Friday, April 29, 2011

the other Dynamic Duo of mystery

Title: Black Orchids
Author: Rex Stout
Bookmark: paper sleeve from chopsticks

Nero Wolfe is a big enough deal (no pun intended, but if you didn't know, besides brilliance, his defining trait is obesity) that other mystery writers mention him in their own stories on a parallel with Holmes. In fact, there is even a theory that Wolfe is the son of Holmes and Irene Adler, but that seems unlikely to me because... the dude's huge. They weren't.


Despite Wolfe's fame, and my long-standing love of mysteries, I'd never read any Wolfe, so I thought I was due. This book had two mysteries, linked only by the eponymous blooms. In the first, our rotund hero demands three pots of black orchids (a special hybrid, the only ones of their kind) as payment in clearing a client's name in a murder at a flower show. In the second, he has blooms from them delivered to the funeral of another client. Wolfe is both a gourmand and a gardener, and spends something like eight hours a day with his plants.

I get that the stories are mainly interesting for Wolfe's quirks (he doesn't like to be touched, he hates leaving his home, and he does not believe that "contact" should ever be used as a verb, among others) and the interplay between him and Archie Goodwin, his long-suffering Man of Action assistant. It seems like there is only enough information divulged to the reader to make guesses at parts of the solution, but never to solve it before the Great Man. It also seems like Archie deserves far more credit than he receives. He does all the legwork, observing, tailing, information gathering, and reports back to Wolfe, who puts the pieces together. Considering the amount of abuse he takes for his efforts, he must have an outstanding ego to keep working for that pompous ass.

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posted by reyn at 6:36 PM


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Sandman

I'm very bad at sitting down to review books properly, but I am going to try to at least NAME the ones I do read. It can't be that difficult, right? With a sentence or two saying whether I liked it or not? Anyway...

I read volumes 1-3 of The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman, on loan from a friend at work. (I get volumes 4-6 when I return the ones currently in my possession.) The story begins with the "Sandman" -- aka Oneiros, Morpheus, or the Dream Lord -- trapped by a grasping, evil magician. Spoilers: He escapes, and then spends the rest of vol. 1 trying to regain his Kingdom of Dream. The other volumes deal with other stories: the first performance of A Midsummer's Night Dream, a muse trapped by a writer, a woman who becomes a dream vortex. Some of them I liked more than others, but all of them were worth my time. I definitely plan to continue with the series. I've always loved mythology, and Gaiman uses a lot of it in his stories.

I read V for Vendetta this summer and didn't really like it ... the "graphics novel" format was very confusing to me and I genuingely did not know what was going on at times. The Sandman was much easier to understand, although there where still places I had to read a page or two twice to get the full meaning.

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posted by Elizabeth at 5:30 AM


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Can't touch this

Title: Touching the Void
Author: Joe Simpson

Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, both experienced climbers and mountaineers, set out to complete a first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande (an icy, storm-thrashed mountain in the Peruvian Andes). With a few difficulties and minor close calls, which are to be expected on a major ascent like that, they made the summit. Then everything went wrong.

The book is subtitled "The True Story of One Man's Miraculous Survival," before I was even a third of the way through, I was impressed that either man had survived. Both of them had terrifying falls which could have ended the trip and their lives. The biggest difference is that when Yates fell, he was caught by the rope, dangled free of the snow cliff, and managed to climb back up to Simpson. When Simpson fell, he landed on ice and shattered his knee.

I'm not providing any spoilers by telling you this; the whole story is well known. Even the back cover of the book tells you that Simpson broke his leg (bad news anywhere, but especially bad when you manage to break it in as spectacular a fashion as Simpson did, on top of a mountain, days from any medical support) and Yates had to help him down. It tells you that during the process of lowering his friend, something else went wrong, and Yates was forced to cut the rope, letting Simpson drop. Both men expected themselves--and each other--to die, but both survived. You don't read this book to find out what happened; you read it to find out how it happened. How both men struggled with the circumstances, their own decisions, and the harsh environment surrounding them. You read it to find out how they pushed themselves to survive, and find yourself wondering whether you could have done the same.

This book is subtitled

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posted by reyn at 9:37 AM


Monday, April 11, 2011

Now featuring cognitive dissonance

As long as we're throwing up (pun not intended, but appreciated in afterthought) book-related posts in addition to the usual reviews, I feel I should link to this Onion AV article I came across today, and add, in response, No.

I've only read a couple Marple mysteries, and only seen a couple Garner movies (never watched Alias), so I'm probably not versed enough in either to officially have this opinion, but I repeat: No.


posted by reyn at 6:58 PM


Thursday, April 07, 2011

Touch the sky

Title: Contact
Author: Carl Sagan

Many years ago, when the movie came out, I saw it. Somehow, I never got around to reading the book until recently, after I picked it up cheap at a library book sale. Parts of it are much more entertaining (from a slightly meta- standpoint) knowing what I've learned since the movie came out, like all of the references to legalized marijuana seen through the lens of knowledge that Sagan smoked a lot of weed. To anyone, the story is compelling. The scope changes a lot; early chapters discuss the development of our protagonist's young mind, and how she came to love math and science. Small chapter-starting snippets describe the voyage an alien signal takes across space, and the enormous structure from which it emanated. Later, after the signal's discovery, the scope goes global. Sagan theorizes (in an admittedly super-optimistic way that somehow just misses feeling naive) how a global community, still learning to trust one another, might receive such a message and try to use it. How nations might come together to build a device of unknown purpose and power, and of the subversive elements who might try to stop such an undertaking. And, because it's a novel about scientists who receive a cryptic message from the heavens, there is prolonged discussion of the schism--and similarities--between science and religion. Sagan manages to make these conversations sound balanced and reasoned for both sides.

The story was great. But that's not why I love the book. Well, it's not the only reason. Contact has earned a spot on my Shelf of Favorite Books because it is mainly a book about how great it is to be a scientist. It revels in its own nerdiness while making nerdiness seem like the most fantastic quality anyone could have. Ellie's discoveries, whether of a method to create artificial rubies to improve radio telescope performance, or the secret childhood tinkering to repair a broken radio, or her receipt of a message from an advanced alien society, are all written to sound exciting and fascinating. There is disappointment late in the book, but Ellie is unfazed. She has made more discoveries, and widespread acceptance is not as important as the discovery itself. By the end (SPOILER), there are many people who simply don't believe what she says she has done. Only those who experienced it with her know the truths that she knows. Everyone else is required to do something Ellie has never done: take it on faith. Sagan creates an overlap between science and faith, because there are times in both fields when you just can't prove what you know. But scientists know that someday, that proof will vindicate them. We proved that the earth orbits the sun, we proved that Pi is infinitely long, and we proved that all that we are is tied to a tiny molecule in every cell of our bodies. Given enough time, scientists can discover anything. Proving those mysteries doesn't destroy the magic; it is the magic.

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posted by reyn at 12:26 PM


Monday, April 04, 2011

WTF, Ray?

Title: We'll Always Have Paris
Author: Ray Bradbury

I really enjoyed Ray Bradbury in high school. After Fahrenheit 451 introduced us, I found some of his short stories and plowed through a couple collections. His Mars adventures were inventive, though ridiculously unscientific, his robots seemed specifically designed to expose human flaws and foibles, and I enjoyed the idea of a sociopathic, homicidal infant years before Stewie Griffin hit the scene. We started a lending library at work, adn when my boss brought in a collection of Bradbury short stories I'd never heard of before, I grabbed it before it had settled on the shelf.

I wish I'd left it on the shelf.

When a writer known for sci-fi writes something else, you have to expect that it will be a little different, but many such writers have succeeded in branching out beyond their familiar genres. But this collection... it won a National Book Award, and I can't figure out why. Remarkably few of the stories made any sense at all, and the few of them that are memorable enough for me to recall now are not memorable for good reasons. Disappointing, because I really like Bradbury, and I really didn't like this book.

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posted by reyn at 12:20 PM