Friday, March 30, 2012

Fatal Error

by F. Paul Wilson

The penultimate Jack book.  In this issue, Jack is hired by Munir, an Arab whose wife and son have been kidnapped by a sadistic lunatic who blames Munir for his sister’s 9/11 death – but the kidnapper is actually a tool of the Adversary, who needs Munir’s code to create a super cyber-virus.  For the forces of the Adversary are intent on taking down the entire Internet, which will weaken the noosphere so much that the Lady will die.

This is a surprisingly weak Jack book, in my opinion.  On the one hand, the street-level action involving Munir is top-notch.  On the other hand, the plot against the Lady has one of the lamest resolutions in the history of plot (the attack succeeds, except it doesn’t, for some reason).  Then there’s a side plot involving the former sentinel, Glaeken, which must occur in one of Wilson’s other innumerable inter-related books; its inclusion, as it adds nothing to the drama and serves only to distract, is perhaps ill-advised.  Finally, there’s a scene of fan service, in which Jack takes down some Kicker thugs in the airport during the chaos that follows after the Internet is taken down: it’s a nice return to rage-filled, alpha-male Jack, but the scene is deeply flawed, as Jack leaves Gia and Vicki to go deal with the men, who had been harassing Gia.  It seemed the most obvious thing in the world to me that their luring Jack away was a trap, not to get him, but to hurt him by attacking Gia.  That it didn’t happen that way only shows that Wilson didn’t think of it, and it makes Jack look stupid.  I would call this book the first misstep Wilson’s made in this saga.

three stars

[follows Ground Zero]

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Descartes's Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe

by Amir D. Aczel

A look at Descartes’ life and work, written in a very breezy, popular style that supposes almost no math or philosophy experience.  This material is peppered by a lot of winking references to Rosicrucians, the Inquisition, and some melodramatic insinuations about Descartes hiding his greatest discoveries (the “secret notebook” of the title, which Leibnitz decoded right after his death, so it’s not exactly secret, is it?).

This is the third Aczel book I have read (after the okay The Riddle of the Compass and the more interesting Chance), and while the others were both flawed, especially in matters of historical record, those flaws were outweighed by the stories Aczel had to tell.  In the case of this book, though, the engine that drives the book, its raison d’etre, is not to tell Descartes’ story but to embellish it into something Dan Brown might write, a potboiler of secret societies and death threats.  It is a sham of false drama, which the story of one of history’s greatest intellects, who was deeply religious, created Western philosophy, served as a gentleman soldier, and mingled with royalty, simply does not need.  The book is riddled with errors, mostly minor (Aczel describes the Rosicrucians’ symbol right above an illustration of it that is quite unlike his description), and also contains many errors of logic (Aczel says Descartes had nothing to fear from the Inquisition regarding his cosmological model, since it was “not valid,” as if that has anything to do with a challenge to the Church’s authority); but Azcel’s main sin is his constant obfuscation – what he insinuates by not telling all the facts.  For example, one of the main “reveals” of the book is that Descartes thought of, and hid, what would become Euler’s formula about three-dimensional solids, when it seems to be commonly accepted by scholars that Descartes did not make the final connection to the finished formula.  He makes absurd, silly claims about November 10 being “eerily significant” in Descartes’ life, ironically adding mystical numerology to the life of a logical thinker.  The false drama grates after only a few pages (the chapters and chapter breaks all ending with hyperbolic cliffhanger questions, all of which come to nothing in particular).  And it is packed with uninformative filler (Descartes stopped to rest his horses!  He went to an inn that was popular!  This inn had people in it!  He rested!  He picked up his horses!).  The book is deeply disappointing, because a sensible biography of Descartes for the layman, with Azcel using his expertise to make the math clear, could have been a treasure. 

two stars

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ground Zero

by F. Paul Wilson

In this, the thirteenth and “pen-penultimate” Repairman Jack novel, Jack takes on the cause of Weezy, a childhood friend (a character introduced in one of Wilson’s teen Jack books for young adults) and an eccentric genius with a photographic memory, who has pieced together the brief hints about the true forces behind the 9/11 terrorists (the Adversary needed the towers to fall so one of their pillars of power could be planted).  This disturbs the powers forking for the One, who move to silence her.  Meanwhile, they also make plans to call up the  “Fhinntmanchca,” an anti-matter monster who can destroy the Lady for them.  With Weezy’s help, Jack manages to discern some of the One’s plans, though as usual he is more or less powerless against them, serving only to subdue or kill his minor earthly agents.

This is a typically exciting entry in the series, though I did feel a bit lost when it came to plot minutiae.  Since this is a quintessential roman fleuve, with almost zero explanatory material of past events and characters, a gap of three years between books means there will be some confusion.  Wilson is a master of pacing and suspense, though, so even a weak Jack book, in which the “hero” or more or less buffeted around by inevitable forces he has no hope of combatting, is a fun read.

four stars

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Appointment In Samarra

by John O'Hara

Told from a variety of viewpoints and through flashbacks, this often grim novel of manners centers on one Julian English, the owner of a Cadillac dealership, and his fall from society’s good graces.  After drunkenly flinging a drink in the face of Harry Reilly at a party, Julian is rather unsettled to find that this act has deeper consequences than he realized.  Reilly is well-liked, free with his money, was once a suitor of Julian’s wife before she married him, and has lent Julian himself a large sum of money to keep the dealership afloat.  The Catholic community rallies around Harry, and Julian, always a hard drinker, turns to alcohol, which leads to another poor decision.  His tenuous marriage in serious trouble and more or less cut out from polite society, Julian considers fleeing or suicide.

This is an astonishing novel, with a large cast of fully-drawn characters from all walks of life, and complete with cutting commentary on the vapid lives of high society.  This is not a simplistic novel of the complacency of the wealthy and the valor of the working class, however.   Despite contrasting Julian’s rocky marriage and inner turmoil with his employees’ somewhat happier lives, and despite Julian’s arrogant loftiness, O’Hara makes the reader empathize with the poor sap, and as he waltzes us through Julian’s decline, we root for him, for one more chance, all the way down.  The coda, in which Life Goes On, and we see that Harry had put no importance to the thrown drink, makes Julian’s “appointment” with destiny all the more tragic.

four stars

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Thank You, Jeeves

by P.G. Wodehouse

Jeeves reluctantly gives his notice because Bertie won’t stop playing the banjolele, even “within the narrow confines of a country cottage.”  But Jeeves is never far, for he goes into the service of Bertie’s friend Lord “Chuffy” Chufnell, owner of said cottage.  Of course, Jeeves paves the way for nuptials between Chuffy and his betrothed, repairs a cancelled real-estate transaction, and even gets Roderick Glossop out of a tight spot.  And that’s not even touching on the blackface Bertie finds himself in, two frightful children, and the homicidal dipsomaniac socialist butler Brinkley.

This is easily one of Wodehouse’s best Jeeves books.  The lengthy scene in which Bertram keeps getting mistaken for a burglar as he finds different places outside to sleep had me laughing to tears.  And delicious lines like “We looked at each other with a wild surmise, silent upon a first floor back in Chuffnell Regis” show that the literate Wodehouse wit is at its acme.  A masterpiece, flawed only in the unfortunate use of the dated and offensive term for blacks and a plot point requiring blackface, which is not perhaps quite the keen drollery it may have been in the thirties.  

five stars

[Read three times: 5/1/94, 5/20/08, 3/10/12]

Monday, March 5, 2012

I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted

by Nick Bilton

The author, a technology reporter for the New York Times, shows the ways in which media have changed due to technology and how in turn this change shapes consumers’ expectations of how media are consumed. He argues against the Luddite claims that short-form, rapid-fire media “bytes” are destroying our brains (though he allows that our brains are changing due to how we use technology). He also argues that despite the radical nature of recent change, and the ability to acquire vast amounts of specialized and personalized information free, consumers still value the same things they always have – quality and a good experience – and are willing to pay for them.

The book is hardly awe-inspiring prescience, just a solid grounding in the tech world and an eagerness to accept innovation. In fact, Bilton’s a bit of a na├»ve Polyanna on some issues, saying for example that “Facebook was trying to create a better experience for its users” in sharing users’ information (not, you know, trying to generate revenue?); or in defending video games, saying that consumers “will most likely play games as much as they read” – uh, no, certainly not. In fact, the very real issue is not that video games are somehow warping our brains by their very existence, but that they replace more in-depth and active mental stimulation such as reading and debating. Bilton makes good points about the editor’s job being the same whether it’s curating a broadsheet, a newspaper, or a blog, and the emerging role of the consumer as co-creator of the media, who values a specialized experience more than plain content. This information is useful and provides clues as to how the next generation of media might be used. But throughout the book, Bilton sidesteps his ideological opponents’ actual claims, by dismissing studies of violence and video games as “preconceived notions,” and more or less ignoring the speed, ubiquity and depth of change in consumers’ attention spans, which are the real points of concern. In short, yes, Bilton’s world, in which everyone games, tweets, blogs, chats, and reads weighty tomes with equal abandon, is a tech utopia – but it’s not the real world.

three stars