Friday, February 29, 2008

February Books Bought

I had a nearly perfect month going until yesterday, when I walked into Daedalus Books empty-handed and walked out with...well, most of the books listed below:

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Daedalus has several classics in sturdy trade paperbacks for $3.95, this one from Black Dog & Leventhan Publishers.

The Scarlet Letter & The House of Seven Gables - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Another trade paperback, this one from Toby Books.

The Restless Dead (2007) - edited by Deborah Noyes

A YA anthology of supernatural stories featuring stories by Kelly Link, Holly Black and others.

The Naming (2006) - Alison Croggon

YA fantasy. Hey, why not?

Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (NF 2006) - Stanley Crouch

I flipped through several of these essays and thought they looked good. When I found a chapter on Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige (which I also found on CD at Daedalus), I knew I had to have it.

The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (NF 1995) - Lynn H. Nicholas

The only book not purchased at Daedalus (thus ending the Daedalus commercial), this is the story of Nazi Germany's attempt to purge "degenerate" art from Europe.

Next time: Books Read

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

For a time before the outbreak of WWII, Franklin Roosevelt considered a proposal that would establish a temporary settlement for persecuted European Jews in the Alaskan panhandle. The plan fell through, but Michael Chabon uses the proposal as a “What If?” springboard, building the foundation for the architecture of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

Sixty years have passed since the Sitka settlement, which saved millions of Jewish lives. (In Chabon’s version, two million Jews died in the Holocaust instead of six million.) Only now the Sitka district is about to revert to American rule, forcing its Jews to find yet another homeland. Just before the upheaval, Detective Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a chess prodigy/heroin addict who lives in the same rundown hotel as Landsman. With the Reversion imminent, Landsman is pressured to forget the case and move on (literally). To make matters worse, most of this pressure is coming from Landsman’s boss, who is also his ex-wife.

Imagine the style of any hard-boiled detective writer, preferably someone like Raymond Chandler, then toss in plenty of Jewish culture (including, of course, healthy doses of Yiddish) clashing with Native Americans, Americans, Filipinos and all sorts of bureaucracy . Add an outrageous sense of humor with sentences that are so well constructed it’s astounding. That’s a very small sampling of the delights to be found in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

(As an aside, I thought it interesting that Chabon abandoned the usual hard-boiled detective first-person narrative, choosing instead a third-person present voice.)

So does this Alternate History/Detective/Murder Mystery/Clash-of-Cultures novel actually work? Like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, it doesn’t really matter who the murderer is. (And yes, you do find out who did it.) It’s all about the journey, not the destination. Sure, there were moments that I thought the story was close to coming off the rails, but Chabon is such a gifted writer I didn’t care. And I wasn’t disappointed. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Amazon Kindle....What Do You Think???

Okay, this Amazon Kindle thing is really starting to get to me. Yeah, I know, it costs $400, but man, is it tempting!

Books are only $9.99, which isn't bad, and it can hold up to 200. And according, I suppose, to what time of day you check, Amazon says it has either 80,000 or 90,000 or 100,000 titles available. I know I've looked up several books I'm considering purchasing only to find they are available on Kindle.

My gut reaction is to wait until the 2.0 version comes out, but Amazon has given no indication of when that might happen. Sure, any 1.0 product is bound to have a few bugs, and if they're not bugs that lead to crash-and-burn, I'm willing to consider it. It seems the page-turning function has a few issues, but most reviewers say that it just takes some getting used to. Plus the new version might be a bit cheaper, which would be nice. I'd almost certainly buy it if it fell into the $200-ish range.

So does anyone own one? Has anyone seen one? Is it something you'll consider buying? Why or why not? Let your voice be heard.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Maybe Next Year...

I've always wanted to go into the Oscar weekend having seen all five of the films nominated for Best Picture. I almost made it a couple of times, in 1981 (missing Atlantic City) and 1983 (missing Tender Mercies).

I thought I might make it this year, having only two films to go, Juno and Atonement, both of which are playing in nearby theatres, but due to the weather, it looks like I won't realize my goal this year. My only hope is that the library closes tomorrow due to the weather, yet the roads are good enough to travel to Annapolis. Still, I'd have to see two movies (in two different theatres) in one day, which I've done before, but would rather not.

Last night I watched Michael Clayton, which I thought was quite good, with just enough non-traditional elements and some great performances. I don't think it'll win, though. Nobody's talking about it.

Yet people are talking about No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and rightly so. There Will Be Blood is the better film (in my opinion), but I believe No Country will win.

I don't really have any other opinions, since I haven't seen all the films, but I would be enormously surprised if Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't walk away with the Best Actor Oscar. And while I hope Julie Christie wins for Away From Her, I hear people talking in whispers that Ellen Page might just sneak in and win for Juno.

Will you be watching? I will - but then I'm a sucker.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On the Way...

An ARC of John Kessel's new collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories is on the way from LibraryThing. As I've mentioned before, LibraryThing offers a healthy selection of ARCs every month. Go ahead - jump on board.

What To Do With the Time....

Here it is again, my least favorite time of the year: Navy Band Tour. That's right, Cindy's gone for 27 days, so it's just me, Bullet and an ever-growing tower of empty pizza boxes.

When I tell guys that my wife goes on tour for nearly a month every year, their eyes light up, no doubt dreaming of unless rounds of golf, turning the house into a landfill or more sordid revelry.

How wild does it get around here? How about eating an entire bag of Baked Lays in one sitting? Or watching three episodes of 24 in a row? How about reading until 11:30? (Yes, that would be PM.) Just let your imagination run wild...

Anyway, since I have a little time, I've decided to purge not only my CDs (which I do pretty much every year), but also my DVDs, watching each one I've either never watched or haven't watched in over a year. Yeah, that's a tall order. Will I finish before Cindy gets back? Are you kidding?

I started last night on 8 1/2, one of the "Never Seen" variety. I bought this from a friend of mine for five bucks a couple of years ago. He said it was too weird for him. I've watched about half of definitely requires multiple viewings, but so far I like it. (Not saying I understand it all, mind you, only that I like it.)

We'll see if I make it to the end of the alphabet, which in my case would be The Wizard of Oz. That's a lot of Baked Lays bags between now and then.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

There Are Those Days...

A couple of mornings this week I struggled, sweated, toiled and slaved over revisions to Chapter Two of my YA novel. I looked at the clock and an hour had gone by. How much ground had I covered?

Two paragraphs.

Make that two short paragraphs.

Then I started revising a short story and things started moving along a little better.

Then this morning I start reading Laird Barron's "The Forest" from the anthology Inferno. Blast Laird Barron. He writes so well it (1) amazes me and (2) makes me want to crawl under concrete, preferably some of the big heavy stuff Verizon keeps digging up around town.

So I get in the car, driving to work and start listening to Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union on audio. Good gravy, the dude can write! Just look at what he does on the sentence level---heck, even the word choice level. I was so stunned I almost ran three red lights. Maybe I should read this book instead of listening to it. You don't really have time to process the genius of his (1) writing on the sentence level, (2) word choices, (3) tone, (4) rhythm, (5) pacing before the next sentence comes streaming out like melted gold.

It can really be overwhelming.

When I read over my writing, I feel like I'm using one of those packs of 8-color Crayolas and every color is a word.

But guys like Barron and Chabon had to start somewhere, didn't they?

Well? Didn't they?

Tell me they did.

You're not saying anything...

...I was afraid of that...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Peter Straub's In the Night Room

In the Night Room is a sequel of sorts, although it's not necessary to have read the earlier lost boy lost girl. Both feature novelist Tim Underhill, both deal with tense family relationships (especially lost boy lost girl), both are superbly written. Yet for all of the supernatural elements present in the first book, In the Night Room requires an enormous suspension of disbelief.

About the time Underhill begins getting emails from his deceased classmates, he receives a visit from a literal fan-from-hell who greatly upsets the author. It seems there's something about Underhill's books he doesn't like. Of course this isn't just some rabid fan. This is speculative fiction, so there's more to it.

Venturing further into the plot would be a pointless exercise, but I will say that one of the book's main themes is the battle between fiction and reality. Either you'll be able to suspend disbelief and enjoy the book or you'll hate it. There's not much middle ground. For me, the book tottered oh-so close to the edge many times and maybe even derailed a time or two, but Straub's writing is so strong, so compelling that I was willing to follow him to the end of the tale. A must-read for Straub fans, but for first-timers, lost boy lost girl or maybe an earlier title like Ghost Story might fit the bill.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Like You'd Understand, Anyway: Stories - Jim Shepard

Maybe the guy's a master of disguise. Or just well-read. Yeah, just. Read the Acknowledgments of Shepard's new short story collection Like You'd Understand, Anyway and you'll find books and articles from Don J. Miller's "The Alaska Earthquake of July 10, 1958" to Nic Fields' Hadrian's Wall A.D. 122-410 and everything (and I do mean everything) in between.

These eleven first-person narratives aren't just good stories with historical backdrops. Sure, you certainly get the feeling that Shepard was hanging out with a middle-aged Aeschylus at Marathon, was floating around with the first woman cosmonaut inside a Soviet capsule, was hauling a whaleboat through the Great Australian Desert in 1840. But there's much more.

Shepard gives the reader eleven wildly differing settings and times, yet wherever (and whenever) you go, conflict is conflict. It becomes very clear that Shepard knows just as much about relationships as he does about history. Many of these relationships are either between brothers or sons and fathers, but not all. Many are strained, many are broken, some are as shattered as a crystal vase dropped from the Sears Tower. But Shepard doesn't stop with relational conflicts. There are also conflicts with the setting, the external circumstances that each narrator has either chosen or been forced into. (Forced into? Chosen? You decide.)

Filled with dark humor, drama, tragedy, introspection and yearning, these tales stick with you after you've finished them, refusing to go away. I couldn't read more than one at a sitting. I suppose some of that is due to the vast differences and settings of the stories. I mean, it's hard to jump from 1986 Chernobyl straight to Tibet's Chang Tang tundra. But these are stories to savor, anyway, stories you can get lost inside. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Please Consider

Writer CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan has been suffering from a medical condition for several years now and has recently incurred a long list of medical expenses. Like many full-time writers, she has no medical insurance. Please visit her website and consider a generous donation.

Friday, February 08, 2008

New Stuff on the Horizon?

I may have to seriously curtail book buying for this month, which is definitely cause for mourning.

I had a computer diagnostic done on my computer last Friday. The guy running it said I need a back-up drive, especially since my computer is over five years old. I nodded.

I also need an Ethernet extender, since my computer is on the other side of the house from the cable source. "Your Internet speed will nearly double," he said. I nodded vigorously.

"And," he said with a sigh, "you'll probably need a new computer soon."

I didn't nod. I was too terrified.

Anyway, I've decided to go ahead and order this Ethernet extender kit, which looks pretty easy to install.

I'm thinking about ordering this external hard drive. I have so many questions about just what an external hard drive can (and can't) do that I may delay this purchase (dangerous as that may be) until I can get some of my bonehead questions answered:

Do I need back-up software? (I don't think this particular product comes with it.)

If I get a new computer, can I back up (and use) information/applications from both hard drives? (Will I have to re-install stuff like Zone Alarm, etc. on the new computer or can I transfer it from the external hard drive?)

I'm so confused...

And a new computer? I break into a cold sweat just thinking about it. Can you even get a new computer with Windows XP and not Vista?

So many decisions....

Maybe I was born in the wrong century. Paper and ink are suddenly starting to look real good again.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

See What You Missed?

Yesterday I received the latest issue of Locus, including the 2007 Recommended Reading List.

Since I read far more fantasy and horror than straight-up sf, only two sf (which really seem more in the line of alternate history) titles hold much interest for me: The Yiddish Policemen's Union (which I currently have checked out on CD) by Michael Chabon and Ha'penny by Jo Walton. Reading Ha'penny is actually contingent upon how much I enjoy the first book in the series, Farthing, but my good friend John assures me I'll enjoy both.

In the fantasy category, I'd really like to read something by Elizabeth Bear. People whose opinions I respect hold her writing in high regard...but I just don't know where to start, especially since Whiskey and Water is not the first book in her Promethean Age series. Suggestions?

John Crowley's Endless Things is definitely on the "To Read" list, but it will have to wait until I read the other novels in the Aegypt cycle. (I think I need to first wait until my head stops spinning---in a good way---from The Solitudes.)

Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel has been sitting on my shelf for about six months. And have I even opened it? NO! Every time I pick up one of Kay's books I have a deep, unsettling fear that nothing he's written will ever compare with Tigana. Eventually I'll get over it and read Ysabel. Really, I promise.

And for the first time in a long time, I've read NONE of the books on the YA list. Geez...

And of course nearly all the collections look enticing.

When's the next payday?

Friday, February 01, 2008

January Books Read

It's a rarity that my non-fiction reading outweighs my fiction, but I also read a lot of short stories from collections that I haven't completely finished. And since one of my goals for 2008 was to read more non-fiction, I'd say I'm on the right track.


Generation Loss (2007) – Elizabeth Hand
Which I wrote about here.

The Kragen (1969/2007) – Jack Vance
And here.

Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers (NF 2004) – Chap Clark
You could almost call this an academic study. This is no lightweight book; Clark has done his research. You may not like it, you may not agree with it, but you can't ignore what he has to say about youth culture, how it got here and where it's headed. A must-read for teachers, parents or anyone else who spends time around teens.

The Age of Shakespeare (NF 2003) – Frank Kermode
A good examination of the world during Shakespeare's time as well as the cultural significance of his works and their performances.

A History of Ancient Greece (Modern Scholar, NF 2007) – Eric H. Cline
Actually a series of informal lectures, good for people like me with a limited knowledge of Greek history.

A Pack of Lies (YA 1988) – Geraldine McCaughrean
A clever twelve-stories-in-one novel for YA. This one is hard to find, but worth the effort.

Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft (NF 2006) – Jane Yolen
Just what the title says. Yolen has lots of advice and little nuggets of wisdom for writers at all levels, but mainly the novice.

Wolves Eat Dogs (2004) – Martin Cruz Smith
My first exposure to the Arkady Renko (a Russian detective) novels. (Thanks, Alexa, for the recommendation!) A billionaire Russian businessman falls to his death from his 10th floor apartment. Was it murder or suicide? And why was he found holding a salt shaker? Smith not only writes a great mystery, he also takes an introspective look at the changing post-Cold War Russian society. I'm eager to read Gorky Park, the first book in this series.

iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It (NF 2006) – Steve Wozniak
I wish I could say I had fun reading it. Wozniak is obviously a gifted visionary with a great story to tell. Too bad he spends so much time telling you how smart he is.

That's it for January. Now go read something.