Almost up to date now.
BLUE MOON HIGHWAY: Journeys Across America is William Least Heat Moon’s chronicle of his mid-seventies decision to drive from Missouri around the country, leading to experiences with deserts, mountains, hole-in-the-wall diners, flyspeck towns and towns that don’t even exist any more. From a reporter’s perspective, an interesting departure from the kind of nonfiction I’ve written, but this wears out its welcome fast—neither the writing nor the local color sustained my interest over several hundred pages. The time aspect is interesting, though: Mt. St. Helens is only gently rumbling, and when driving past Woodstock, Heat Moon didn’t feel any nostalgic impulse to mention the music festival.
BASIN AND RANGE by John McPhee is a curate’s egg, a mix of vivid looks at the geology and earth history of North America (with particular emphasis on highway cuts through the mountains, which to geologists are a glimpse of what’s normally hidden) with an ending that covers stuff I’m familiar with, like a history of continental drift theory. The good parts are quite good though.
MAINSPRING by Jay Lake is a good steampunk novel set in a literally clockwork universe where the solar system runs on a visible orrery and a clockmaker’s apprentice is dismayed to learn that not only is the machinery running down, he’s been delegated to cross the world in order to fix it. An inspired setting, though the characters are cardboard.
EARTHBLOOD by Keith Laumer and Rosell Geroge Brown has a pureblood Terran freed from an artificial womb in the far future to take a picaresque journey across a galaxy of halfbreeds and mutants in his quest of the legendary Terran homeworld—which, of course, turns out to be not at all like he expected. Like a lot of SF novels back in the sixties, it first appeared in serialized structure in a magazine, and the shifts from section to section are a little too sharp; so-so, overall.
SUPERPOWERS by David J. Schwartz is a by-the-number superhero novel in which five college students acquire super-powers only to discover that reality is a lot more complicated than comic-books. This feels geared to the mainstream and so comes across very stock to me (Seth Green’s Freshmen comic covered much of the same territory), despite it’s claims to be otherwise (“No, there’s no supervillain in this story!”).
GUILLAUME D’ ORANGE: Four Twelfth Century Epics (actually 3.5, since 50 pages are missing—no wonder it was on the library’s dollar rack!), translated by Joan Ferrante, is a legendary cycle I’ve never heard of, concerning how William of Orange fought to keep Charlemagne’s son Louis on the throne of France, saved Rome from the pagans (even for its time this has a screwy view of Islam, throwing in Apollo and Mohammed as gods and postulating a Slavic Muslim kingdom somewhere in Africa), won the heart of a Muslim princess, was callously ignored by Louis in a time of crisis and finally retired first to monkhood, then to a hermitage. Enjoyable (and a fine job on giving us a readable translation) for those who like such things, which I do.
FLASHFORWARD by Robert Sawyer is, of course, the source of the TV show, as scientists working on the CERN collider discover they’ve fast-forwarded human awareness by 20 years, and then proceed to deal with the consequences, from impending death to marital dissolution to True Love (plus lots of asides, such as the Patent Office dealing with people wanting to patent stuff that hasn’t been invented yet). While this doesn’t have the sinister conspiracy of the TV show, a lot of what’s in here carried over to the series—a big change, of course, is the switch from scientists as the protagonists to the more conventional choice of the G-Men.
COYOTE KINGS OF THE SPACE-AGE BACHELOR PAD by Minister Faust is a fun SF tale in which two geeks discover they’re caught in a McGuffin hunt involving cannibal drug-users, a mysterious super-woman and the canoptic jar containing the lost brain of Osiris (and whoever controls the jar—controls the world!). Great fun and the geek references work better here than in Short Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, though the touchpoints seem tailored to my generation rather than the twentysomething protagonists—even allowing for retro, are there that many Gen Y Micronauts fans? Entertaining, though.
THE MONITORS is Keith Laumer’s satire in which an out-of-work pilot finds himself fighting to free Earth from the benevolent grip of the title aliens with the dubious help of a right-wing militia (and a leader who seems to Gen. Ripper with the serial numbers filed off) and a nymphomaniac intellectual (“We should simply explain to the aliens that their gestalt doesn’t mesh with ours!”), said cynicism extending to not driving the invaders off and settling for putting them on retainer as “consultants” to justify the planet’s makeover (“As long as humanity things it can fire you, we’ll be fine.”). A good one, and interesting to see how long some complaints about what’s wrong with America have been around (the Monitors’ critique of the medical system could have been made today-and one of their technological gifts is a sixties version of an iPod!)
Raymond Chandler’s THE HIGH WINDOW starts with Marlowe hired to recover a stolen rare coin, then discovering he’s in (what else) deeper waters than he thought as people keep dropping like flies while his client insists the case is already solved. Good, but not first-ranked Chandler.
THE HEAT IS ON is one of Chester Himes’ Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones mysteries (which came to the movies as Cotton Comes to Harlem) and much the same structure of a mysterious McGuffin sought by multiple players, most of whom have no more understanding than the protagonists what’s behind it all. Good and gritty though the ending exposition runs way too long.
UNTIL IT HURTS: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, by Mark Hyman is readable even though it covers a lot of familiar ground in showing how Win At Any Cost has percolated down to junior high, elementary and even kindergarten sports (“The coach was shocked to hear a five year old say he hadn’t eaten anything that day to get himself down one weight class before the wrestling match.”), with consequences both emotional and physical. The most startling thing for me was Hyman’s discussion of how many players are sidelined with crippling injuries before they graduate high school, and how surgery is considered a routine fix to prevent injury interfering with a career (though I’ve heard arguments elsewhere that’s a general social trend to “maintaining” lifestyles rather than taking steps to prevent problems).
Almost up to date now.