Physics, Comedy, And Alternate Realities – Tom Holt’s Doughnut

Previous to this, I had never read any of Tom Holt’s work.  In fact, I don’t know that I had ever heard of Tom Holt.  This makes me sad.  Mainly because he’s got such great titles, such as Snow White and the Seven Samurai, Djinn Rummy, and Grailblazers.

From what I understand, his books are a little odd.

In fact, from reading Doughnut, I think he’s easily comparable to comedy genius Christopher Moore, who writes with a similar recognition of how ridiculous the ongoing story is.  Holt also writes similarly to another sci-fi\humor genius Douglas Adams.  Holt’s British wit pours off of every page.

So the basics of the story are this: Theo Bernstein is a physicist, a very smart one.  So smart, that he works at the Very Very Large Hadron Collider (VVLHC) in Switzerland.  Or he did before a very minor error in calculation caused the entire thing to explode, taking with it his arm, his job, and (collaterally) his wife.

Oh, but his arm is still there.  But invisible.  Why?  Nobody knows!  And Theo, as he’s out on his ass with no money, no job, and no family to fall back on, doesn’t have much time to think about it  He works in a slaughterhouse for several weeks until he receives a letter telling him that’s he has inherited his old college professor’s safe deposit box.

His professor, Pieter van Goyen, must had a really sick sense of humor because the deposit box contained a small empty bottle, a powder compact, and an apple.  Oh and a rather odd note explaining how he had managed to set up a job for Theo and that the bottle might end up somehow killing him.

What a friend!

From there, things go from bad to worse.  Pieter’s letter explains that there’s this guy with a job opening that Theo would be an absolutely dynamite fit for, so Theo reluctantly seeks out this position.  And who could blame the guy? His alternative is trucking cow parts from one side of a hot, smelly factory to another… how bad could it be?

Well…  when he arrives at the hotel, it seems… closed.  Or if not closed, then going through some major renovations.  The hotel’s proprietor, Bill, and the only other staff member, a young woman named Matasuntha, are extremely odd.  In fact, they’re awfully interested in the bottle small bottle in Theo’s possession.

This is where the novel takes a turn for the weird.  On night, after solving on a massively complex formula he discovers at the bottom of the empty bottle, Theo is transported to a new, different world.  Upon arrival, sky-writing informs Theo that he now resides in a “hand-held portable pocket universe” known as YouSpace.

That’s where I’m going to leave the plot.  Suffice it to say, it gets weirder.  Theo soon joins in on a hunt through YouSpace (multiple YouSpaces, technically) searching for answers to why the VVLHC exploded, what happened to his arm, and where his brother disappeared to all those years ago…

Holt is exceptionally clever in the plotting of a story that becomes increasingly complex as Theo begins traveling into further and further dimensions and it all works.  Or seems to…  I was an English major, not a scientist.

And the humor!  There’s a lot of dry dialogue, of course, but much of the humor comes from the narration.  My favorite gem comes about when Theo is on the precipice of learning a crucial bit of information.  Holt writes, “He had to ask, but he already knew, with the resigned foreboding of an infant at the font who knows that his three elder brothers are called John, Paul, and George, what the answer would be.”

The best recommendation of this novel I can make is that it reminds me intimately of many Kurt Vonnegut novels that I loved greatly in college.  The humor, the complex mixture of literary and sci-fi moments…  Just a great novel from start to finish.  Check it out if you’re on the hunt for a sci-fi novel with a heart and more than a dash of humor.

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Bites of Bits – Rare John Fante Pieces

Some time ago, a random person in an AOL Chat Room (yes, it was quite some time ago… about 2000, 2001) suggested I read a small book titled Ask The Dust by the author John Fante.

It was, simply put, a revelation.

Suddenly, reading wasn’t just a way I spent time, getting lost inside macabre worlds of serial killers, or the fast-paced land of government spies… instead, reading became a doorway into the soul.

This seems a bit silly to me now.  I’m trying to imagine myself at 17.  I had always enjoyed poetry… reading it, writing it…  All that.

Poetry held the mysteries to love (Sonnet 130, John Donne, ), pain (Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Ione”), and the bleak emptiness I felt as a teenager (TS Eliot, AE Housman, and Sylvia Plath).

Oh and most mysterious of all: how some people were able to get published (Jewel).

But if I were to pick up a novel, I’d be more likely to read a Dean Koontz book than anything else.  I recall taking solace in the overwrought plotting and white knight heroes… not to mention the cathartic release of reading about truly evil villains torturing their victims…

Yeah, I was a messed up kid.

But John Fante broke me out of that.  I still distinctly remember trying to read a new Dean Koontz book and finding it lacking.  After all, wasn’t it almost the exact plot as a book he wrote in the 80s?  Yes, it was very similar… too similar.

If you haven’t read John Fante and you’ve got a taste for straight-forward, first person narratives… look no further.  If you’ve ever read and been a fan of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Sherwood Anderson, or Knut Hamsun… read him.  Now.  Start with Ask the Dust.  Then, Dreams From Bunker Hill.  Finally, read Brotherhood of the Grape and Fante’s letters.

From there, you’re on your own.  His other books are decent, but mostly hit-or-miss.  Full of Life is great if you read it while waiting for your wife to give birth.  Otherwise, it smacks of schmaltz.  Still probably worth a read at least once, especially if you’re really wanting more.

Incidentally, despite the quote that ran on the original hardcover of Brotherhood of the Grape, the main character is not, “as zesty as Zorba, as ruthless in his ways as Don Corleone” because… well, there’s nothing of either Zorba, or Don Corleone in the novel… Damn marketers.

Anyhow, I’m making this post to share some less common John Fante pieces.  Stuff that’s not collected in any of the available books.  For instance, Fante wrote a small series of columns titles “Swords and Roses” for a local newspaper when he was living with his family in Roseville… and here they are!  Big props to the library in Roseville for sending me copies (and they also have true first editions of both of Fante’s early novels, Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Ask the Dust).

Also included below are three pieces Fante wrote later in life for the Los Angeles Times.

A Space Ship Off Malibu

Smog Defended

Goodbye Bunker Hill

These are easy enough to obtain through the normal channels (like the Roseville Public Library, or the LA Times website), I just wanted to put these here so can find them when I need them, and to give you fine people a nice introduction to John Fante.

And seriously catch me sometime and I’ll talk your ear off about how fantastic John Fante really is.

And extra-seriously… read John Fante!

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Morality In Crushing 6 Inch Aliens – John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War

I recently read the novel Redshirts.

loved it.  A lot.  A whole lot.

So I thought… why not try some more Scalzi.  And I was right in that choice.  Old Man’s War is a great novel.  As Scalzi’s first novel, I’m rather surprised just how well written and complete  it is.

Old Man’s War
John Scalzi
320 Pages
Tor Books
December 9, 2004

For one thing, Scalzi is quite skilled at separating (and eventually combining) the humorous and serious parts of his novel.  It begins on Earth, from the perspective of a man named John Perry and the early chapters are a bit depressing.

Perry is a 75-year-old widower who has joined an interstellar army known as the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) to fight for human beings who are attempting to colonize the universe.  Much of the first few chapters is Perry mourning his wife and considering just what it means that he’s left his entire Earthly life behind to fight wars among the stars.

At this point, you’re probably saying, “James, no one in their right mind would want a man aged 75 to fight in a war, interstellar, or otherwise?”  And, excepting Charles Atlas, you’d be correct.

Fortunately, the CDF has stolen tons of alien tech over the years, and has the ability to transfer a person’s consciousness into a completely new, greatly enhanced body.  These bodies do not age, are completely hairless, and are able to survive on only two hours of sleep. Handy, no?

Perry’s introduction to this universe is also ours. We learn about skip drives (hyperdrive for a new age), Brainpals (an internal computer with an HUD that appears in the user’s vision), and all sorts of other technology.  Perry names his Brainpal “Asshole” and the humor continues.

In fact, the first 100 pages are almost all humor, as Scalzi introduces us to the universe he has created.  Even the basic training Perry gets tossed into is mostly light-hearted and fun.  The novel tells us of Perry’s acclimation to his new body and he discovery that he excels as a soldier.  Humor reigns for much of this arc of the story.

But… then the war came.

Naturally, war is a complex subject.  And Scalzi is smart enough as an author to treat is as such.  There’s battles that are inevitable, certainly, and these are very well written and interesting

But then there’s the ones that border on cruel and horrible (did I mention the merge of funny and serious?  Try to read the chapter about the Covandu battle without laughing… and then feeling terrible about laughing).  Scalzi has written a great universe with a large number of interesting (and often frightening!) aliens… all of which want humanity to bugger off back to earth, and are more than willing to fight over it.

Perry goes through a lot of strange cycles as he attempts to deal with the fact that he’s a ruthless killing machine and it never comes off as disingenuous, or preachy on the part of Scalzi.  Instead, it feels like natural character progression, which really speaks to Scalzi’s ability to write good characters.

While reading the novel, I almost felt like I was reading a novel of Starship Troopers (and yes, I know there already was a novel…  The movie is different, I hear).  It should be unsurprising, then, that the novel is written very much in the style of Robert Heinlein, or that Scalzi even acknowledges Heinlein’s influence at the back of the book.

After reading Redshirts I knew I wanted to read another Scalzi novel.  I wasn’t sure where to go with, but I’m glad I ended up with Old Man’s War.  It is a part of a series… and I’m generally down on series novels because I hate trying to keep up.  I would much rather have a nice beginning, middle, and end, and be done with it.  But Scalzi’s got me hooked now, the bastard, so I can’t wait to check out the rest of the books in the series.

I would definitely recommend this book to people… even people who don’t normally read sci-fi (or those like myself who abhor military science fiction).  Scalzi’s humor really is the star of the novel and the witty banter carried me through many scientific explanations that I would otherwise be too stupid to understand.

Death of (Several Thousand) Ensigns – Redshirts by John Scalzi

What surprises me most about John Scalzi is that it has taken me so long to read one of his novels.  I read his non-fiction book Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded a year or so ago and loved it.  Scalzi was smart, erudite, and hilarious.  I looked at Old Man’s War and The Android’s Dream several times at both work, and the library, but never bit the bullet.

After following Scalzi on Twitter some months ago, amongst the promise of nude buttercream  frosting pictures (long story, don’t ask) and stuck with him because of his frequently random, funny thoughts.  A solid addition to my Twitter line-up, but I still hadn’t read any of his other novels.

That has now changed.

Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas
John Scalzi
320 Pages
Tor Books
June 5, 2012

Redshirts is a novel that I really have no business liking.  For one thing… I’ve always hated Star Trek.  No matter which iteration… movies, TV, video games, whatever… I’ve never enjoyed any aspect of the franchise (well, except for the most recent reboot by JJ Abrams… that was fun!) and I don’t typically enjoy a lot of traditional science fiction (Arthur C Clarke being a lone exception).

But Redshirts… is so much fun that I just have to love it.

I’m going to warn you now… heavy spoilers from this point on.  And, despite recent studies showing that spoilers don’t necessarily detract from the enjoyment of a story… Well, fuck that noise.  I hate spoilers.  They’re annoying and detract from my enjoyment of the story.

HEAVY
F’N
SPOILERS
BELOW

Seriously, spoilers ahoy.  Just sayin’.

Our story begins with Andy Dahl, an ensign who has just be assigned to The Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union.  From the get go, he notices strange things.  How does everyone in Dahl’s Xenobiology lab seem to know exactly when a senior officer is incoming?  Why is the important work always done without science, but instead with an item that looks like a microwave of some sort and is referred to, almost reverently, as The Box?

The weirdness doesn’t end there!  When comparing notes with the ensigns he entered the ship with (Finn, Duvall, Hanson, and Hester), they discover even more strange inconsistencies (and sometimes  consistencies!).

For instance, why do the same floors get damaged whenever the ship is attacked?  Why do the ship’s officers come back from “away missions” (that is, missions on hostile, alien worlds, missions to derelict ships overrun with killer robots, etc.) while the ensigns do not.

And what in the cool blue hell is an ice shark?

After several close calls, Dahl and his friends start making a concerted effort to avoid away missions (unless an officer named Kerensky is there… he seems more apt to be injured, which may or may not save an ensign or two from death).

At this point, Dahl and his fellow ensigns set up a plan.  They want to track down a yeti-like man named Jenkins who seems to know everything that happens on board the Starship Intrepid.  But when they find him, things are worse than they thought…

Jenkins reveals that they are part of a world that is directly affected by the plot of a sci-fi television show from 2012.  And worst of all?  The show wasn’t even that good.

As would anyone… the ensigns refuse to believe it.  And who could blame them?  Television hasn’t even existed for hundreds of years… how could a crappy show from the stupid ages possibly have any affect on them?

But as time goes on, and more of their friends fall victim to what Jenkins has labelled “The Narrative” (i.e.: a plot twist from the show that will invariably leave an ensign dead, Kerensky injured, and the rest of the crew miraculously unharmed), Dahl and co. realize their days are numbered and concoct a plan to go back in time, stop the shitty writer from killing them off, and return to their time triumphantly… and alive!

The first problem: they have less than a week to do it… because The Narrative had already set up that in their Universe, time travel will kill anyone if they stay out of their timeline for more than a week.

Of course.

While much of the book is funny up to this point… when Dahl and his rag-tag crew of ensigns (and Kerensky… since they’ve got to bring an officer to ensure their survival) arrive in 2012… the real humor begins.

This ends my long-winded plot explication.  A lot more happens in the final third of the novel, but… you’ll just have to read the book to find it out what.

The events that take place in Los Angeles are my favorite. They’re funny, touching, and a lot more real than most of what occurs on the Intrepid.  And the three codas at the end of the novel?  Well… I loved ’em, which is in direct contrast to many of the reviews I’ve read so far.

The codas, told from the POV of a different “real world” character, are the most philosophical, funny, and imaginative parts of the book and I think they really allow Scalzi to give his themes a stronger emotional punch in ways that couldn’t be as successfully explored in the ridiculous universe that Dahl and his friends existed in.

The favorite of these themes comes up in the first coda.  What sort of responsibility does a writer have to his characters?  Does a writer have to treat a fictional character with respect?  Should an author be allowed to kill off characters on a whim, even if it doesn’t affect the story in any way?

The codas are thought-provoking and provide a much-needed glimpse into the real world of the novel.  Additionally, the first coda is absolutely hysterical, and reads like one of Scalzi’s Tweets (or blog posts).

As I said before, I have almost no direct knowledge of Star Trek.  I’ve never seen any of the movies (well, except for the recent reboot which I loved), and I’ve only sat through a handful of episodes of any iteration of the popular TV series.

Despite this, I feel I was able to enjoy a large number of the jokes (thanks Futurama audio commentaries!), and the book itself felt like a complete entity, even if I couldn’t tell the difference between a horta and a tribble (OK, I know those… once again, thank you Futurama audio commentaries!).

So, even if you’re not a fan of Star Trek… pick Redshirts up.  There’s humor, heart, adventure, and death by ice shark.  What else is there to a good summer read?

High Schoolers In Bloom – Paper Towns by John Green

I’ve spent a lot of time building to this review.  Not anywhere in the blog, nor any place personal or professional.  But I’ve known I was going to read this book and I’ve known I was going to have a lot to say about.

I remember reading the publisher’s description more than a year ago because one of my co-workers is absolutely in love with John Green’s books.  And now I completely understand why.

By the way… light spoilers follow in the text, so feel free to skip it and know this: you should read this book.  If you like funny, touching, intelligent novels… you’ll like this.

But James, I don’t read Teen books!

Fuck you.  This ain’t Twilight.  This is fantastic literature with engaging characters, believable (if a bit precocious) dialogue, and a story that will keep you reading all the way through the night.  Just do it.

Paper Towns
John Green
305 Pages
Dutton Juvenile
October 16, 2008

This book.  Yes, yes, yes.  I started reading it yesterday evening and finished pretty much all but the final chapter (yes, I’m a glutton for subconscious punishment and had to sleep before I could finish) and… wow.  The ending was even satisfying.  The ending is hardly ever satisfying, especially when reading a novel intended for teenagers.

Where to begin?  This book is funny.  If all John Green books are this funny, I want to buy them all and place them under my pillow at night so I can be even a fraction as humorous.  Seriously though… the humor only accounts for a fraction of the novel, but given the way the book jarringly goes between suspense, dread, and general high school… high-schooliness… you need it.

OK, the story… Quentin and Margo have lived next door to each other almost all their lives.  As childhood friends, they found a dead body (spoiler alert: this does not have the same effect that it did on those kids in Stand By Me) and they just… float apart.

Smash cut.  Almost ten years later, Quentin is about to graduate from high school.  He’s hanging out with his two best friends (Ben and Radar… awesome dudes) and we catch him looking longingly at Margo… the girl next door.  Insert audience sighing here.  [random aside… I love that Green describes Margo as being soft and curvaceous.  Realistic body images FTW!]

Anyway… that night Margo approaches Quentin’s window and tells him she needs a wheel-man.  After some hemming and hawing, Quentin agrees and they embark on a crazy, passionate adventure full of breaking, entering (separate, not together), chaos, mayhem, and maddening fun.  Quentin is full of hope that they’ll reignite their friendship and then…

She’s gone.  Where to?  Ask the dust on the road…  Quentin’s hopes are smashed and he starts on a mad odyssey to find out where she’s gone.  From there… well, I don’t want to engage in too many spoilers.

The book will routinely tear your heart out of your chest.  Is Margo dead?  Is she just avoiding Quentin?  Torturing the poor schmuck?  Will she show up randomly at prom?  Graduation?  Ever?

So what’s the best part of the book, you ask?  Let’s start with the characters.  Quentin is lovable.  A bit naive, a bit of a douche in re: his friends, but endearing.  Also, you root for him through all this crap because he comes across as an incredibly genuine person.  And there may be parts of him I recognize from my own not-so-wayward youth… maybe! Mini-rebellions against an uncaring status-quo, tourist town annoyances, and unrequited love.  Ah, to never have to be a teenager again.

Ben and Radar are excellent supporting characters.   They’re supportive of a lot of Quentin’s insane plots to find Margo, but not above knocking him down a peg or two when he needs to recognize that he’s being an idiot (or busting his balls when he starts taking things too seriously) .  In other words, good friends.

And Margo.  Oh, I think I fell in love.  Not the creepy, why’s-that-guy-hanging-out-in-the-high-school-parking-lot-every-day-even-though-he-clearly-doesn’t-have-a-child-at-this-school love.  But her character, though mostly absent from the novel, is intelligent, enigmatic, and an absolute blast.

The novel also has great turns of phrase, hilarious bits of dialogue (the right simile or metaphor can make a funny scene a pee-your-pants funny scene… remember that).

Beyond the writing, the humor, and the characters, though, my favorite part of the book was how often I misjudged it.  In the beginning, I assumed I had another Virgin Suicides on my hands.  Quentin was idealizing Margo and, as a result, would never know what she was really like.  There’d be a dead body and 150 pages of characters coming to terms with the why without ever understanding the character.

Hell… the pieces were all there.  Bad home life with overbearing parents…  A mysterious disappearance… lots of weird clues (and a huge-ass record collection), but Green surprised me by allowing the characters to make reasonable guesses and intuit the truth behind the whole thing (thank you Internet!).

After that… I was expecting some big, disappointing ending.  Quentin would work it out, but it would lead nowhere and he’d spend the rest of his life pining away for the one that got away.  Also depressing.  But John Green had plenty of fun, surprisingly plot points to go…

The story keeps building and we get a bit of a traditional high school story… Finals, prom, drunken debauchery, graduation, the road trip… but (once again) the characters really bring it all together.  As they chug along to their final destination, the book just makes you ooze empathy.  You want them to make it.  They have to make it.  If they don’t, what proof is there of a loving and righteous God (and no, the atheist in my doesn’t have a joke about that… but the Catholic in me does… take it away Father Donald Roemer!)

OK that was too soon, too much, and a bit of an obscure reference.  Apologies to all involved.

Please, please read this book.  My plan is to head to the library and punch crappy books out of kid’s hands and drop this into them instead.  And if they try to refuse, I’ll just shake my head sadly and tell them… I can’t believe that you forgot to be awesome…  Seriously, read this book.  Read it!

Bites of Bits – Wilson by Daniel Clowes

So… Daniel Clowes.  The man is pretty much a genius.  You may know his work without knowing you know it.  Wait a minute, I think I just blew a gasket… rewiring my brain so I can finish this…

Anyway, Clowes is best known outside of the comics world for Ghost World (the film) and best known within the comics world for Ghost World (the comic) and Death-Ray (the comic and maybe someday the movie).  Oh, and a little comic book called Eightball that was published intermittently between 1989 and 2004 (incidentally, Eightball contained a majority of Clowes’ published work, including Ghost World, Daniel Boring, and Death-Ray).

Wilson
Daniel Clowes
80 Pages
Drawn and Quarterly

April 27, 2010

Wilson is a strange, strange little book.  When I first opened it at a comic shop, I read a few random pages and laughed.  I really enjoyed the varying artwork, the strange situations, and Wilson’s dialogue, delivered with an acerbic wit and brutal, biting sarcasm.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that each page (though housing a small, self-contained story) was a part of a larger story about a period in Wilson’s life.

So.  Wilson.

He’ll start conversations with some sort of long-winded  banter, and then insult his conversational partner when they attempt to reply in kind.

He calls up people who don’t have any idea who he is, or what he’s talking about and complains about their stupidity after they hang up.

He is the master of the backhanded compliment and isn’t above mailing a box full of shit to someone he doesn’t like.

In other words… he’s just about my favorite literary character of all time.

Yes, he’s an asshat.  A complete and utter douche.  But at the same time…well, I was going to say that his heart is in the right place, but… I’m not completely certain it is.

The book is definitely worth tracking down.  The humor is often awkward, sometimes to the point of pain, and there is a clever comeuppance that comes about 2/3s of the way through the story.  Of course, Wilson learns essentially nothing from his experiences and continues right where he left off… but despite his sociopathic tendencies, he’s… erm, well… he’s memorable, anyway.

If you’re looking for a snarky, sarcastic, balding jerk… Well… I’m married.  Sorry.  But Wilson is a hysterical read that will help take your mind off that fact.