Archive for October, 2009

Richard Dawkins: The Ancestor’s Tale

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

I’m going to list a lot of quibbles soon, so let me start by saying that this book was awesome. It looks at evolution by starting with humans and working backward in time to the beginning of life, paying special attention to the points at which other branches join the tree (moving backwards in time, that is). And evolution is pretty awesome. I learned a ton of really interesting things, some of which were expansions of subjects I already had some idea of, some of which were entirely new. I’ve seen some Amazon reviewers say they couldn’t get through a hundred pages of it, but for me it was a page-turner all the way through.

But I have a few quibbles. One is that although the principle behind the book’s structure is very clear, the principle behind the content is not. Each chapter illustrates something interesting, but the thing being illustrated may be

  • a taxonomic survey of some branch of the tree of life
  • the behavior of some particular neat organism
  • how natural selection works in various contexts and to produce certain results
  • how scientists deduce information about the history of life (fossils, DNA comparison, etc.)

Any one of these subjects would make for a really interesting book, but since Dawkins jumps around between all of them, it feels a bit scattershot, and you never know quite what you’re going to get in any given chapter. That said, the subjects are all interesting, and the book’s over 500 pages long, so it’s not like I really wish that he had gone into twice as much detail.

Also in the “more information I wish was in there (I think)” department is illustrations. He talks about a ton of neat stuff, and a lot of it would be more interesting and easier to understand if it were accompanied by illustrations or photographs. There are some illustrations, but about 10% as many as I would like, and it seems pretty random which subjects get them.

In general, though, this is a great overview of a lot of interesting facets of evolution, which is one of the most interesting subjects I can think of, and is pretty much guaranteed to make you go “Whoa” a few times. Works for me.

Frank Zappa: The Läther Years

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

This is an interesting transitional period. The last incarnation of the Mothers of Invention (profiled in my last post) had faded away, and Zappa had just fired his manager and entered a long legal battle with him, moving to Warner Brothers in the process.

Zoot Allures (1976) was made largely solo, and is very straightforward compared to the complicated music of the preceding few years (although straightforward for Zappa is still pretty weird for anyone else). In this respect it points ahead a bit to the more conventional rock songs of his later career. It feels to me like he was still trying to figure out what exactly to do next.

What came next was pretty complicated: Läther (1977 1996) is a four-record set summing up pretty much everything he had done in the 70s, consisting of recordings going all the way back to 1972. It spans a whiplash-inducing variety of styles, from dumb rock to atonal orchestral compositions. Warner Brothers balked at releasing a 4-LP set, more lawsuits followed, and the label ended up taking most of the material that was going to be in the set and releasing it as four rather more coherent albums: Zappa in New York (1978) (live, rock, lots of offensive songs), Studio Tan (1978) (through-composed prog including the side-long “Adventures of Greggery Peccary”), Sleep Dirt (1979) (more instrumentals and a bunch of rejects from the earlier aborted musical Hunchentoot), and Orchestral Favorites (1979) (symphonic music, tonal and not).

Eventually, in 1996, after Zappa’s death, Läther as originally conceived was finally released. The whole situation posed a question for my completist/authenticty-seeking self (augmented by the fact that some of the Warner Brothers records were further modified by Zappa when they came out in CD). I ended up buying Läther but none of the others (yet), so that’s what I’ll review here.

It is a pretty crazy collection, even more schizophrenic than Zappa’s usual releases. In a way it’s nice; I can handle the songs like “The Legend Of The Illinois Enema Bandit” and “Titties ‘n Beer” easier when they’re an occasional change of pace rather than the main focus of the record (as they seem to be on Zappa in New York). The proggish stuff is outstanding, and “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” is a highlight of Zappa’s career — I would say that it’s hurt a bit by the silly storyline and sped-up vocals if not for the fact that trying to excise the silliness from Zappa’s oeuvre is as pointless as making a similar attempt for, say, Pynchon. If you’re going to make one exploratory Zappa purchase, you could do worse than buying this and then deciding which aspects of his music you actually like before deciding what to explore next.

After this debacle, Zappa successfully extricated himself from his relationship with Warner Brothers and went indie. Next up, the 80s rock years.

Joe Abercrombie: Best Served Cold

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

This is one of those books I appreciated a little more after finishing it and reading other people’s takes on it. Last year I read Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, which I thought was generally awesome; it aimed to turn the conventions of epic fantasy on their head, and actually did. I know some people who were disappointed by it, but their disappointment seemed to lie largely in the fact that Abercrombie actually carried through on all his narrative threats rather than just teasing us with them and resolving everything in a standard epic fantasy way at the end. I did have two political issues with it, though: 1) torture is presented as being wildly effective in producing information, 24-style, and 2) there’s an scary infidel pseudo-Arabic nation that is practically a caricature of political incorrectness. Of course Abercrombie has the right to put stuff like this in his novels, but the fact that people can read this and comfortably see their own prejudices verified, even fictionally, makes me sad.

Anyway, Best Served Cold is a standalone novel taking place in the same world, and sharing a few characters, although to be honest my memory is so bad that I wasn’t even always sure which ones had shown up before. It’s a revenge novel, like The Count of Monte Cristo, and there are seven distinct people who have wronged the protagonist and need to get their just deserts, so this is a long book (over 600 pages). I think the length works against it; although the author does a pretty good job of managing some longer arcs, the episodic structure of the book forced on it by the plot does tend to induce an “okay, three down, four to go” mindset on the part of the reader. I kept on wanting the novel to take a wild left turn and it never really did, although certainly interesting things happen.

But the writing is good and the character development, now that I look back on it in retrospect, is a little more interesting than I gave it credit for at at the time (since I was busy ticking off victims). Still, I think this would be a better book with a couple fewer villains and a couple fewer main characters.

P.S. I don’t know if this was done specifically as a contrast with the trilogy, or in response to others’ reception of the torture thing there, but here there is a wildly ineffective torture scene. So although I would actually prefer my novels with no torture scenes at all thanks, it was sort of nice to see this one as a counterbalance.

Edward Whittemore: Quin’s Shanghai Circus

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

I discovered Edward Whittemore when his Jerusalem Quartet was republished a few years back and Jeff VanderMeer (author of the awesome City of Saints and Madmen) gushed over it. I got around three-quarters of the way through that series, and found it simultaneously really interesting and hard to read through. Quin’s Shanghai Circus, which was written before those books, has many of the same qualities.

It’s a crazy collection of international intrigue and larger-than-life characters who are amped up practically enough to push the book into magical realism. The structure of the novel, like Whittemore’s other ones, is also odd, like a jigsaw puzzle; a decades-long history interweaving several characters is sketched out, then slowly filled in, almost at random, until the whole story is basically complete. I have to admit that keeping track of all the puzzle pieces was a little too much for me to handle; I found myself figuring out later that I had missed various “flash-forwards” (early vague references to story elements that were fleshed out later), and when surprising knitting-everything-together revelations occurred, I didn’t always remember exactly what was being knitted together, which kind of lessened the impact.

Plus none of the characters were really sympathetic, which pretty much reduced the whole thing to the assembly of that jigsaw puzzle. But Whittemore’s jigsaw puzzles are pretty neat, and there were a few really striking scenes and images. Still, I’m left thinking that I didn’t get everything out of it that he put in, and although I read it pretty fast, that was largely because I was worried that I’d forget the information I needed to make sense of the upcoming events. Anyway, this is one those mixed reviews you should pick and choose elements from to decide whether you think you would like it; although it didn’t end up doing a lot for me, there are people I would wholeheartedly recommend it to, knowing their likes and dislikes.

Chip Kidd: The Cheese Monkeys

Monday, October 12th, 2009

This was a weird one. Chip Kidd is a superb book designer; he might be a little overexposed by now, but there was a time when whenever I picked up a book and thought the design was awesome, half the time it was by him.

So this is his first novel, and it is, unsurprisingly, largely about graphic design. The protagonist is a college student who starts out thinking he’ll be an artist and then discovers the world of design. Although from page to page I enjoyed the novel a lot, when you step back and look at it from a distance it is sort of three books in succession, and the transitions were a bit jarring for me.

First comes your standard well-told comic tale of college life, stuffed to the gills with wry observations and dry wise-cracks. It comes off as a little glib, but Kidd does know how to write and it is genuinely entertaining.

Then it turns into a manifesto of design principles. A teacher shows up who is passionate about graphic design, and a lot of the middle of the book is devoted to him hectoring the class about various postulates and theorems. This was actually interesting too, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was all mostly here because Kidd himself is passionate about these ideas, wanted to pass on his excitement, and thought that the best way to do so was to stick them in a novel. It felt a little more like a novel from a hundred years ago in that respect.

Then, just when you are finally comfortable with the novel basically being a hip textbook in a thin fictional wrapper, the drama goes way up; it turns out that most of the characters are not just sort of messed up, but actually really messed up, everything sort of explodes, and you are left wondering where it all came from.

Now, clearly Kidd understood that he was making a book with an odd structure, and had his reasons, but I’m not honestly sure what those reasons were, and the book as a whole felt kind of weird to me. Again, any individual page was quite entertaining, and I learned a lot of interesting things about graphic design, and I certainly enjoyed the book. But somehow, once I put it down at the end, it felt like a little less than the sum of its parts. That said, I am still interested in the recent sequel, in which the protagonist apparently finds himself in the real world. Maybe that will feel a little more grounded.