Monday, July 23, 2012

Review post, 7/23/2012

It was a good week for reading. Unfortunately, most of the books I read were at least a little disappointing. Sometimes that's how things go.

Four books.

David Crystal - The Story of English in 100 Words

This is more or less what it says on the cover - a discussion of how English evolved as a language as illustrated by 100 separate words. Crystal writes about words, it is what he does, and I'm sure he does it very well. However, for much of this book, I found myself wanting more. The description of the various words, while often interesting and entertaining, left me wanting more - much more in several cases. A single example - the word "Alphabet" included two nuggets of information that didn't go far enough.  Nugget the first - the current construction of the alphabet is a fairly recent thing: the 16th century hornbooks which were used to teach children their letters were each a little different in the organisation of their letters.
A hornbook, which is neither a horn, nor a book.

 Nugget the second:  in 1817, the Trifler magazine published a poem by Alaric Watts which uses words beginning with all of the letters of the alphabet - one letters per line letter - except J, which was considered a subset of I. Fascinating stuff. But the entry doesn't say when the alphabet attained it's current configuration or when J became it's own letter - I am left wanting a little more. And this was fairly common throughout the work - the entries were witty, but I wanted just a little more. Also, it would have been nice to have been given a clear transition between words instead of the abrupt break that the dictionary format offered. I think the lesson here, as with the 100 most influential animal book I reviewed earlier (not by Crystal) is that 100 is the wrong number of things to use to classify all of a broad class of thing. Fewer things would allow for a deeper discussion of the broad class, and more things would force the presentation of the connections between the various things. Perhaps.

That being said, if you are interested in etymology, but don't really know where to start, perhaps this is a good book to do so.

A.J. Kazinski - The Last Good Man

People are dying all over the world. The deaths seem suspicious. They seem to have similar tattoos on their backs. A detective in Venice suspects a connection. He figures out the spacing between the deaths, both in terms of time and in terms of location, and figures that the next death will be in Venice or in Copenhagen. He also figures out that the people who are dying have one thing in common - they are all "good" people, people who seems naturally selfless. He contacts a counterpart in Copenhagen, who begins investigating. Neils Bentzon, the Danish police negotiator, decides that the people being killed are the 36 Righteous "Men". According to a story in the Talmud, there are 36 Righteous people in each generation who, as long as they are all alive, keep G-d from destroying the world. The 36 don't know who they are, but, Kazinski speculates, they must be naturally good people, inclined to give of themselves to their fellow human beings. If they are dying, this must be a bad thing. Bentzon sets out to stop the next death.

This book was a really big deal in Denmark in 2010. I can only conclude that the Danes have very peculiar literary tastes, because the book is something of a dog's breakfast, frankly. There are odd mathematics and unusual religious things sprinkled throughout. There's a tiny little subplot about out of body near death experiences that doesn't really seem to add anything to the overall work. Kazinski adds the twist that the Righteous 36 are physically connected to their "sector" of the globe (which corresponds, naturally enough, to a chunk of the pre-continental drift Pangeaic continent) and, if they travel beyond their "sector", they become ill. This is all a little messy, but manageable. I read Umberto Eco, after all. My big problem is that the novel really doesn't resolve well, at all. Does Bentzon get back together with his estranged wife, or does he stay with the estranged wife of a Danish mathematician who helps him out? Why were the 36 being killed? Kazinski suggests that this isn't the first time this has happened - is this a "natural" process? If so, does that mean that the murderer is God? Because, if so, the motive is "because I'm a big jerk," which is unsatisfying.

There's a lot of potentially good stuff in this mess of a novel. I'd love to find out that something was lost in translation. I fear that this is not the case. I suspect that it's just a disappointing novel.

Dave Duncan - Speak to the Devil

This one was NOT a disappointment at all. I love Duncan. His characters have such a vibrancy, and such compelling flaws - I just want to gobble these books up. I'll be grabbing book 2 at the library tomorrow.

Set in a fictitious middle-European country, in the late 18th century, this is the story of a family of cavaliers. These young men are known within their nation for their swordsmanship, for their loyalty, for their fearless recklessness, and for their tendency to "Speak" to voices. The Speakers claim that the voices are saints (the voices claim likewise). The Church claims that the voices are devils or the Devil. Hence the title.Either way, Speaking allows Speakers to have a profound and supernatural effect on their surroundings - it's magic, or its a miracle, but it tends to be big, and it tends to be noticeable.

Anton Magnus is asked by the chief adviser to the king of Jorgary to assume the command of a border fort, and to prevent an invasion from outside, possible aided by a Speaker. Anton's brother, Wolfgang, is, secretly (or, perhaps, not so secretly) a Speaker, and he agrees (reluctantly) to help. Anton and Wolfgang manage to get matters under control, but Wolfgang falls in love with the woman to whom Anton is supposed to get married, and things get delightfully complicated from there.

Duncan revels in twisting a plot and twisting a plot and twisting a plot until the reader isn't sure if the plot is coming or going. He likes to stab his characters in the back (although not quite as often or as roughly as George Martin, for instance - it's generally safe to become attached to Duncan's characters), and he likes to tweak historical settings just a little (he also likes to include an historical note, and you KNOW I like those). Duncan likes big heroic swashbuckling characters with huge glaring flaws and blind spots, and this book is no exception to this rule. Anton's view of Anton and the view that the rest of the world has about Anton are completely different, and the gap between these two views really provides the humor in this book.

So. It's a big, comic, tragic novel with swords and canons and love and betrayal and magic - delicious - but it doesn't really end solidly, which is the other reason I'll be getting book two tomorrow. So, not disappointed, but a little unsatisfied.

Stephen Segal, ed - Geek Wisdom

It's a cute concept - take a series of geeky quotes (from comics, movies, television, etc) and turn them into a system of wisdom - almost a religion, really. Segal and his co-writers do a pretty good job of expanding the various sayings into broader examinations of the world, and the role of the geek within the world. Again, as with Crystal's word book, I wanted a little more - a little more structure, perhaps, or a little more application. A little more glossing of the text. More discursive footnotes, maybe. It was a cute idea - it could have been expanded and turned into a great idea. I did, however, add The A-Team and Quantum Leap to my Netflix instant view queue. So, not a total loss.