Monthly Archives: November 2009

Who Got Einstein’s Office?, Ed Regis

Addison Wesley, 1987, 316 pages, $17.95 hc, ISBN 0-201-12065-8 nov28

I’m never too fond of reading older, unrevised pop-science books.  Science evolves, revises its own theories and even a decade can mark significant shifts in thinking.  Reading older science books can actually be harmful: readers can end up putting the wrong information in their head from well-meaning but outdated work.

Ed Regis’ Who Got Einstein’s Office? may be pushing almost a quarter of a century by now, but it’s unusually free of obsolescence issues.  A work of science history rather than science fact, it tackles the legacy of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, a think-tank set up to provide a place of study for theoretical scientists.  The first decades of the Institute’s history read like a who’s who of American science superstars: Einstein spent his last two decade there, where he rubbed shoulders with people such as Kurt Gödel.  Over the years, names such as Freeman Dyson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann and Stephen Wolfram all come to spend time at the Institute.  Who Got Einstein’s Office? is not just the story of the institution, but a look at the personalities that it attracted, the research it fostered and the place of such institutes in science.

The best reason to read the book, even today, remains the portrait of the scientists who worked there.  The book’s title question ends up being a pretext to spend an early chapter looking at Einstein’s history with the institute, and peek a bit beyond the stereotypical image of the one who remains the most famous scientist of all time.  Subsequent chapters study the eccentricities of people such as Kurt Gödel (who ended up starving himself to death out of sheer paranoia), the flamboyance of John von Neumann (“Good Time Johnny”) and the declining years of a politically-persecuted Oppenheimer.

In-between, we get a great portrait of pure scientists at work and play.  The institute being set up to cater to elderly scientists so that they can spend their time thinking without worrying about research money or even getting lunch, it offers an environment where science dominates over more mundane concerns.  Esoteric practical jokes aren’t rare, and eccentricity abounds as Regis offers a look at the various habits of the Institute’s members circa 1986.  It’s a fascinating book, especially when it focuses more on the way science is conducted than the actual content of the science.  I picked up the book in good part because of Regis’ latter work, and wasn’t disappointed to find out that his gift for clear accessible writing is obvious even in his early work.

Needless to say, some aspects of Who Got Einstein’s Office? haven’t aged well.  The illustration in the book are recognizably Macintosh-generated low-resolution graphics, while the lengthy passages on chaos theory, fractal graphics, cellular automata, Conway’s Game of Life and then-current computer technology instantly date the book.  Stephen Wolfram has moved from the Institute to quite a number of astonishing things, which leads one to wonder what has happened to the Institute since then.  After all, one of Regis’ conclusions is that the Institute not only had a harder time attracting big names, it didn’t seem to produce as much good science as it should: it worked better as a decent pre-retirement home for elderly scientists than a boiling think-tank for cutting-edge science.

But none of this reflects badly on the book itself, which is filled with anecdotes, quotes, science and surprises.  Science Fiction fans (once they get over the profiles of Dyson and von Neumann) may be thrilled to see a quick quote from a mathematician named “Rudolf Rucker” [P.47] –the same Rudy Rucker known for his outlandish SF.  Other good stories involve Einstein distracting Gödel long enough for him to pass his American citizenship exam, the grander-than life personality of von Neumann and the various Faculty munities during the Institute’s history.

It all combines in a book that could use a minor revision for details, but can still be read with pleasure and interest today.  Students of twentieth-century science will find a lot to like here, and even those who can’t remember any scientist’s name except for Einstein will learn a lot about some of the finest minds of the twentieth century.

Julie & Julia, Julie Powell

Back Bay Books, 2009 movie tie-in reedition of 2005 original, 307 pages, C$16.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-316-04427-1

Movies based on a single book are common, but the 2009 food comedy Julie & Julia is actually based on two books: Julia Child’s autobiographical My Life in France, and Julie Powell’s own Julie & Julia.  If you have both books available, tackle Child’s book first: It’s a warm narrative of Child’s experience learning to cook properly in Paris, then taking years to transform that skill into a now-classic cookbook.  It’s charming, faithful to Child’s voice and a terrific incentive to learn more about cooking.  My Life in France also provides the foundation upon which Julie & Julia is built: When Julie Powell decides to cook all the recipes in Child’s cookbook in a single year, she’s drawing inspiration from the events that Child describes.

But this isn’t a review of My Life in France.  For various reasons, it’s more interesting to tackle Powell’s book.  Whereas Child sound happy, confident and masterful, Powell depicts herself as a neurotic, confused and cranky administrative assistant, adrift in life until she sees the chance to do something epic.  It doesn’t make her as admirable a figure as Child, but it sure makes her more interesting.

So it is that Julie & Julia describes how Powell literally picks herself up from the floor and launches herself in a project that most of us would rightfully consider to be a bit mad: 524 recipes in a year, chronicled as a blog.  The book is not the collected blog; it’s rather a book-length essay, written after the fact but generally espousing the chronology of the events in that “year of cooking dangerously”.

Much of the book is devoted to cooking by someone whose skills in that matter were good but not impossibly so: Julie occasionally sees recipes fail spectacularly, can’t find ingredients even in New York, makes mistakes and sees her personal life altered by her experiences.  This is all good fodder for comedy, of course: Cooking lobsters doesn’t sound like a big deal until you’re bringing them back home on the subway, and then killing them in various ways.  (The movie makes a big deal of the lobsters, but the book does a lot more mileage out of other traumatic experiences, including cleaving marrow out of bones.)

But Powell’s year of cooking Childishly isn’t all about laughs and madcap adventures: Child’s low-level work at a Manhattan federal organization dealing directly with the aftermath of 9/11 is fraught with heartbreak and frustration, not to mention workers who aren’t entirely sympathetic to her growing fame as a food blogger.  (She does tend to lump an awful lot of them in a group called “Republicans”, which sounds impolite even to my Canadian ears.)  At home, tensions arise between herself and her husband over the course of the experience: theirs is a mature marriage, and the crises that arise between them are typical of people who have been together a long time.

But in the end, it’s not the food (although Julie & Julia will shame you in becoming a better one), nor the tale but the words that hold up the story together.  Powell writes well, writes hilariously and writes with a good attention to detail.  The stories fit together, the episodes rise to a narrative climax and there aren’t many dull moments.  We get a glimpse at the mindset of a cook’s developing expertise, as well as a pretty good depiction of what it means to be a blogger who suddenly gets a lot of attention.

While Julie Powell may not be a super-heroine, she has achieved something extraordinary twice: First in cooking her way out of the book in a single year (something that still leaves me agog; how do you even manage to eat the leftovers during that time?), but also by writing a compelling memoir of the experience, a perfect treat for foodies and readers alike.  See the film (which isn’t all that faithful nor as funny as the book), read the book and cook for yourself.

Makers, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2009, 416 pages, C$31.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1279-2

I wish I could praise Cory Doctorow’s latest novel Makers without reservations.  I’ve been a Doctorow fan since Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, read Boingboing for just as long, met him a few times and have reviewed all of his books with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  Makers is his most ambitious work for adults yet; a big book tackling an upcoming technological revolution and its aftermath.  It weighs in at a page count that alludes to Toronto’s phone area code and also marks Doctorow’s first full-sized hardcover.  The cover tagline is nothing less than “A Novel of the Whirlwind Changes to Come.” Published months after his Hugo nomination for Little Brother, there’s little doubt that Makers is a big novel and a significant publication of the year in Science Fiction and techno-nerd circles.

For a while, the book seems to deliver on its promises.  Taking place in a future not too far away, it begins by telling us about a radical shift in American Business.  “New Work” is about repurposing existing technologies, assembling it in ways unexpected by its original makers and creating something new out of available pieces.  It’s also a way of working that upsets the corporate hierarchies, seeks modest profits from continuous innovations and has little use for the traditional ways of business.  The chronicler of this era is one Suzanne Church, tech-journalist turned blogger as her print publisher downsizes.  Fortunately, she knows just the right people: Perry and Lester, two garage engineers who love to make new stuff and so become the poster-boys of “New Work”.  Various hacks and tech demos later, they look poised to make the world go kablooie with exciting new technologies.  It doesn’t last.  By the time the first third of the novel passes by, the “New Work” boom has turned to bomb, and when the second section picks up years later, all that’s left is a wikified theme park.

In some ways, this first section sets expectations that the rest of the book can’t match.  The first section had ideas bubbling in my mind; about techno-fascism and what happens to those who like stability, about worker’s rights in “New Work”, about the way Doctorow was recapitulating lessons from the dot-com years and applying them to a more physical sphere of innovation.  But as Makers advances, it becomes weirder, more specific, more personal and also less interesting.  The point of the novel, we eventually realize, is what happens when everyone has given up; it’s about how real innovators establish movements whatever the circumstances.  It’s not about the inevitable singularity, but about the cultural give-and-take of innovation.

At times, Makers feels like a mashup of popular Boingboing tags:  Here’s a little bit of Disney, here’s a big of copyfighting; here’s a bit of civil right anger; here’s a lot of Maker magazine (obviously a major influence on the novel) and so on.  The problems start occurring when Doctorow’s pet obsessions quietly run away from readers’ own preoccupations.  A good chunk of the book’s second half, for instance, depends directly on the idea of massively popular theme parks recapturing the instant-nostalgia of “New Work”.  I have no perceptible interest or affection for theme parks, and couldn’t actually be bothered to figure out why these theme parks would be popular, or actually mattered.  At the same time, my interest for the characters evaporated, to a point where I didn’t care all that much about how, where and why they were arguing, sleeping together or fighting the forces of Disney.  That’s pretty much the textbook definition of a novel that “doesn’t work for me”, and so you can understand why I’m left unable to muster more than a tepid opinion about the book.

Which is really too bad, because Makers is more current than much of what I’ve read this year, and I suspect that the novel’s failure to take off in my mind is more due to personal idiosyncrasies than major problems with the book itself.  There’s an essay to be written about the ways Makers is an antonym to Users and how that ties into both Doctorow’s tapestry of work (including the abandoned /usr/bin/god) and current notions of civic involvement, but I really can’t be bothered right now.  Disappointed, I would rather wait for Doctorow’s next novel and hope for the best again.

Kingdom of Fear, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 2003, 354 pages, C$24.00 tp, ISBN 0-684-87324-9

Given the apocalyptic streak running through Hunter S. Thompson’s life-long work (after all, even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a foreboding meditation on the gone-away sixties), it makes perfect sense that he would have been reinvigorated by the cataclysmic tone of the post-2001 era.  So it is that Kingdom of Fear shows him fully settled in his cranky-sage-from-the-Colorado-mountains role, hurtling invectives at everyone and muttering darkly about the future of the republic.  It doesn’t necessarily make the book any more vital than any of his post-1980 work, but it certainly makes him a bit more interesting to read.

Not that this is always the case.  True to his tendency to repeat his self-aggrandizing mythology, Hunter spends an awful lot of time repeating known stories.  Kingdom of Fear is a collage of previously-published pieces, reprinted material about Thompson and a fair chunk of original material.  But even the original material tends to run in circles: We get to hear, again, about his experiences running for Sheriff, or his 1990 arrest.  He goes over his own biography at length, sometime illuminating periods of relative silence, but just as often rehashing stories read elsewhere.  His writing tics also take on, more than ever, the appearance of self-indulgence in-between gratuitous substitution of ampersands in place of the common “and”.  Also typical of Thompson’s overall oeuvre is the incoherence of the book, which flits from theme to theme without much use for signposts.

At other times, disappointments are rife.  Kingdom of Fear is the only book, to my knowledge, in which Thompson writes more than briefly about his experience in San Francisco at the end of the eighties (working as a figurehead “night manager” at a strip club) or his travels to Cuba and Grenada.  But even then, we don’t get much more than a few pages: The Caribbean trips are heavily fictionalized, while most of the San Francisco material seems to have been kept in the still-unpublished, perhaps never-written The Night Manager/Polo is my Life.

Other bits fare better.  Thompson saw early on the consequences of the national panic that gripped his country in the wake of 9/11, and his savage denunciations of the Bush administration ended up being more accurate than anyone was willing to admit in 2003.  For him, the whole War on Terror era feels familiar; a return to the worst days of the sixties, perhaps even to 1964 Chicago where he, as a reporter, was beaten by police.  Nixon being dead, Thompson found no problems in saying that Bush was worse than Nixon.  As usual, Thompson’s style may be repetitive, but it still carries a certain power at shorter lengths.

But there are also a few gems here and there, finally reprinted in book form.  The best is almost certainly a 1992 short story called “Fear and Loathing in Elko”, a dark piece mixing violent prose with caricatures of popular figures (including a “Judge” with an uncanny resemblance to Clarence Thomas) to produce a terrific short story.  (So terrific, unfortunately, that a good chunk of its middle third was published as “Death of a Poet” in the tiny Screwjack anthology.)  To give you an idea, it starts with a narrator running over a herd of sheep in the middle of a highway and then goes on to more stomach-churning material.  Late in the book, “Fear and Loathing at the Taco Stand” fictionalizes his Hollywood experience and the way he met his second wife.

Having struggled against a fat and happy country in the eighties and nineties, Thompson seems to regain some of his relevance in times of crisis.  Kingdom of Fear won’t do much to quieten critics who maintain that Thompson’s golden age was a bubble around 1972: For every good page, there seems to be ten filled with redundant filler or empty outrage.  But this volume, published two years before Thompson’s suicide, also shows that he took to bad times as it was his natural environment: it comes as a validation of his predictions and his belief that most Americans were part of “the new dumb”.  For someone who kept writing “When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn Pro”, the post-9/11 era was practically a homecoming.  It’s not hard to see how he would consider those years to be the final proof of his “death of the American dream” thesis.  Sadly, this would prove to be nearly the end of the road for him: His next book, Hey Rube, would prove to be his last, and consist of collected columns about sports and politics.

2012 (2009)

(In theatres, November 2009) It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Roland Emmerich’s 2012 tries to ape and one-up much of the disaster-movie genre.  Where else can you find a 10.5 earthquake, a super-volcano and a mega-tsunami in the same movie?  As such, it demands to be considered according to the particular standards of the disaster movie genre, and that’s indeed where it finds most of its qualities.  The L.A. earthquake sequence is a piece of deliriously over-the-top action movie-making (I never loved 2012 more than when the protagonists’ plane had to dodge a falling subway train), the Yellowstone volcano sequence holds its own and those who haven’t seen an aircraft carrier smash the White House now have something more to live for.  The problem, unfortunately, is that those sequences are front-loaded in the first two-third of the film, leaving much smaller set-pieces for the end.  This, in turn places far more emphasis on the characters, dialogue and plot points, none of whom are a known strength of either the genre or 2012 itself. Sure, the cast of characters is either pretty (Thandie Newton!  Amanda Peet!), competent (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover) or entertaining (John Cusack, Oliver Platt).  Of course, we want to see them live through it all.  But as a too-late consideration of ethical issues bumps against less-impressive sequences and significant lulls (including a 15-minutes-long prologue), it becomes easier to see that this 158 minutes film is at least 45 minutes too long and suffering from a limp third act.  The defective nature of the roller-coaster also makes it less easy to tolerate the hideous conclusions, screaming contrivances and somewhat distasteful ethics of the screenplay.  While the clean and sweeping cinematography (interestingly replaced by a hand-held video-quality interlude during one of the film’s turning points) shows that 2012’s production budget is entirely visible on-screen and will eventually make this a worthwhile Blu-Ray demo disk, there isn’t much here to respect or even like.  At least special-effects fans will be able to play some destruction sequences over and over again.

The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein

Vintage, 2008 reprint of 2007 original, 662 pages, C$22.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-676-97801-8

Some books want to make you laugh, and others want to make you think.  But Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine really wants to outrage you.  It is, after all, about how some very clever people have figured out how to take advantage of human suffering for profit.  It’s about how a class of entrepreneurs is deliberately taking advantage of crises to further their own agenda at the expense of the common good.  It about geopolitical crises can come to be used like forms of torture.  It’s about a more complete history of the past 35 years of geopolitical changes, one that adds an economic dimension to the various revolutions and catastrophes.  It makes Klein’s previous No Logo (which I finally read in a hurry after finishing this book) look like a checklist of benign corporate shenanigans.

The irony is that I left The Shock Doctrine alongside No Logo for years on my shelves, confident that I knew what it was about.  Disaster capitalism?  How businesses move in devastated zones to make money?  Tell me something new, Klein.  But it turns out that I didn’t fully understand the thesis of the book, because what Klein is after is really a history of the past 35 years in global politics, as influenced by graduates of the University of Chicago School of Economics.

If you don’t know about Chicago School Economics and their high guru Milton Friedman, you have a lot of catching up to do on free-market theory concepts.  But what Klein does is connect the dots until we’re looking at 35 years of intervention by Friedman-inspired “Chicago Boys” whenever there’s a traumatic political upheaval in the world.  The list of “shock doctrine” sites is long and terrible, going from Chile to Iraq but hitting destinations such as Bolivia, South Africa and Russia along the way.  Klein’s main thesis is that since voting populations does not like, want or accept right-wing economic policies, it’s best to put them in place during times of crises or panic when everyone is too terrified to protest.  If it sounds familiar, well, it should: As Klein suggests, the reforms implemented in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina were simply the homecoming party of techniques successfully field-tested elsewhere in the world.

The worst thing is that it doesn’t take a conspiracy theory to support her claims: simply a list of people who think along the same lines, and who feel that it’s a good thing to send public dollars into private pockets.  Greed is a powerful thing, and it makes for excellent friends if ever some of the greedy get in positions of influence.  It all makes up for infuriating reading: by the time Klein ran down the list of links between the Bush administration and the oil industry, I was openly wondering how much more of this I could take before I had to stop reading the book and take a breath.

For intellectual honesty’s sake, I should probably note that there are a few annoying things about The Shock Doctrine.  The first is a feature of every left-leaning attempt to present another version of history (I’m looking at you, Howard Zinn): They tend to presume that you already know the conventional version of history.  If not, quite a few important details are left off, and trying to fit them in the narrative can take some research.  Second; Klein’s comparisons between economic shock therapy and psychiatric electroshocks is provocative and memorable, but it does sensationalize the issue and leaves it open to criticism of irrelevance.  Finally; it’s a big, big subject and the book does take a number of shortcuts.  This being said, I’m not going to insist on any of those issues as problems: Frankly, I had far too much fun reading a selection of one-star reviews of the book on Amazon (many of them personally offended than anyone would say something against Friedman; others simply reading off the same right-wing talking points) to give any comfort to those who are predisposed to hate the book.

Naaah; I’m going to assume my own biases and tell you that The Shock Doctrine is an important work.  It suggests a context for many seemingly disparate yet oddly congruent policies.  It shows how deeply anti-popular policies are now rooted in the US and, by influence, global policies.  It doesn’t offer a lot of hope, although the best it can do (“shock wears off”) is still inspiring.  But it also blows in the wind of the past decade, one that has seen obvious displays of policies that, until now, had been kept far away or couched in reassuring rhetoric.  The Shock Doctrine strips bare those excuses and, in doing so, give a bit of its own shock therapy to readers.  Read the book, blow a fuse, have all the outrage you want, then come back and do something about it.

Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

Harper Perennial, updated 2007 edition of 2000 original, 334 pages, $15.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-06-089922-6

In some ways, a great book is like great food: You can try to break it down to its individual components, but the final result will always be measured by how you sit back and say “Wow, that was good.”

But in most other ways, great food really isn’t like a great book at all, and that’s where Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential comes in.  Riding high on America’s renewed passion for all things foodish, chef Bourdain’s memoir was published in 2000 to instant acclaim, in part because it offers a refreshingly frank look at what happens in the kitchen of average restaurants.  While Bourdain can (and does, early on) romanticizes the power of great food, much of Kitchen Confidential concerns his own rocky path through the New York restaurant scene, and the hot, frantic, unglamorous reality of a restaurant kitchen when dinnertime starts, patrons rush in and the pressure builds.

Unlike other celebrity chefs, Bourdain was never renowned as a flashy or particularly meritorious cook: The chronicles of his earliest days includes one particular achievement (graduating from CIA, which should be understood not as the spy agency, but as the “Culinary Institute of America”, a New York school for chefs) and several less-admirable traits: Heavy drug use, fast-burn living, and a generally aimless career path.  His description of what happens in failing restaurants is informed by several personal experiences.  But his flaws are not exceptional in an environment where this type of behaviour is considered normal: It takes a special kind of personality to work in a professional kitchen, and Bourdain’s description of what happens there is one of the book’s most vivid qualities.

One of the book’s standout chapters, “A day in the life”, chronicles a typical workday for Bourdain, who was then kitchen manager at a middle-class New York restaurant.  It’s a chaotically choreographed ballet of ordering, inventory management, stocking, staffing challenges and, obviously, quite a bit of cooking.  One of Kitchen Confidential’s particular themes is to highlight the distinction between chef and cook: Once the chef (sometimes famous) has determined what the restaurant offers, it’s up to the line cooks to deliver the food to the customers, and that doesn’t take creativity and bonhomie as much as it asks for reliability, consistency and the ability to perform the job in a distraction-rich environment  while resisting the pressures to deliver substandard results in the name of efficiency, time, cost or convenience.  Bourdain takes a particular pride in his regular crew of immigrant workers, lauding their work ethics in comparison to born-and-raised-Americans.

Another of Kitchen Confidential’s big success is in the candid depiction of the atmosphere of a professional kitchen: a multicultural group united by a powerful under-the-fire camaraderie, characterized by vicious put-downs meant to test a comrade’s grace under pressure more than to actually insult the recipient.  Bourdain’s depiction of kitchen language is never less than R-rated, which is part of its authenticity.  But it’s Bourdain’s various portraits of the people he has worked with that round out the look at the very different sub-culture in which he belongs.  Bourdain’s fiction credentials (he had two novels published before Kitchen Confidential) serve him well in characterizing the essential details that spice up his narrative.

The result is not just a great book, but the kind of gripping narrative that makes one sorry for short commutes and early sleep times.  It’s a tough book to abandon in mid-read, and even non-foodies won’t necessarily be put off by the wealth of culinary knowledge assumed by Bourdain.  At a time where there is a lot of material on the shelves about every single conceivable aspect of food, Kitchen Confidential still holds up a decade later.  This being said, do try to get your hands on the updated edition, which describes some of what happened to Bourdain and his acquaintances since then (he’s become a world-trotting celebrity food commentator with his own TV show) and reports on aspects of the industry since Kitchen Confidential’s original publication.  Fortunately, write Bourdain, things have generally improved: standards are higher, food is more respected, and chefs earn more respect.  Of course, this doesn’t change why you should avoid buffets, fish on Monday or well-done steak… although, as Bourdain suggests, you only live once.  Try a bit of everything.

[February 2010: Bourdain’s follow-up, A Cook’s Tour, is a different book, although it is clearly prefigured by the closing Japan-based chapters of Kitchen Confidential: As a follow-up, Bourdain decides to live a life of adventure and go eat strange meals in even-stranger places. Alcohol, drugs, adventure and exotic food follow. The book led to a TV series, but it also acts as a commentary to the TV series. It’s all good fun in the tradition of hard-partying travelogues, although people looking for more kitchen-based material won’t find it here.]

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

(In theatres, November 2009) As someone who read and enjoyed Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book shortly after its initial publication, I’m perhaps a tougher audience for a film “inspired by” The Men Who Stare at Goats.  It’s certainly not easy to adapt: an exploration of the often-strange ideas (including psi powers) that the US Army investigated, Ronson’s work straddles a thin line between goofiness and weightier moments.  To its credit, the film does manage to do justice to a number of moments and ideas: the militarization of peaceful ideals, the way “non-lethal” torture can be dismissed as a joke, the twisted logic that leads to paranormal research, and so on…  Even the book’s most disturbing moment (“…it almost looks as if he’s laughing”) gets a nod.  (There’s also one spectacularly unfunny moment caused by the sheer improbable juxtaposition of the film’s release a day after the worst home-base shootout in US military history.) The film’s structure also manages to weave a coherent history taking place over three decades (at one time nestling a flashback within a flashback) and almost act as an imagined sequel to Ronson’s book, which often stops with characters being “reactivated” for mysterious purposes.  Various odd scenes and progressive concepts also make The Men Who State at Goats richer in ideas than most satirical comedies: It ranks with The Hunting Party and Lord of War as a member of the growing geo-sardonic genre.  But what’s less impressive is the way a very traditional buddy-movie structure (with a heavy dash of “mid-life crisis” and “kids playing tricks on bumbling authority”) has been imposed on the material, leading the film to less and less believable moments.  Ewan McGregor and George Clooney do great things with their roles (much of the Jedi jokes are much funnier when spoken by “Obi-Wan” McGregor, and Clooney has no perceptible shame in an often-unglamorous role) but the film itself goes from the fascinating to the cliché at high speed, and the result feels like a let-down, especially during the second half.  But such are most adaptations, of course.

The Book of the Dead, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Vision, 2007 mass-market reprint of 2006 original, 619 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-446-61850-2

After matching wits with his evil-mastermind brother in Brimstone and Dance of Death, Aloysius Pendergast once again has to rise to the occasion in The Book of the Dead, final tome in the so-called “Diogenes” trilogy.  Circumstances looks promisingly hopeless at the start of the book: Pendergast is locked up in a maximum-security prison for murders his brother has meticulously blamed on him, while Diogenes is running free, planning his next horrific crime, interfering with activities of a non-profit institution and seducing Pendergast’s ward.  (He’s probably drinking from the milk carton as well, but Preston & Child have bigger crimes to describe.)

Fans of Preston & Child’s work will be unsurprised and amused to find out that as The Book of the Dead begins, the much-abused New York Natural History Museum is once again trying to restore its tattered reputation by… staging the exhibition of a cursed Egyptian tomb deep in its basement.  That a mysterious benefactor seems eager to finance this exhibit and only this exhibit alone doesn’t seem to trouble them.  After all, it’s a foolproof plan: What has ever gone wrong with this museum’s special exhibits so far?

The stage being set for a massive bloodbath, Preston & Child now return to Pendergast and his friends as they try to conceive of a plan good enough to rescue the FBI agent out of a high-security prison, even despite the constant interference of another FBI agent with a huge grudge against the series’ protagonist.  Elli Gunn’s EES is involved, as is a temporarily-suspended Vincent D’Agosta.  The rest of the series’ extended cast of characters pretty much all make an appearance at one point or another, making this volume seems even more familiar.

And, like clockwork, the expected happens: Pendergast escapes, Diogenes’ plan is revealed, there’s big trouble at the Museum, and the Diogenes issue is settled.  Seen from a high altitude, The Book of the Dead is a bit dull and empty, especially compared to its immediate predecessor.  The museum-exposition crutch seems overly familiar, and the plot seems to unfold in a linear fashion.  It’s far too long at 619 pages: While the pleasure of reading the book remains constant, there are times where it doesn’t advance quickly enough, especially during the extended conclusion that drags out over 75 pages and at least one continent too far. (A change of scenery that seems increasingly forced given Preston & Child’s Italian obsession throughout the entire Diogenes trilogy.  Look, we know you vacation there often, okay?)

The Book of the Dead (as generic a title as Preston & Child’s last few novels) also fails to impress as the third volume of a trilogy.  While Brimstone promised an apocalyptic fate for New York (if not the whole world), this seems to have been forgotten along the way.  The three books all lead from one to the other, but they fail to cohere in a satisfying whole.  Diogenes may or may not be gone (despite evidence to the contrary, never say never until the corpse has been double-tapped, beheaded, vaporized and even then watch out for the ghost) and it’s about time for Pendergast to go against someone else, but this concluding volume of the trilogy has an air of underachievement about it.

But where Preston & Child continue to excel is in the construction of small thrilling sequences.  Even if The Book of the Dead is a lesser novel than Dance of Death, it’s got about as many good sequences and set-pieces: The revelation of what Diogenes did with the diamonds he stole in the previous book is inspired, as are the scenes following how Pendergast adapts to prison life.  The Book of the Dead, especially during its latter half, often indulges in pure melodramatic cheese when it goes deep into the Pendergast family secrets: The conclusion is partly driven by the old “scorned woman” plot device, and the final line goes back to over-the-top gothic twists.  Consider the next book nicely set up.

It goes without saying that The Book of the Dead isn’t particularly accessible to newcomers (too many recurring characters acting out too many ongoing plot threads) but won’t lose any existing Preston & Child fans on their way to the next book.  Despite a few problems stemming primarily from the expectations left by Dance of Death, it’s still an A-list contemporary thriller showing why Preston & Child are the acknowledged master of that market segment.  On to Wheel of Death!

Julie & Julia (2009)

(In-flight, November 2009) Nora Ephron’s films are generally amiable and unobjectionable, but after a short absence from the big-screen, it’s good to see her move slightly-away from romantic comedies to tackle a film about cooking, blogging and female empowerment.  The twin true stories of Julia Child (who, in the fifties, popularized French cuisine in America) and Julie Powell (who, nearly fifty years later, took on the project to cook her way through Child’s first book in a year and blog about the experience), Julie & Julia is perhaps most enjoyable as the journey of two foodies.  It’s practically impossible to sit through the film and not be shamed into becoming a better cook.  Food remains the film’s love interest even as various romantic subplots are weaved in the narrative.  The film’s biggest problem is that its two true stories don’t necessarily intersect with grace (although there are a few nice transitions) and that the conclusion feels a bit flat: There are no big dramatic finales built into the true events that inspired Julie & Julia, and some of the most intriguing elements of the story (such as Child’s lack of affection for Julie’s blog) are not necessarily explored.  More happily, it’s striking that the best depiction of a blogger so far in mainstream American cinema (what motivates them, the challenges they face, the thrills of being read) has been in a fluffy food romance.  Who would have thought?  Otherwise, there’s little to dislike in Julie & Julia: maybe a sense of material not being fully exploited, but the funny moments, another great performance by Meryl Streep and food-friendly atmosphere usually compensate for those.

Succession, Scott Westerfeld

(Also known as The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds)
SFBC, 2003, 530 pages, ??.?? hc, ISBN 0-7394-3801-8

By now, Scott Westerfeld is best known as a massively successful author of Young Adult science-fiction.  His “Peeps” trilogy has earned him a large teen following, and most of his books since then have been aimed (by choice, with compelling arguments) to the younger set.  Given this, it’s easy to forget some of Westerfeld’s earlier works, especially those that were aimed at the adult market.  The last of those was the space-opera diptych The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, known together as Succession.

Part of why Succession continues to escape notice can be traced back to the Westerfeld’s publisher.  When Succession was first published, Tor felt market pressures to split the complete story into two volumes, severely harming the novel’s shot at awards and even readers’ attention.  It’s no secret that a split novel costs more to buy, but it’s also true that a split novel creates frustration: Here, The Risen Empire ends on a cliffhanger, while The Killing of Worlds makes little sense if you haven’t read the first volume.  (Amazingly, I see that Tor doesn’t seem to consider this a problem, since it’s currently re-publishing Succession in separate volumes.)  This makes the hard-to-find SFBC unified version the only good way to read the story –albeit not the perfect way, as their edition is marred by a sans-serif font choice and the SFBC’s usually unreliable binding.

Kvetching about the publishing industry aside, the novel itself is worth some attention.  Fully embracing space-opera, Succession delivers a vacillating empire, courageous characters, strong battle sequences (including a bravura space battle that takes place over a quarter of the story), fully developed science-fiction aesthetics and personal stories with galactic implications.  Much of the setting doesn’t make sense except in the rigidly constrained frame of space-operas, but never mind the plausibility aspect: this is a novel that plays around with SF tropes to deliver a reading experience that readers versed in SF protocols will enjoy to the fullest.

Much of the novel rests on two characters: Opposition politician Nara Oxham and military hero Laurent Zai.  Ironically enough, neither of them actually meet during the story aside from a few flashbacks: Zai is the point man of the Empire’s forces on a small backwater planet during an enemy attack, while Oxham has a privileged outlook on the political fallout of that attack.  Several characters surround them and tell their part of the story, from various men and women under Zai’s command to an enemy agent dropped behind the Empire’s lines.

It’s a measure of Westerfeld’s contemporary genre-awareness that Empire and its Rix opponents are evenly matched in our affections:  While the ultra-optimized Rix is portrayed as being contrary to everything our protagonists’ Empire stands for, the Empire itself doesn’t seem particularly appealing from the get-go.  This ends up placing our affections with the characters rather than their social structure, a distinction that a number of space-opera writers can’t be bothered to study.  It’s also a good choice given how much emphasis is placed on the characters themselves.  The last line of the story makes it clear that this is, aside its military SF language, a romance.

But Succession does stand on its own as a hard-tech Science Fiction story:  Westerfeld’s use of contemporary infotech jargon can be as good as his contemporary Charles Stross (high praise indeed) and the showpiece of the story ends up being a meticulously conceived, impeccably presented space battle between two ships that owes practically nothing to naval battles of the past.  It doesn’t make complete sense (there’s a “run silent” scene that evokes bad memories of “stealth in space”), but it’s a lot of fun to read, and the detail in which blows are described will warm the heart of the techno-geeks readers.

For everyone else (and overlapping sets of readers), Succession is a good story presented in the overblown style of grandiose space-opera.  Numerous gadgets, clean prose (albeit with a sense of humor) and a conclusion that doesn’t quite wrap up all the threads end up making a clear case for Westerfeld’s return to this universe.  If you’ve missed Succession so far, it’s worth a look: It holds up admirably well half a decade later, and it may even drive you to read some of Westerfeld’s novels for the younger generation.