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 April 2008 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

Physics of the Impossible
 

Horses Conformation
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Michio Kaku
Doubleday, $26.95
352 pages
ISBN 978-0385520690

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

Michio Kaku, the cofounder of string field theory and a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, also makes frequent appearances on television and radio science shows.  Like Carl Sagan, Kaku has the ability to tackle complex conceptual science and make it easy to grasp.  In his new book, he explores the technology present in popular science fiction and asks the question, “Is it possible?”  Utilizing film, television, and classic novels, Kaku breaks down science into three categories of impossibilities: Class I technologies do not violate the known laws of physics and are currently impossible, but might be conceivable by the end of the century. Some examples include force fields, transporters, and Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Class II concepts utilize cutting edge science and might be possible centuries from now, such as time machines and the ability to travel through a wormhole.  Class III impossibilities violate the laws of physics as currently understood and would require a vast shift in this understanding to exist, such as the creation of a perpetual motion machine.  Overall, a fascinating discussion that will be thoroughly enjoyed by both science and science fiction fans. 

 
  Maps and Legends


The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

by Michael Chabon
McSweeney's, $24.00

200 pages
ISBN 978-1932416893 2008

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

  Pulitzer Prize-winner Chabon’s collection of essays argues in favor of stories in which things actually happen, rather than plotless examinations of life which end in A Moment of Truth.  In other words, literature not only can, but should be, entertaining—a word Chabon seeks to reclaim from its “cheesy” (his term) connotations.  In order to do this, he points writers to so-called genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, mystery) where things do happen, in the hope that non-genre writers will pick up some tips and go back to writing entertaining fiction again. Chabon introduces Americans to the master of the early twentieth century British ghost story, M.R. James.  He points out how the innovations introduced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures led to fan fiction.  His essay on the importance of epic fantasy reminds us that the greatest tales encompass the cycle of Innocence, Experience, and Fall.  In writing about his own work (Yiddish, golems, comic books) he tries to steer writers away from Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence.” Chabon says that it’s fine for a writer to be influenced by other writers, and that in a sense all writers are penning sequels to the first fictions of Gilgamesh and Homer and the oral traditions of “tricksters” like Ananzi the spider. Chabon shies away from applying too much literary theory (“I know I run the risk of hokum…” ), keeping his essays light and entertaining themselves (indeed, “Golems I Have Known” may be as much fiction as not).  
  I Have Fun Everywhere I Go:  Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World


The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

by Mike Edison
Faber and Faber, $25.00

352 pages
ISBN 978-0-86547-964-7

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 
  The title says it all. Edison has held a dozen of the wildest jobs in pop culture, and his memoir of writing for and editing Cheri and other skin mags of the day, as well as the marijuana magazine High Times, interspersed with his travels across Europe and Asia in rock bands, make this is easily the most entertaining book I have read in years. He has lived the sort of wandering stoner life that might have led nowhere, but instead took him through a string of jobs that, as he says, make his resume read like the description of a crime scene.

However disreputable his employers may have been, Edison is no hack. He writes with genuine wit and style about his exploits, and turns phrases like the gonzo journalists of the more legit media who were his contemporaries. He praises Hustler’s art department as “the Industrial Light and Magic of poon” and filters office politics through Planet of the Apes (editors are chimps, assistants are gorillas, and publishers are Lawgivers). On almost every page readers will find themselves laughing,then covering their mouths, embarrassed at what they just laughed at.

Even readers who might ordinarily be put off by the subject matter will find Edison’s book fascinating because “objectionable” material is made less threatening (and much funnier) by one degree of separation. Not sex and drugs, but magazines about sex and drugs. From hanging in Vegas with Evel Knievel to how High Times survived the DEA’s War on Drugs, it’s all here. Anyone debating whether this is the book for them need only check out the index. Where else will you find the CIA next to Celebrity Skin, Phil Spector next to The Spanish Inquisition, and Andy Warhol next to War of the Worlds?
 
  The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus


The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

by David Abulafia
Yale University Press, $35

408 pages
ISBN 978-0300125825

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 
 

Abulafia’s examination of the “first contacts” between Europe and the New World is a balanced study of how the events were interpreted at the time. Drawing on original sources like the letters of Christopher Columbus, papal bulls, news pamphlets, and contemporary memoirs, the book takes us from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean and into the Americas. The main question raised in European minds by the existence of millions of people in the New World was: were they even human? Ancient texts had described so many monsters living beyond the known world that running into people came as quite a surprise. Even more shocking was that these people had no idea of Christianity, let alone Judaism or Islam. Was it possible that they had been planted there by God as an opportunity for conversion? Some, like the now-extinct Tainos, became a blank slate with which scholars of the time hoped to validate their own agendas. The Tainos believed in a single God, which some theologians took as support for the truth of monotheistic faiths, while others argued that because they had no books or rituals, the Tainos were little more than idolaters. We come to almost sympathize with the mental gymnastics Columbus went through to make what he found fit into his pre-existing ideas and (faulty) maps. He was sure that the Cuba was Japan and the Caribbean part of Asia. Abulafia argues that there was no policy of genocide, but rather that the extinction of natives that followed were the tragic result of Spanish mishandling of the lands they had invaded and the people they had enslaved.  

 
 
  The Great Romance: 
A Rediscovered Utopian Adventure



The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

By The Inhabitant / Ed. by Dominic Allessio
University of Nebraska Press, 176 pages
$17.95
ISBN 978-0-8032-5996-6

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 
 

Prior to the 20th century, a “romance” was an adventure story incorporating fantastic elements. As part of the Bison Frontiers of Imagination’s project of keeping alive the earliest published speculative fiction, this all-but-unknown title, originally published in New Zealand in 1881, joins their catalog, taking its place beside H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and others. Its anonymous author goes by the name of “The Inhabitant” (a common affectation of travel writers of the time), and he tells the tale of John Brenton Hope, who enters suspended animation in 1950 (69 years into the writer’s future) and awakens in 2143. There, telepathy has made most of the world a paradise, for any potential “wickedness would appear written on the brain in shining letters.” Almost immediately Hope is off on the first manned voyage to Venus, where he meets its alien residents. Indeed, only the first half the tale is “utopian” (describing a perfect earth society). The second half is straight interplanetary adventure. There are “aerial boats,” colonial ambitions that mirror British-aboriginal relations, utopian social commentary (“the old sins and sorrows are gone”)—all the standard tropes of turn-of-the century science fiction. But what’s important is that this story is where they almost certainly first appeared. It’s as if a university press unearthed a long-forgotten book called Pride and Prejudice, and readers of contemporary romances were finally seeing the roots of their genre. (Though unlike Austen, The Inhabitant may have done it first, but he didn’t do it best: the ideas are there, but not fully examined, and in the second half the narrative point of view inexplicably shifts from first to third person.) The story is a brief 100 pages, and Allessio’s introduction is another 50. That introduction is crucial to understanding the significance of what follows, and, fortunately, is itself engaging and lacking in academic fuss.

 
 
         
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
  A World Too Near

Song Yet Sung
(Click Cover to Buy)

By Kay Kenyon
Pyr, $25.00
425 pages
ISBN 978-1591026426

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

 

In Bright of the Sky, the first book of Kenyon’s The Entire and the Rose series, star pilot Titus Quinn stumbled upon the Entire, a parallel universe created by the alien Tarig. The Tarig plan to turn Earth’s universe (the Rose) into fuel in order to maintain the “storm walls” that keep their universe in existence. Now, in book two, Titus returns to the Entire armed with a nano-tech weapon designed to stop the engine of that destruction.  He finds, however, that there are circles within circles. His daughter, Sydney, and wife, Johanna, have made lives for themselves in the Entire. Sydney is leading a rebellion of non-humanoids against the Tarig, while Johanna uses the games of court intrigue to further her own designs on the engine. Meanwhile Helice Maki, the scientist who accompanies Titus, has plans of her own--like taking charge of both universes. And who or what are the mysterious Paion who are trying to break into the Entire from what may be a third universe? As Titus makes his way closer and closer to his goal, Kenyon slowly peels back the onion layers of character and cosmology. This is only book two of a projected four books, but already Kenyon’s world-building (universe building) combined with adventure have produced an epic on a scale not see since Niven’s Ringworld and Farmer’s Riverworld sagas. The story is complex but the crises classically simple, so new readers can plunge right in. And, after finishing World, newcomers will almost certainly turn to Bright to see what they missed.

 

 
 

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

Pontoon
(Click Cover to Buy)
 

by E. Lockhart
Hyperion, $17
352 pages
ISBN: 978-0786838189

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

 

Feminism, post-structuralist theory and . . . teen chick-lit? Not a common recipe for a great book, but in the case of E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Bank, it’s definitely one that works. 

Frankie Landau-Banks, called “Bunny” by her family, has always been quiet and slightly geeky. By her fifteenth birthday, however, Frankie has become beautiful, and the same time has discovered that she is smart, funny, and interesting to boys. And so, as she begins her sophomore year at an elite New England boarding school, she begins dating Matthew Livingston, a handsome senior. He is part of a group of older boys who fascinate Frankie with their easy confidence and self-deprecating humor. They are also, she learns, members Loyal Order of the Basset Hound, a secret, boys-only social society as old as the school itself.

It’s here that the book diverges from standard teen chick-lit. Frankie slowly begins to realize that to these boys, she will never be much more than an accessory. For them, she is a lovely trophy, better seen than heard. In class she is reading Michel Foucault’s Panopticon, which discusses a planned prison (never built) in which prisoners never know whether or not they are being watched, and accordingly always act as if they are under surveillance. Frankie feels that she is in a similar prison, and she reacts by developing an ingenious and dramatic plan to infiltrate the Loyal Order of the Bassett Hound and challenge the order at her elite school. 

For all of its political sophistication, The Disreputable History is not didactic. Though a few readers may be disappointed to discover that they are not reading a standard teen romance, this is a fun, funny book, and Frankie is a character many teen girls will want to know. Highly recommended for ages fourteen and up.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Dark Wraith of Shannara

The Commoner
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Terry Brooks
Del Rey, $13.95
208 pages
ISBN 978-0345494627

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

 

 

The fabulous and detailed fantasy world of Shannara invades the kingdom of the graphic novel in this compelling stand-alone work. The story is set after The Wishsong of Shannara, and opens with Brin, the hero with the gift of the wishsong, vowing to his sister to never use his magical gifts again.  She knows that if he uses his powers his soul will be lost over time. Right away, however, he receives a visit from Allanon, the last of the druids with access to and understanding of the ancient knowledge of Shannara, who sends him on a quest that guarantees he will have to break his promise if he wants to survive and succeed.  Brooks does an amazing job, creating a story that fits right into the overall arc of his creative vision. The artwork, though black and white, enhances and does not distract from the narrative.  The final part of the book has an essay on the origins of this graphic novel by Brooks, along with some initial concept art.  Fans of Shannara and newcomers to this world will find plenty to enjoy.

 

 
 

The Whole Truth

The Guilty
(Click Cover to Buy)

by David Baldacci
Grand Central Publishing, $26.99
416 pages
ISBN 978-0-446-19597-3

reviewed by Peter Anderson

 

 

 

Good news, David Baldacci fans: he’s done it again. Of course, with 14 bestselling thrillers under his belt, this should come as no surprise. For those of you who have read David Baldacci, you know what to expect, and you won’t be disappointed. If you haven’t read him, how can I describe him? He’s no Raymond Chandler, that’s for sure,but maybe Chandler’s cousin. On steroids. And with short. Punchy. Sentences. The Whole Truth starts with a bang and never lets up. The plot centers around evil arms manufacturer Nicholas Creel, who hires a “perception management” firm to manufacture events that will lead us to the brink of World War III. This will cause all the world’s nations to rearm themselves, to Creel’s great profit. But wait. There’s a guy named Shaw. That’s it. Just Shaw. And Creel killed his fiancée. Now Shaw wants even. And with that, we’re off and running. Baldacci is a natural storyteller, and his pacing is terrific. This is pure escapist, summer reading at its best. Sure, the characters might as well be wearing hats with GOOD and EVIL printed on them. Sure, parts of the storyline are so predictable you can practically hear the scenery being wheeled into place. But this hasn’t stopped 60 million people from enjoying his books, and it shouldn’t stop you, either. Enjoy!

 

 
 

Dreamers of the Day

Fiction Class
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, $25.00
272 pages
ISBN 978-1400064717

reviewed by Jen Baker

 

 

 

 

Russell is best known for her first novel, The Sparrow, which she describes as being about “Jesuits in space” but is on a deeper level an anthropological/philosophical study of the existence and nature of God. In her new novel, the author examines the historical roots of today’s war in Iraq, as seen through the eyes of a middle-aged spinster schoolteacher from Cleveland. Agnes Shanklin’s entire family dies in the Great Influenza of 1918 and once she’s settled the estates and grieved her losses she realizes the benefits of independent wealth, and with newfound confidence sets out for Egypt, small dog in tow. Rosie, her beloved dachshund and one of the book’s most endearing characters, precipitates unexpected difficulties and at the same time provides a happy introduction to Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, and best of all, a nice German spy named Karl. While the focal theme of the book is these dangerous “dreamers of the day” and their almost casual creation of Iraq under Faisal, the reader is carried along by Russell’s skillful character portrayal and ability to create a setting so real we can taste the desert heat. We loved Father Emilio in The Sparrow and Renzo in A Thread of Grace, and cannot help but smile and be enchanted by Agnes and her acute perception of Winston “Darling” and of the outspoken Miss Bell. Dreamers of the Day is a treat to read.

 

 

 
 

A Prisoner of Birth

The Cure for Modern Life
(Click Cover to Buy)
 

by Jeffrey Archer
St. Martin's Press, $27.95
512 pages
ISBN 978-0312379292

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

 

Best-selling author Jeffrey Archer once spent several months in one of Britain’s maximum-security prisons after conviction on the charge of perjury--a charge of which, like this novel’s hero, he insists he is innocent. Archer has channeled his frustration and experiences into a re-working of the Dumas classic The Count of Monte Cristo. Poor and ill-educated, young Danny Cartwright doesn’t stand a chance when he is framed for murder and sentenced to 22 years at Belmarsh prison. Anyone who has read Dumas knows what will happen: Danny will be educated by a fellow prisoner who’ll teach him which spoon to use with crème brûlée and (because this is England) to stop dropping his h’s, he’ll escape, use his friend’s fortune to reinvent himself, and wreak revenge. But the fun—and that’s the key word here, for the book is decidedly unput-down-able—is in seeing exactly how he will accomplish it. This isn’t just a rehash of Dumas. To begin with, the fortune is missing. . . The original plot twists and variations prove that we are in the hands of a master storyteller.  Archer pushes exactly the right buttons to have us live vicariously through Danny as he adopts his new persona, all the while leading us to a very satisfying conclusion. Where Archer truly shines, however, are in his insights and day-to-day details of life behind bars (for example, church services are where you buy drugs, because they allow more or less free interchange between prisoners). These serve to fulfill our curiosity about a world we never hope to see, but that nonetheless remains a subject of fascination.

 

 

 
 

The Delivery Man

Dakota
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Joe McGinniss, Jr.
Black Cat, $14.00
276 pages
ISBN 978-0-8021-7042-2

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

 

 

Comparisons to Bret Easton Ellis are unavoidable. Sex, drugs, and squandered youth are so much more interesting in a setting of glitz and money. Here, McGinnis explores Las Vegas through the eyes of Chase, a young would-be painter in need of a job, who finds himself chauffeuring for his childhood friend Michele's prostitution ring. (The American Dream is still alive; Michele's going to use the money to buy a nice house in the suburbs.) As such, what he delivers are girls—always young, and sometimes former students of his from his brief stint teaching art in high school. Events spiral around Chase. He's trying to get out of Vegas, but when it's your hometown it's harder than expected. Things are further complicated by the arrival of Julia, his soon-to-MBA fiancé. She can have her pick of any legitimately successful man, and when someone asks, "Are you going to make it worth her while? Giving up a two-income household worth over a mil?" questions of net worth get bound up with questions of self-worth. A series of flashbacks slowly reveal the younger years and tangled lives of Chase, his sister Carly, Michele, and their mutual friend—and now her boyfriend/pimp—Bailey. McGinniss gives us a hot, claustrophobic atmosphere, tinged with the inevitability of disaster. Girls are skimming off the top, Chase punches the wrong guy, and everyone has their own agenda.

 

 
 

The Fidelity Files

Atmospheric Disturbances
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Jessica Brody
St. Martin’s Griffin, $13.95
336 pages
ISBN 978-0-312-37546-1

reviewed by Judy Bryant

 

 

 

 

 

I’m looking forward to the fall TV lineup because we may well be seeing a weekly series called The Fidelity Files. This is a book that reads like a TV script, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the story of Jennifer Hunter, a.k.a. Ashley, who has created both a job and a persona for herself as a woman who, for a sizeable fee, will “test” a man’s fidelity for a suspicious wife/fiancée/girlfriend. She shows up at his favorite hangout looking enticing and waits to see what happens. No sex, please, but she gets right to that point before she announces that he has failed a fidelity test and she’ll be on her merry way. A meeting to impart this information to the stunned/angry woman in his life soon follows. Why she has created this job for herself is, of course, part of the plot, and who she  meets that will test her own assumptions is not a surprising subplot. No, you’re not going to linger over the language, you’re not going to disappear into her world and lose all track of time, but you do want to know what happens next. Why is that one wife behaving so oddly? What will happen with that one man who became so angry? And then there’s that web site. There are beautiful people, beautiful homes, beautiful clothes, and almost beautiful sex.  Sound like a good primetime TV show? You bet! Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 
         
         
         
         
         
         
         
         

 

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