Sunday, August 27, 2006

Willis, Connie. Passage. New York: Bantam, 2002. 780pp.

Scalzi, John. Old man's war. New York: Tor, 2006. 313pp.

Hughes, Holly, ed. Best food writing 2005. New York: Marlowe, 2005. 325pp.

Turtledove, Harry. Homeward bound. New York: Del Rey, 2004. 597pp.

Plus various magazines: National Geographic Aug 2006, Skeptical Inquirer July/Aug 2006, Scientific American Aug 2006. The magazines too, I'm a magazine junkie so I new I was going to buy a couple while I was away. And a bit of Churchill -- a wildcard, every cottage has a book lying around you just have to pick up.

So, this is the long awaited group review of the books that won my world famous Summer Reading Poll (and here). Well almost. That won, that is. Almost all. The Ian McDonald book River of Gods is the book I'm reading right now, so I'll post on that a bit later. The foodie book also snuck in there, but I'd always planned to bring it along anyway but didn't bother putting non-fiction in the poll.

So, to the reviews.

First off, Connie Willis's Passage. I've always like Willis's work, especially Doomsday Book, a time travel book about the plague. To say nothing of the dog was also first rate; it was set in the same universe, but this time the travellers went back to London during the Blitz. I've also read a few other of her novels and collections and I've mostly enjoyed them quite a bit. Willis is a capable if not exactly deep writer, whose best work uses a lot of humour to facilitate the plot.

Passage is a book I really wanted to love, that really engaged me deeply much of the way through. But, it just couldn't graduate in my mind from ambitious failure to ambitious masterpiece. Ok, failure is too strong a word, but definately this is a novel that just missed greatness and the frustrations I felt at its weaknesses overcame some of the other strengths.

The story revolves around a near death experience (NDE) researcher at a hospital in the States. She is determined that NDEs are rational, medically and scientifically explainable phenomena, rejecting all religious and supernatural explanations. She embarks on a research project with a new colleague at the hospital to prove her ideas, using a new drug that can stimulate NDE-like experiences in subjects. The researchers hope to use these subjects to record a wide variety of different experiences and thereby figure out what NDEs are and what purpose they serve in the human race. So far, so good. Much of the back and forth involving the lab work is well done, giving a good feel for what research is like and how it is done. But, first weakness. Too much of a good thing. These NDEs (our heroine also ends up taking the drug to really figure out NDEs via her own experiences) take up what seems like hundreds of pages, really slowing down the plot. Also, when our heroine starts taking the drug herself, my credibility was a bit strained -- it seems too easy for her to abandon her scientific objectivity and experiment on herself.

The novel also feels really bloated for other reasons: the descriptions of hospital's bizarre maze of hallways went on and on, the endless back and forth with the various subjects about their schedules and why they couldn't make this or that appointment. It was endless. The novel could have been trimmed by a good 200 pages. Another weakness: straw men. The religious types she sets up as bad guys are just too easy to dismiss, their roles as comedic interludes undermines the apparent message of rationality the Willis wants to advance. Or does she. The final, most devastating weakness. After nearly 800 pages of thinking that this novel truly presents a scientific, rational, non-supernatural view of the world, defending science against religion, evidence against faith, on the very last page she throws it all away. I had to read that last page 50 times to see if I could truly believe it.

Our heroine has died, we are seeing in a final series of chapters what we believe to be her NDE, as it plays out in her mind, as her consciousness fades to black. On the last page, "She looked up at the sky. It was changing again, deepening, brightening to gold...Behind them, above the tower, the sun came out, blindingly bright, gilding the crosses and the captain." WTF? All this and the religious loonies were right all along?

Thankfully, John Scalzi's Old man's war was a much more satisfying experience. And one I don't feel the need to write about at such great length. The setting is a universe at war. Humans versus the rest of the various alien civilizations out there. The interesting catch is that the human army is made up of 75-year-olds who volunteer and are then rejuvenated and genetically/cybernetically modified before being sent off to their units. The first part of the novel follows the protagonist who has just entered the army and follows him through his rejuvenation and training. The rest follows his adventures battling other alien races, mostly his quick climb through the ranks in the army. Good battle scenes, engaging characters, smart and intellectually satisfying plot. This is Heinlein for the new millennium, obviously descended from Starship Troopers but also much more grown up, able to ask real questions about real issues. Military sf that knows it's military sf. Highly recommended, a can't miss. I ripped through it in a couple of sittings. Sequels on the way, of course.

Best food writing 2005 was another terrific entry in this series. I read it for the first time last year and I'm now officially hooked. Who doesn't like reading about food, after all? A standout article for me this year was "Where's the Nutella?" contrasting Nutella's cult-like appreciation in Europe with a more restrained attitude in North America. I also liked "New loaves rising" by John Kessler about the renaissance of a traditional family bakery in Atlanta. I'm a sucker for anything that promotes locally grown and/or produced food.

As usual, I'll mention a couple of books excerpted/mentioned in this volume that I'm going to try and remember to track down:
  • Last chance to eat by Gina Mallet
  • At mesa edge by Eugenia Bone
  • Chocolate by Mort Rosenblum
  • Fried chicken: An American Story by John T. Edge
  • Garlic and sapphires by Ruth Reichl
Oh, yeah, "Bitter Alchemy" by Deirdre Heiken has so inspired me to try making my own liqueur.

Harry Turtledove's Homeward bound was the last novel I read on vacation and I have to say that, like most of Turtledove's books, I really raced through it, forsaking all else while getting lost in his characters and plots. This is the 8th and (probably) final volume in his saga about an alternate history where aliens invaded during WWII. The once-warring nations of earth more-or-less banded together to take on the aliens, lizard-like Race, and fought them to an unsteady peace which lasted until the good-ole-U-S-of-A developed interstellar travel and head off on a mission to the aliens' planet, letting them know that the human race is now equal to them and should not be triffled with. After much back and forth, tense negotiations, the novel ends in a very unsteady state, a bit anti-climactically. The stodgy Race unsure of it's next step and the Yanks strutting their universe-to-be-conquered stuff. Turtledove makes it all very compelling, with solid characterizations, both human and alien, with a few characters lasting from the very first novel to the last, the endlng a bit open-ended, as if leaving a opening for a ninth book. A good read, no doubt about that, a great potboiler for the beach.

On the other hand, for all Homeward bound's virtues, it also has some flaws. As with the Willis above, it really suffers from terminal bloat. A good editor could easily trim 50-100 pages from this book, just from endless commentary about how the Race is so stodgy and humans are so dynamic. It's been 7+ books. We get it. And the characters seem to have the same coversations over and over again. I really wish Turtledove would write one or two really fine novels a year than feel the need to write a gazillion potboilers. Also, the whole earthling (ie. American) smart, dynamic, innovative, creative, blah, blah blah, contrasting with the slow, efficient, conservative, patient Race -- it just got old. It was pushed so much that I actually started to root for the underdog Race to whip some human (ie. American) butt. I'm not sure if that was what Turtledove was hoping for.

Finally, such a long post nears its end, with a few comments about the magazines I picked up while I was away. I love magazines; it was inevitable a couple would find their way into my reading rotation. First off, SciAm August 2006. What caught my attention here was the article on using chess grandmasters to model how experts gain their expertise in their fields. National Geographic is a mag I pick up occasionally -- the August 2006 issue had a great, inspirational article by Bill McKibben about redefining the environmental movement to be a broadbased societal movement that everyone can identify with and buy into. Read the article and then go see An Inconvenient Truth. Skeptical Inquirer is not a magazine I've ever picked up before -- it always seemed a bit too earnest for me. I picked this one up on a whim and, yes, some of it is a bit too earnest for my liking, but I did enjoy it overall. Some good book reviews, a few interesting articles. The one that made the most impression was "The Philosophy of Pseudoscience" by Mario Bunge (and here), rigourously comparing the philosophical underpinings of real science vs. the lack thereof of pseudoscience.


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