Monday, February 28, 2011

This old house

I'm not going to talk about deep and abiding disappointment regarding last night's Academy Awards. We're not going to get into how Winter's Bone was completely and unjustifiably snubbed. I'm not going to mention how it vividly translates, via a surprising cast of relative unknowns, one of the finest pieces of Twenty-First Century American prose -- a haunting and vivid portrayal of unflagging courage and loyalty in a piece of unknown Americana that most of us would rightly be too afraid to experience for ourselves -- from page to screen.

Nope, I'm not going to talk about any of that.

Instead, I'm going to make a confession: I've been skipping ahead a bit in my reading list. I'm at the mercy of my public library; sometimes, books requested take months to get to me, and sometimes days. I was #23 for Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Doubleday, 2010) for weeks, and then all of a sudden it was on the hold shelf waiting for me. Worry not, dear reader, for I've got Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues (Villard, 1998) on my bedside table and will review that, along with some comparative and contrasting material, soon enough. But At Home is what I just finished, so At Home is what I'm going to briefly talk about.

I first heard of Bill Bryson through a friend who had read a few of his books, but they didn't interest me; though I'd made the pledge to myself to read more nonfiction, I had mostly stuck to memoirs about food and the people who prepare it, and Bryson's books all seemed to be travelogues. I later saw him on The Colbert Report, promoting At Home. It sounded a little interesting, like something you would continually mean to read, but never get around to. But then I saw it at the grocery store of all places, picked it up, thumbed through the pages, and decided that it was worth a go. I requested it from my library; eventually, it made its way to me.

The book is something of a surprise. Bryson, the most British of Americans, takes us on a tour of his house, a former rectory dating from the mid-Ninteenth Century, and through this tour explores the history and development of the everyday conveniences we take for granted, focused primarily on the past 250 years and almost exclusively on the Western Hemisphere. But if that sounds dreadfully tedious, let me hasten to assure you it's not.

If you're looking for a technical history, bogged down in the tiny facets of material evolution, look elsewhere. Bryson's history isn't very literal: his history of the fuse box, for example, isn't actually the history of that little gray box many of us have in our basements (my old apartment had it in the kitchen), but rather a more general history of home lighting. His history of the dining room isn't just the history of the dining room but the history of food. His history of the scullery is the history of servitude. His history of the cellar is the history of the building materials we use today and the reasons why we don't use others. His history of the bedroom is the history of sexual relations, and also of death and burial. There's the story of how sedentary civilizations appeared before organized agriculture (a phenomenon which has me convinced space aliens were somehow involved) and there's the story of the daring Brit who made my morning cup of tea viable.

At Home is jam-packed with the minor anecdotes and the epic sagas, humorous and terrible and salacious, surrounding the people who created, developed, fought over, stole, refined, perfected, manufactured, and marketed modern daily life. The story of things, it turns out, is really the story of humanity.

Bryson tends to ramble a bit, and sometimes strays a farther from the point than we might actually like before coming back to it. Nevertheless, it's usually a fascinating story, filled with some characters of whom you've heard and many others you haven't.

Actually, Bryson tends to ramble a lot; while occasionally irritating (you'll find yourself asking where he's going with this or how it relates to that), it's a part of his charm, the same charm that makes this book possible. Seriously. By a less accessible author, this book would be dry as dirt. I think that's part of why he wrote it, actually -- because the story of our homes is actually interesting, if presented in an interesting manner. Bryson's history isn't quite as deep or complete as a dry and dusty history text -- this is, as the subtitle notes, A Short History of Private Life (emphasis mine). At Home is more like a history novel.

So, if you're looking for pure facts, the book is full of them, but they're not laid out in a chronological manner, or even a logical manner. Instead, you'll have to let Bill get around to telling you what you want to know in his own course, for which you'll have to read the whole book. (For ease of reference, and for the extremely lazy and those pressed for time, there is a handy index in the back, along with a bibliography.) Luckily, due to Bryson's easy, friendly writing style, At Home is a surprisingly quick read, and consuming the whole thing is no hardship at all.

I give this book an A-. Take some time, enjoy yourself, and learn a thing or two along the way.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Be ye warned: here there be literature!

Just a trifling little thing: here's my partial reading list for 2011.

First, in order, books you can expect to hear more about in the coming weeks:
(EDIT: A strikeout indicates that a book has been completed, not removed from the list.)

  1. The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler (Villard, 2007). I'm not a fan of feminist philosophy and gender studies, but my girlfriend is, and she wanted me to read this. I actually enjoyed the last book she asked me to read, so I'm going to keep an open mind. I'm getting her back by making her read The Hobbit.)
  2. Captive of Gor, by John Norman (Ballantine, 1972 -- this is the edition I have; it has since been reprinted by The seventh in Norman's pulpy Chronicles of Counter-Earth science fiction series.
  3. The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books, 2010). His Mistborn trilogy was some of the flat-out, hands down best fantasy that I've ever read, and yes, if you're reading this blog and you haven't read them yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. I will be very interested to see what he does with this, the first book in his proposed fantasy epic.
  4. The Shadowmarch series, by Tad Williams (DAW, 2004-2010). I've read the first two books in the series, but it's been years; I intend to start the series from the beginning again.

    And then, slightly less orderly ...
    • At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2010). I saw Bryson on The Colbert Report and thought the book sounded good; a friend of mine recommended a few of his other books.
    • A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah E. Harkness (Viking, 2011). I think I read about this in the local paper.
    • The Skewed Throne, by Joshua Palmatier (DAW, 2006).
    • The Iron Thorn, by Caitlin Kittredge (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2011). The past decade or so has seen some surprisingly good young adult fantasy, so I'm not thrown off by that label; let the material stand or fall for itself, I say. I was directed to this by Cherie Priest's Twitter (she retweeted it from someone else).
    • The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss (DAW, to be released March 1, 2011). The second book of Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles, the first volume of which has had its praises sung widely. I will say that I actually teared up during one scene in The Name of the Wind (DAW, 2007) -- another that you absolutely owe yourself to read if you haven't already.
    • The Big Country, by Donald Hamilton (Dell, 1958). The source material for the fantastic film, which I also recommend for stellar performances from Gregory Peck and Burl Ives, and one of the best fight scenes ever choreographed (between Peck and Charleton Heston).
    • The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2010).
    • Naamah's Blessing, by Jacqueline Carey (Grand Central Publishing, to be released June 29, 2011). The conclusion to the latest trilogy by one of my favorite authors.
    • The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, by Stephen Hunt (Tor Books, 2009). The sequel to Hunt's The Court of the Air (Tor Books, 2008), a strange, captivating book.
    • Vamped, by David Sosnowski (Free Press, 2004).
    • Clementine, by Cherie Priest (Subterranean, 2010). The other book in Priest's Clockwork Century series, about which I've previously raved. Luckily, my library has a copy of this one.
    • Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence (Ace, to be released August 2, 2011).
    • The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie (Orbit, 2011). Abercrombie writes some really great, gritty, grisly fantasy with flawed heroes and unhappy (realistic) endings, so much that reading his work is akin to emotional masochism. Still, like an addiction, you just keep coming back because you can't resist ...
    • The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2010).
    • The Son of Neptune, by Rick Riordan (Hyperion, to be published October 11, 2011). Again, the young adult label doesn't bother me; Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (Hyperion, 2005-2010) was top-notch, whether you're a young reader or old, and The Lost Hero (Hyperion, 2010) kept up the mantle of quality I've come to expect from this author.
    • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit, 2010). Ranting Dragon's review of this made it actually sound good (which was, in fact, the whole point of the review).
    • I, Claudius, by Robert Graves (Arthur Barker, 1934).  This was recommended to me by a friend, who loved it, after I'd watched Caligula (1979 -- one of Malcolm McDowell's best performances).
    • No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 2005).  The source material for the Coen Bro's. Oscar-winning existential western; I'm told that the book is even better.  I've thought before about reading The Road (Knopf, 2006), which I'm also led to understand is excellent (and in fact once nearly bought it on the strength of its description, knowing nothing more about it), but I've never felt the need to be that depressed.

    Whew! So, that ought to get me through to about July. You can expect reviews of some, if not most, of the unnumbered books, too, assuming they make an impact.

    If you've got other recommendations, send them my way! Leave a comment here, hit me up on Twitter, or send me an email.

    Friday, February 18, 2011

    A Steampunk Double Feature Review: Dreadnought and The Buntline Special

    Recently, two steampunk novels have crossed my path, that are definitely worth a mention. The first is Cherie Priest's Dreadnought (Tor Books, 2010), the latest entry in her Clockwork Century series. The second is The Buntline Special (Pyr, 2010), by Mike Resnick, which promises to be the first in an upcoming serial, The Weird West.

    I came across Dreadnought's precursor, Boneshaker (Tor Books, 2009), quite by accident a little over a year ago, and I'll admit that I was a little iffy over it. For one thing, it bore the SciFi Essential Book seal of approval, and the SciFi Channel (now SyFy) has produced some questionable content on its own. For another, steampunk, in my personal experience, tends to be a very hit-or-miss subgenre when it comes to literature -- the good stuff is really, really good, and the bad stuff is hurtfully disappointing. It's a very visual subgenre: brassy bits and leather and boiler-powered everything, all of which is easier to depict through a more visual medium, such as painting or illustration. (Not that those are "easy"!)

    Luckily, my fears were unfounded, and Boneshaker, the story of a worried mother out to find her lost son in a world of airships and zombies, turned out to be a real treat. So I eagerly looked forward to Dreadnought, the latest book set in Priest's Clockwork Century.

    (Dreadnought isn't strictly a sequel, though it is somewhat of a spiritual successor, to Boneshaker. So you don't really have to read Boneshaker to understand Dreadnought, though it might help. According to the official website for the Clockwork Century, Priest has written another novel, Clementine (Subterranean Press, 2010), and a novelette, Tanglefoot (Subterranean Press, 2009). Clementine is sort of ludicrously expensive according to, but Tanglefoot is available for to read free from Subterranean Press's website.)

    Dreadnought introduces us to Mercy Lynch, put-upon Confederate war nurse and widow. Having but recently lost her husband, Mercy is rather coincidentally called upon to travel across the length of a war-torn America to visit her estranged father, the last family she has left. To get there, she'll have to survive the Civil War at top speed and deal with some truly ornery train passengers.

    Dreadnought isn't better or worse than Boneshaker, but it's a worthy heir. Priest flexes muscles that she only tantalized at having in her previous entry, by taking the world that she built and exploring it more fully. It's one hell of a world, where the Civil War has raged for almost twenty years while Texas remains an independent nation with its own interests. To escape the realities of war, soldiers take drugs that turn them from men into monsters -- literally. Mechanical walkers lifted straight out of classic science fiction roam the front lines. And a steam engine, the titular Dreadnought (who knew that steam engines had names?) transports a mysterious cargo and a mad scientist who guards it zealously.

    Is it a perfect book? No, but it's pretty good. The beginning of the book is slightly problematic. In the space of too short a time, Mercy Lynch receives word that her husband has died on the front line and that her estranged father is dying. So, isn't it rather convenient that her single tie to anywhere has evaporated, just as she's asked to make a dangerous cross-country journey? While it's not unknown for tragedies of this nature to happen back-to-back in real life, here, it feels a little contrived. I'm willing to forgive the taste that particular plot development left in my mouth, however, as it's all over with rather quickly and gives Lynch the freedom and impetus to make the trip and get on with the story.

    Mercy Lynch reminds me an awful lot of Briar Wilkes, the heroine of Boneshaker. They're not identical, but there's enough overlap to raise an eyebrow. And a second point of view, as in Boneshaker, might have been appreciated. Still, Briar was busy in Seattle and couldn't make the trip cross-country. This Briar-Mercy character is a good and interesting one, and Priest seems to have a firm grasp on her, so I won't think too hard about this.

    In spite of all that, this really is steampunk at its best. The Clockwork Century is a world that's both familiar and yet terrifyingly different, and Priest has clearly put some thought into it -- not just the fun parts, like zombies and air piracy, but the hauntingly simple parts, like the dearth of educated men in a country fighting a war of attrition where every able-bodied man is sent to the front lines. And all of it is wrapped up in a clear, crisp writing style that drives the story cleanly and compellingly, like a locomotive, towards the story's inevitable and climactic confrontation.

    More random was my encounter with The Buntline Special; I just happened to find it at the bookstore and thought it looked good. Plus, it was written by Mike Resnick, a trusted name in science fiction.

    Like Dreadnought, The Buntline Special features a United States where westward expansion has slowed to a trickle: in this case, by unbeatable Native American magic rather than by a pesky, distracting Civil War. In the interest of expanding its borders across the North American continent, the United States has sent Thomas Edison to the remote western town of Tombstone to come up with a way to counteract the shamans' magic ... with science! Aiding Edison in the science department is Ned Buntline, here, inventor to the stars, able to invent anything Edison dreams up. And aiding the two of them with guns and muscle are the Earp Brothers -- Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt -- and their friends Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday.

    Of course, it's 1881, and if it's 1881 in Tombstone, then you know what's about to happen.

    Resnick presents an alternative to the events surrounding the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Geronimo and Hook Nose conspire with the local criminal element to kill Edison before he can find a way to counter their powers; for more firepower, they resurrect Johnny Ringo, gunslinger, egotist, and classicist. Cursed into a monstrosity, Bat Masterson slowly goes mad. Kate Elder employs whores both human and robotic, by-products of the scientific juggernaut of Edison and Buntline. And through it all, Wyatt Earp seeks a glory that will ensure his place in history after success has eluded him, and John Henry Holliday just wants to drink and gamble in peace while he waits to die.

    The Buntline Special, like Bram Stoker's Dracula, presents a rather classic case of great idea, lackluster execution. Where Priest presented the tropes of her steampunk seamlessly, Resnick seems to bludgeon us over the head with his horseless carriages (it's only 1881), electric lights (here, common in Tombstone but unknown back East), super-hard brass that defies conventional physics, and robotic whores. The pacing plods in the first half of the book. The characters are all a little flat: Virgil Earp is dour and dutiful, Wyatt is sort of a lovable loser, and Kate Elder is bold as the Arizona desert.

    The only exception is that of Holliday, on whom Resnick spends the most attention; here, he is fatalistic and humorous, loyal yet stand-offish, erudite and alcoholic. (Although, did we need reminders of Holliday's consumptive state every other page?) I would've appreciated more of this kind of attention to some of the other characters, which would have rounded out the novel a bit better.

    Resnick has clearly done his homework with regards to the real events surrounding the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral -- as evidenced, if nothing else, by the bibliography he helpfully includes. The history of the Old West is filled with larger-than-life characters, and even if Resnick doesn't do them justice, it's clear that he knew who and what he was talking about.

    I think my biggest problem with all of this is that Mike Resnick is one of science fiction's most celebrated authors. From someone less famous, less decorated, and less experiences, I think I could forgive a lot more. But from Resnick, the faults in this book are thrown into more sharp relief.

    So, it's not a great work. But if all you know of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer (or Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid), then you owe it to yourself to learn more about them. And then you might want to come back to this book to check out what might have happened.

    Thursday, February 17, 2011

    Border troubles

    I'd read a while back that Borders, the US's second-largest bookseller, was having some financial trouble during this time when everybody else is, too. So it didn't really surprise me yesterday to learn that the chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, nor did it surprise me that President and CEO Mike Edwards had sent (or commissioned) a mass email reassuring everyone that Borders is "open for business" both in meatspace and online and that, while a few underperforming stores were shutting down, everything would proceed as normal, please keep shopping here, keep calm and carry on.

    I really hope that the company pulls through. Yes, they're a big-box business, the plague of mom-and-pop shops and surely the plague of all life on Earth. But back when I worked in DC, I spent almost every night after work at the 18th and L St. store while waiting for the bus home. I spent lazy Saturdays at the Friendship Heights, Pentagon City, and Bailey's Crossroads stores, sometimes with friends and sometimes on my own. I read whole books there that the local libraries didn't have, and nobody ever bothered me that I wasn't, you know, buying the book first. I ate their carrot cake; it was delicious. While the chain isn't nearly as prolific in my corner of Ohio, I still shop at every so often. So, while I don't normally root for big business, this isn't just a faceless corporation for me: it's my old haunt, and I'm guessing that (due to sheer proximity to one another) at least one of the four stores that I've mentioned above will be going out of business soon.

    Call it the tempores and mores if you want. Say that bookstores should see or should've seen this coming from miles away. Say that the industry is changing, that e-readers are the wave of the future, and that pulp paper books are going the way of the dinosaurs. SAy that this is karmic justice. I don't care. Borders' financial upheaval puts several hundred or several thousand jobs in jeopardy during a time when too many people are unemployed or underemployed. But more to the point: they sell books. They make literature available to the masses for a nominal fee. Sure, Ohio's got an absolutely stellar library system and I can get most of my reading material for free. But not all of it! And not everyone can say the same about their library. And if (like me) you don't have an e-reader? Suddenly, the world of literature is shut off to you.

    What then?

    So, I really hope that the chain restructures and rebounds. I hope that Chapter 11 works for them, because it would be a tragedy if the whole chain went under -- not only for its thousands of employees and investors, but for the country as a whole.


    DISCLAIMER: Jeffrey W. Dern is not an economist. In fact, Econ 190 was his worst class in college. So this is purely a personal reaction and should not be taken as a doom-and-gloom prediction of economic volatility. For that, he refers you to the words of J.P. Morgan when asked to predict the stock market's next move: "It will fluctuate."

    Sunday, February 13, 2011

    I < 3 my geek

    I took my girlfriend out to an early Valentine's date last night. On the way to the film (Tangled, which was actually surprisingly decent if you're not looking for anything terribly original), my girlfriend expounded upon the many and legion Ways That The Harry Potter Movies Got It Wrong.

    Amidst a barrage of arguments both purely opinion-based and those founded upon immutable, empirical fact, one point shone through all the rest:

    I'm dating That Fangirl, the passionate one, the argumentative one, the one who puts a lot of time and effort into the creation of lists such as this.

    And that is awesome.


    In case you're wondering, a substantive post about the dichotomy of what I've been reading lately, will probably appear tomorrow.

    Monday, February 7, 2011


    I was going to write about what I've been reading of late, but this isn't the day for that. Today is a day of losses.

    First of all, my deepest sympathies are with the Outzs and Jasper families for their losses, and my thoughts and prayers are with them during these difficult times.

    One of my favorite authors from back when I was a kid, Brian Jacques died today. He was 71 years old. My sympathies likewise go to his family and friends.

    I first picked up Redwall (1986) when I was in the fifth grade and got that "coming home" feeling that you get from a really good book. I read the subsequent series voraciously after that, and while not all of the books were winners, several others gave me that same feeling. I read several of them time after time; after The Hobbit, Redwall is my most-read book, with twelve readings to date.

    I met Mr. Jacques once, in 1998 or '99, at an author signing at Books & Co.'s original location in Dayton, OH. (I wouldn't normally mention the location like this, but this is a local bookstore I strongly support. They do good stuff.) When he asked for a copy of Redwall to read aloud from, dozens and scores of copies were held up high in offering ... but he chose mine. And when you're thirteen years old and a fanboy like that, having your property touched by one of your idols is a Big Deal.

    I remember that Mr. Jacques talked about Good versus Evil, and how Good must and does necessarily triumph over Evil, or else the Hitlers and Stalins and Cluny the Scourges of the world would already have won. Even though I'm older now and embrace the very human moral ambiguity that has come with modern fantasy ... after watching the news and hearing about all the bad that's happening, the inevitable triumph of Good is a comforting notion.

    Though he'd sold millions of copies worldwide and had an army of avid followers, Mr. Jacques seemed like a really nice guy who enjoyed what he did and who really liked his audience. I hope I'm that lucky someday.

    I first heard of Mr. Jacques in an interview I read in 1994, where he encouraged young writers to describe everything as though you were trying to tell the story to a blind person. While years later, I learned to be sparing with adjectives and adverbs, lest they clutter your prose, I think there's still some merit in Mr. Jacques's advice, and his own success speaks for itself.

    Though several other factors contributed, I'm willing to submit that I probably wouldn't be writing today if not for Brian Jacques. I don't know what it was, but somehow, reading his books -- and reading them when I did -- gave me the gumption that said I could create my own world, I could fill it with dynamic characters and epic adventure, and that I could, though trial and error, make my visions come to life. Thank you, Mr. Jacques, for that initial inspiration.

    Requiescat in pace.

    Before all that ...

    Before I get into my actual post, just two minor spots of housekeeping:

    I'm going to make the effort to update this blog at least once a week, preferably on Monday.

    I'm strongly considering taking this blog to LiveJournal. There are pros and cons to that system versus Blogger/Blogspot here -- the biggest pro to LiveJournal being that I'm intimately familiar with it, having used it for a private journal for several years now. Wherever this blog eventually winds up, it will still be open to the public, so no worries about losing me completely!

    Right. Now on to actual substance ...

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    Live in your world, play in Gary and Dave's

    When I was a child, I spake as a child, thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. But I got them out again when the occasion arose.

    To wit, this past Saturday my girlfriend introduced me to her Dungeons & Dragons group, and we rolled me up a gnomish sorcerer so that I could join.

    (His name is Tymanthaler Tam, but there are some who call him ... Tym.)

    It was the first time since March of 2000 that I'd rolled a d20. The rules of the game have changed in almost eleven years (twice, actually -- it was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Ed. back then; now we're on to Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Ed.) and the advent of both home computers and MMORPGs have clearly had their effect.

    But it's still the same old nerdy game that I fell in love with, the granddaddy of them all. It's still the one with the multi-sided dice and the rules for every possible event. It's still the one that steals ideas from Arthur and Elric with equal gusto. It's still the one that a few damaged individuals periodically take to extremes and bring unwanted and unwarranted media attention and Middle American excoriation as The Devil's Own Game down upon.

    I'm glad to be back.

    This new group is different, too. Back when I first played, I played with other guys my age (that is, junior high and high school). We were young, we were immature, and we were dysfunctional. The people I played with on Saturday range in age between 25 and 40, have at least one college degree apiece and work experience in various fields, and some are married and have kids; there's still a little immaturity, naturally, but I think that's what it takes to be a gamer.

    Everyone takes the game seriously ... but not too seriously. Which, I think, probably makes the biggest difference.

    I can't wait to play again.

    I <3 my nerdy gamer girlfriend, for introducing me to this group and for a thousand other reasons. I win. I win so hard.