Thursday, March 25, 2010

Review 63: White Night

White Night by Jim Butcher

"Hell's Bells" count: 12

We're coming up to the theoretical midpoint of the series, since Butcher has suggested that he might take it to twenty books or so. Given that number, I'd say it's time to look at the series-level story as well as the particular adventure for this book. It's pretty clear that Butcher has a much larger story arc that he's working on, moving us slowly away from the one-shot mysteries of the early volumes and into a larger world.

If we want, we could divide this series into thirds, and right now, I'd say we're well into the second third. I would put the first from Storm Front to Blood Rites, with the scarring of Harry Dresden, the discoveries he makes about his mother, and the damage done to his relationship with his mentor. It's Harry losing his lone wolf status and beginning to become a part of a larger community. He has friends now, something that was missing at the beginning, and people he truly cares about. In other words, he has much more to lose.

The second third began with Dead Beat and continues through this book. Harry becomes part of The Establishment, has something living in his head that could probably get him killed, and takes on a young apprentice, giving the former lone wolf a lot more responsibility. His decisions now have greater impact on both the mortal world and the world of the magic-users. He's going up against far more powerful foes, and encountering moral dilemmas that prevent him from knowing when he's actually doing the right thing.

This book is, in my opinion, a weaker sample than the ones that have come before it. Probably because it's the one with the most convoluted and difficult to explain back-story, one that the reader has to piece together along with Harry and friends.

In simple terms: the White Court vampires - who feed on emotional energy rather than blood - are in the middle of a power struggle. Their King, of the Raith family (who feed on lust) is about to be toppled by the Malvora (who feed on fear) and Skavis (who feed on despair). The White Court despises open confrontation, and traditionally do their dirty deeds through proxies and cats-paws. This makes it nigh impossible to see any kind of action by the White Court in a straightforward and clearly understandable manner. It's certainly more interesting than the standard vampire direct approach, but it creates additional challenges for the author and reader.

In the middle of this power struggle, someone is killing women of magical talent - not strong enough to be members of the White Council of Wizardry, but women with talent nonetheless. And there's a guy who looks an awful lot like Harry Dresden who's been seen sneaking about with these women. Given the rumors flying about, rumors that Harry has become darker, angrier, and considerably more powerful, well... people think the worst, as people often do.

It's once again up to Harry to not only clear his own name, but to also clear his brother, Thomas of the White Court, who's been very obviously keeping secrets. All the while, he has to keep from being seduced by the shadow of a Fallen angel in his head, make sure his young apprentice doesn't stray from the straight and narrow, try to help his first love protect the women she's sworn to help, and generally try not to get killed by any of the horrible things that want to kill him.

It's a fun read, as they all are, with some great character moments in it - one of the true strengths of the series. Butcher's characters behave, by and large, like real people, saying things that we could imagine saying to our real-people friends. His writing is, as usual, compelling and engaging (with the exception of some incredibly purple writing over on page 235 - "We're all of us equally naked before the jaws of pain" - that stood out like a drag queen at a bake sale). The books are all very quick reads, but it isn't because they're simple - this book defies simplicity - but because they're interesting to read, with very few wasted words and a good sense of what the reader needs to know.

As soon as it got to the White Court civil war, however, Butcher began front-loading a lot of information that probably should have been more liberally sprinkled throughout the previous books. I knew about the Raith family, and their penchant for Lust, and I knew that the White King wasn't exactly the power on the throne. But I wasn't prepared for the Byzantine levels of power-plays that go with White Court politics, and found it kind of rushed. It is possible that I was being a Lazy Reader, and indeed on the second read I found it easier to follow, but still - when you're dealing with villains who disdain clear and obvious action, you need to make sure the readers can keep up with the story. It's a fine line to walk, especially in a first-person narrative - the reader can't know more than the protagonist does, so feeding those hints to the reader is difficult work. Putting another White Court storyline into the series before this one might have helped, but if we look at the series story arc, there may have been no good way to shoehorn that in.

There were far more interesting story points in there that I would like to have seen expanded upon: Molly Carpenter's training, the evolution of Lash, the darkening of Harry's reputation within the magical community.... They're all interesting, and no doubt essential to the goings-on of the later books. And I'm pretty sure that what happened to the White Court will also be really, really important as well - I just hope Butcher remembers to make sure we have it all clear in our heads.

This is all just nitpicking, as the intrigues of the Vampires aren't my favorite part of the series. I'm sure there are plenty of readers out there who would be perfectly happy if the rest of the series was just Harry the Vampire Slayer, and I can't say I blame them. To each their own, right? Regardless of my preferences, I can say that the world of the Dresden Files is complex and ever-shifting, which is worth making time to read it.

"Life's easier when you can write off others as monsters, as demons, as horrible threats that must be hated and feared. The thing is, you can't do that without becoming them, just a little."
- Harry Dresden, White Night

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review 62: More Information Than You Require

More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman

FACT: The Declaration of Independence was not the original creation of Thomas Jefferson, but was instead inspired by the work of Mole-Man declarationists.

FACT: The true sport of kings, and the only one of which a professional gambler will avail himself, is that of hermit crab racing.

FACT: Andrew Jackson was the first president to wear a necklace of human skulls at his inauguration.

FACT: The first moon landing was achieved in 1802, when Napoleon Bonaparte stepped onto the lunar surface with his conquering army. The horse skeletons are remarkably well-preserved.


Well, now you are.

In his first book, The Areas of my Expertise, John Hodgman claimed that he had provided us with "an almanac of complete world knowledge" that related matters historical, matters literary, matters cryptozoological, and of course, hobo matters, among many others. A read through this book, an almanac of interesting facts that were in no way, shape or form what is commonly known as "true," was a demonstration of why fiction is inherently better than reality in that it is usually far more interesting. By the time you finished reading the book, he suggested, you truly would know everything you needed to know, regardless of whether it actually happened to be true.

So if the previous book was an almanac of complete world knowledge, why write another book? Surely complete world knowledge can't be added to? Well, Hodgman addresses that question right away. What it comes down to is very simply that, in the few short years since the publication of The Areas of my Expertise - new things have happened. I know it's hard to believe, and you may want to sit down and think about that for a moment.

Not the least of these new things is that Hodgman has become a famous minor television personality, which has gained him all the fame, riches and power you might expect. Following the publication of that book, Hodgman became a regular on The Daily Show and, of course, starred in the now-famous Mac/PC ads as the fuddy-duddy PC who puts up with the douchebaggery of the Mac.

Yeah, I really don't like the Mac guy. But maybe that's just because I really like Hodgman.

He has come down from the luxury zeppelin he bought from Emo Philips in order to provide us with more world knowledge - this time touching on what he has discovered about the okapi, the secret history of the Mole-Men, and the secret cult that lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn - an exclusive neighborhood that can be accessed only upon having reached the status of famous minor television celebrity. It's a paradise, so long as you do not antagonize the children, who are allowed to kill you at their whim.

As with the previous book, this is a good piece of entertainment. Its jokes loop back and forth on themselves, referencing passages not only elsewhere in the book, but also on the pages of its predecessor (and for the sake of convenience, the page numbering for this book picks up where that of the previous book left off.) Its facts (or "facts") are conveniently bolstered with handy charts and striking black and white photography that makes for a fascinating afternoon's reading.

The intricate creativity that has been poured into building a bizarre alternate history of the United States is one that earns only the most sincere respect from me. Anyone with an imagination fertile enough to come up with things like Your Twelve Month Spleencast (a guide to telling the future using pig spleens (tip: it's going to be pretty awful)), a Teddy Roosevelt List that puts Chuck Norris' to shame, and a complete table of Brushes of Fame (with Hodgman as the famous person) deserves every cent I can give him.

One of his great regrets, as he tells us in this book, is that The Areas of my Expertise was never made into a page-a-day desk calendar. Such a mark of true success has only been reached by such luminaries as Gary Larson and the Secret Cabal of Crossword Puzzle Writers who are battling the Jumblemancers for control of the United States. In order that his second book might escape such ignominy, Hodgman has provided an interesting fact for each day of the year on each page. So, if you tear out the pages after reading them, voila! You have a page-a-day calendar. And some of the bits are truly inspired. The listing for September 11th, for example, shows why that day of all days is truly unforgettable.

But that is not all! Not yet, anyway. He is planning to continue his work into a third volume, due out whenever he manages to finish it. I assure you, Mr. Hodgman, I will be waiting eagerly for it.

It's a strange type of humor, but then Hodgman is a strange type of guy. It's the sort of thing that only he could pull off, lying in such earnest detail that you wish it were true only because it sounds just so much fun.

"Despite the conspiracy theories you may have read, the mole-men have never interbred with the British royal family or the Bush dynasty with the goal of infiltrating the highest reaches of government so as to harvest the blood of our babies to power the spaceliners that will bring them to the next planet they plan to pillage from within. You are thinking of the Belgians."
- John Hodgman, More Information Than You Require

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review 61: Dave Barry Slept Here

Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States by Dave Barry

Sometimes you just need a palate cleanser. Something to make you smile, that requires a minimum of thought for a maximum of entertainment. This is a dangerous thing to look for; it's all too easy to find oneself wading through a sea of dross, looking for funny but just finding silly, childish nonsense of a mediocre caliber.

The nice thing about Dave Barry is that he is silly childish nonsense of the highest caliber.

My family has been Barry fans for a long time running. When I was a kid, the new Dave Barry book was an automatic Father's Day present, and would migrate around the house as one or another of us picked it up for a few laughs. Fortunately for us, the laughs were more than a few - I remember laughing so hard I had to put the book down for a few minutes because just thinking "Hawley-Smoot Tariff" sent me into uncontrollable giggles.

This book is Barry's tribute to not only American history, but to the whole concept of history books themselves. The fact that he's covering everything from the initial human migration into North America to the Bush-Quayle administration (the book was published in 1989) in only 175 pages with fairly large font is a sign of his being a true master of history.

For example, he does what most public school textbooks do - he skips the boring parts. Teapot Dome? Who cares! The Federal Banking Crisis of 1837? Yawn.... We all remember high school, right? Pretty much nothing happened between the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 and the Civil War seventy-six years later. Right? He also saves time and space by skipping over those parts of history which are, to use a technical term from historiography, "bummers." World War 2, for example - nothing fun to talk about there.

What Barry also does to make history easier is he standardizes the dates for us. No more do we have to remember what month and day something occurred (a feat that always kept me off the high score list in high school history class.) Now all the prospective student of history has to remember is October 8. When did the Mayflower arrive in New England? October 8. When was Kennedy assassinated? October 8. When was the very first Fourth of July? October 8.

See how easy it is? Why didn't they do this when I was in school?

The style of the book is like someone writing about something barely remembered, with only the most cursory amount of research done. And this was in the pre-Wikipedia days, kids, when you had to look stuff up in books. Fortunately, while Barry's history does indeed parallel our own, it is almost completely devoid of actual facts that you may be required to remember. All you really have to do is follow him along on the ride. Of course, if you actually do know something about American history, the book is even funnier. The fact that the book ends with the election of George Herbert Walker Norris Wainright Armoire Vestibule Pomegranate Bush IV and his vice-President Dan "Potatoe" Quayle does disappoint a bit, but, linear time being what it is, there's not a whole lot one can do about it. All history books, serious and silly, are obsolete the moment they hit bookstores. The good news is that Barry maintained a prolific career as a columnist until he retired back in 2004, so you can read his thoughts on the large amount of history that did not end in 1989.

I will always have a warm place for Dave Barry in my heart, but I do have to confess something. When I was younger and read Dave Barry, I would laugh. A lot. Those good, hearty, soul-clearing laughs, and part of the best memories I have of Dave Barry is simply remembering laughing. I didn't laugh very much reading this again. I don't know if it's because I knew where all the jokes were, if my head just wasn't in the right place, or if my sense of humor has changed over the last twenty years.

Twenty years. Good lord.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I had far fewer of those laugh-out-loud moments than I used to. It's still funny, don't get me wrong. I just didn't giggle, guffaw, cackle and try to read bits to my long-suffering co-workers. Whatever it is, I kind of miss it. I think I'll have to dip into some of his other books to see if I can find it again.

If you haven't read Barry, I definitely recommend checking him out. This book is a fine place to start....

"But as the old saying goes, "Time heals all wounds," and in the more than 120 years since the Civil War ended, most of this bitterness gradually gave way to subdued loathing, which is where we stand today."
- Dave Barry, Dave Barry Slept Here

Dave Barry on Wikipedia
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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Review 60: Assassination Vacation

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I first saw Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show and I was intrigued by her. This slight, dry, kind of sleepy-looking woman was not who you might expect when you run the words "presidential historian" through your mind (in my mind, "presidential historian" is usually an older man of leisure who's managed to be lucky enough to turn a passion into a job), but there she was. The fact that she was also really funny impressed me even further. And so, since I have a long-running fascination with presidential history myself, I set out to Mooch this book. And it was well worth it.

Being interested in Presidents means a lot of things. For some, it's the semi-regular top/bottom ten Presidents lists, or comparing one to another in terms of their accomplishments and scandals. Some people develop a fascination with the more obscure Presidents, hoping to rescue their names and deeds from the dustbin of history. Others look to see what kind of social or cultural changes they made in their times. In short, if you want to learn about the Presidents, there are a lot of ways you can go about it.

Ms. Vowell here explores the more morbid side of Presidential history, especially the inevitable morbidness of being in history-love with Abraham Lincoln. In the special features section of The Incredibles DVD (she played Violet), you can see that she compares Lincoln to a superhero, and has multiple instances of Lincoln idolatry around her home. She admires Lincoln's steadfastness and resolve, his determination to hold the Union together, and the humanity that connected him to the rest of the common people. Lincoln, in life, has a great deal to appreciate.

Study Lincoln long enough, however, and you eventually get to the sad part - his assassination by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

Sitting in Ford's Theatre in Washington DC, she was struck by the same thought many people have when they go there - "Wow. This was the place." She sat in the Chinese restaurant that was built on the site of the boarding house where Booth and his co-conspirators made their plans and thought the same thing. And before she knew it, she was on a pilgrimage, a holy quest to visit all the places involved in the death of Abraham Lincoln. And there are a lot of places to visit, in New York, Illinois, and even off the Florida Keys, to say nothing of the area immediately around DC. Lincoln's assassination echoed from that box seat in Ford's Theatre and shook the nation.

Of the four Presidents that have been assassinated, most people only really know about two: Lincoln and Kennedy. But there were two others brought down by the assassin's gun - Garfield and McKinley. So Vowell expanded her pilgrimage to include them as well, giving them the same treatment and respect that she gives to her hero, Mr. Lincoln. Why she decided not to do Kennedy is not explained. Perhaps because it hasn't been long enough since the event, or because there's so much controversy surrounding it already....

The book is a nice tour through the lives of one President we all know, and two that we don't. And it's all fun to read, which is usually hard to do with history, much less the history of James Garfield. She reveals that each assassination came about by a complex series of events, and was triggered by many things - frustration, anger, despair, madness - and that each one was a tragedy, even if we don't appreciate them all that much.

Along the way, we get a refresher on American history, and a little contemporary comparison as well. For example, the Spanish-American war, over which McKinley presided, bears a shocking resemblance to the current war in Iraq. Both were wars of choice, fought for material gain, and initiated by dubious claims of aggression, just for starters. "Then, as now," she says, "optional wars are fought because there are people in the government who really, really want to fight them."

One of Vowell's great talents in this field is being able to link things together, so that the decision made by, say, John Wilkes Booth has effects that can be traced to Emma Goldman, and then to Leon Czolgosz. Or how the utopian free love community of Oneida, New York accidentally spawned the bizarre madman Charles Guiteau, and then went on to make rather nice teapots.

This is a technique that history teachers need to learn if they're going to give the world more people like Sarah Vowell - an understanding that history is not a series of isolated events, where you can look at a name, a place and a date and say, "Well, that's that." History is an ongoing process, with cause and effect coming one after another, often in strange and unexpected ways. Perhaps if people could see how a single event in the past directly influences the way they live in the present, they'd take more interest.

It's a fun read. If you weren't interested in history before you read this book, you'll at least be a little warmer to it afterwards. Also, she won my heart right in the beginning by saying that part of the impetus to write this book was watching Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins, which I know nearly by heart even now, so many years after it was put on stage back at Siena. Every now and then she'd sprinkle a bit from the musical into the book - Charles Guiteau was a hoot - and I'd smile knowingly. Must listen to that again....

"There are people who look forward to spending their sunset years in the sunshine; it is my own retirement dream to await my death indoors, dragging strangers up dusty staircases while coughing up one of the most thrilling phrases in the English language: 'It was on this spot...'"
- Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation

Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia
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