several days. And White-Jacket has a chapter about an on-board amputation that is so gory, absurd, and funny it could just as well have appeared in Catch-22.

Moby-Dick of course is a giant and beautiful mess. It’s a slaughtered-whale of a novel, to speak metaphorically. (Which is easy to do after immersing yourself in 600 pages of Melville’s non-stop metaphorizing.) It’s no refined classic. It’s unkempt, preposterous, beautiful and totally American.