Saturday, March 25, 2006

Burke, James Lee. Jolie blon's bounce. New York: Pocket, 2003.

Ah, James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels are one of the true pleasures in life. I've been reading them about as long as I've been reading Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, although Burke has never been quite as prolific as Parker. The first I read was Black cherry blues back in the early 1990's and I've read about 10 more Robicheaux novels since then. Another similarity to Parker is the series uneven quality. The first half dozen novels are amongst the best crime novels ever, but since then it's been a bit hit and miss; on the other hand, none of them feels like they were written on autopilot -- they are obviously labours of love, just some more successful than others. Another similarity to Parker is that Burke has more recently more-or-less alternated the Robicheaux novels with a new character, Billy Bob Holland. And, like the Spenser and Jesse Stone novels, I'm a bit behind in my reading.

So, what's the story here. Dave Robicheaux is a Viet Nam vet who's now a detective in New Iberia, Louisianna. Dealing with his alcoholism, his violent temperment and his tortured past, he solves crimes among the rich and poor in an intensly interconnected community. One of the great things about this series is the sense of history and doomed inevitability of family strife and violence that hang over the stories like a swampy miasma. Dave's violent temper always threatens to veer out of control and derail his investigations and his life. His past always haunts him and pushes him in unexpected directions. There's always a train wreck feeling about the best of the Robicheaux novels that sucks you in to the detailed and involving mystery.

And Jolie blon's bounce? It's certanly not the best of the novels, but it's certainly well worth reading. All the hallmarks are here: Dave's temper, his wacked-out buddy Clete, family tragedy, history coming back to haunt people and even a touch of the fantastic. And the bad guy, Legion Guidry, who may or may not be the devil himself, is one of Burke's most memorable characters.

As an aside, I really look forward to seeing what Burke will do with the first Robicheaux novel set in post-Katrina Louisianna.


Chabon, Michael, ed. McSweeny's enchanted chamber of astonishing stories. New York: Vintage, 2004. 321pp.

Blech. This is Chabon's second attempt at the genre-crossing anthology in which he tries to invigorate the modern short story by getting both genre and non-genre authors to try their hand at genre tales. The first, McSweeney's mammoth treasury of thrilling tales was actually pretty successful. This one, not so much. There are a few standout stories, such as "Lisey and the Madman" by Stephen King and "Mr. Aikman's Air Rifle" by Peter Straub and a few others by Jonathan Letham, China Mieville and Poppy Z. Brite. But the stories by so-called mainstream authors are mostly pretty dull and unispiring with the exception of Margaret Atwood's story.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Lightman, Alan, ed. The best American science writing 2005. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. 300pp.
Weiner, Jonathan, ed. The best American science and nature writing 2005. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 304pp.

These two book series are definately self-recommending. If you like science, if you like good writing, if you have long boring commutes on busses or trains, you owe it to yourself to buy and read these books. Or, buy/suggest these books for your library and read them. Both these books have basically the same aim: to collect popular science and nature writing and present them to an interested public, hopefully from a wide and varied selection of sources. Also, they can easily function as a current awareness tool in the sciences -- you can use the books to spot trends, to keep abreast of recent developments in important areas, to monitor public reaction scientific controversies, disputes or cutting edge advances. So, good books for scitech librarians.

Do these particular editions of their respective series meet these high expectations? Mostly, yes, with a few reservations.

The Lightman books has a good selection of stories from a good selection of disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, genetics, information technology, medicine, some nature writing, a couple of profiles or memoir-type pieces. The particular hightlights for me are Oliver Sacks' "Greetings from the Island of Stability" on discovering new elements and David Quammen's "Darwin or Not" which looks carefully at the arguments in favour of evolution and darwinism and definately comes out on the side of reason and science. A significant lowlight in this collection? I can't for the life of me figure out what possesed Lightman to inlude the essay "On the Origins of the Mind" by David Berlinski. For those not in the know, Berlinski is a member of the Discovery Institute and therefore a card-carrying creationist. Coming right after the Quammen article in the table of contents, the Berlinski article completely undermines Quammen (and in a sense, the whole book). Where Quammen gives a rational, fact-based account of reality, Berlinski, when faced with unanswered questions about the origin and nature of human consciousness, says, "The rest is darkness, mystery and magic." It doesn't take too much intelligence to figure out that these are code-words for god -- if we don't know the answer, then there is no answer we can know, only supernatural intervention. Alan Lightman, what were you thinking?

On average, the Weiner book is a bit better, with no articles I was really disappointed in. A good selection of topics (anthropology, aerospace, psychology, engineering and technology), if maybe a little heavy on medical reporting and book reviews. Real highlights for me are easy to spot: Natalie Angier's "My God Problem -- and Theirs" on the place of religion in public debate in science, Jared Diamond's "Twilight at Easter" on what we can learn from Easter Island and Jerome Groopman's "The Grief Industry" about how maybe people are a lot more resilient in the face of hardship than we give them credit for. This might be the one must-read from this book. Quibbles -- and really, my problems with this book really are just quibbles. First of all, there really isn't any nature writing, despite the presence of word in the title of the book. The Easter Island story is the closest. The second is that the editor needs to get out more. Of the 25 articles in the book, 13 were from The New Yorker, The New York Times or The New York Review of Books. Not to mention, one more has The New York Times in it's title ("The Homeless Hacker vs. The New York Times") and another has The New York Review of Books in the first sentence ("The Man or the Moment"). Not that it would be easy to choose which articles to leave out, but the narrowness of sources and points of view is a bit problematic for me.

One more thing. Natalie Angier has an article in each of these collections and both are excellent. (From the Lightman book, I didn't mention "Scientist at Work: Jacqueline Barton," a terrific portrait of a female scientist.) To all you giants of the publishing industry out there in blogland, why doesn't this woman have at least a couple of essay collections already? She has to be one of the best science writers working today, probably the best without a published collection. What's taking so long?

(Also in the Other Blog)


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Hughes, Holly, ed. Best food writing 2004. New York: Marlowe, 2004. 374pp.

This is a quick recommend. Who doesn't like food, after all? And don't assume that this is just a recipe book (not that there's anything wrong with that) because there are only a few in this book. No, it's a book about the celebration of food: cooking, researching, buying, going to restaurants, writing, travelling, sampling and especially eating. A treasure trove of food writing, this collection is made up of various articles from newspapers and food magazines as well as excerpts from various foodie books. The highlights of this book are easy to spot: a paen of that most humble yet most delicious of foods, the meat loaf ("Meat loaf mania" by James Villas) and an excerpt from the book Candyfreak by Steve Almond profiling a, get this, chocolate engineer.

A number of books that I'm going to track down inspired by this one:

  • Eating my words by Mimi Sheraton
  • Cooking by hand by Paul Bertoli
  • Julie and Julia by Julie Powell
  • Between bites and Stalking the green fairy by James Villas
  • Crazy in the kitchen by Loiuse DeSalvo
  • Perfection salad and Something from the oven by Laura Shapiro
  • Candyfreak by Steve Almond
  • American pie by Peter Reinhart (about pizza, natch)

Oh yeah, and my fave recipe blog is Simply Recipes. The 2005 edition is already out.