Category Archives: Books

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

DownloadedFileMy wife got me a Kindle for my birthday and, I have to admit, I’ve spent more time playing games on it than reading books. However, during a recent business trip to Florida (13 hours going, 15 hours coming back!) I took the opportunity to read my first piece of fiction on the Kindle (I’ve read one other book, non-fiction, and I’ll post about that soon).

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, is about, well, books. Books in the tradition paper format and books in electronic format. Books as each author’s masterpiece and books as collections of data. The story revolves around a mysterious secret society, a society that is discovered by the hero, Clay Jannon, when he, as an out-of-work 20-something, takes a job at a bookstore, Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. The bookstore is stocked with the oddest of books, which are bought by the oddest of patrons. As Clay learns more about what is going on, applying computer algorithms to problems that the patrons have spent literally centuries examining, he uncovers an ancient riddle.

This is a fast paced story that interweaves a love for books and a love for modern technology, a la Google. Google features prominently, via their various technologies. I don’t know enough about Google to know if the glimpses inside Google culture are all that accurate, but it still makes for a compelling story. This is a story that has its excitements and twists and turns, but is remarkable in that the impact of the events really only concern a few characters. There is no world-changing or world-domineering bad guy, just people who have different views of things. And a puzzle to solve. If no one solves the puzzle, life goes on…

A couple of things did bother me in the plot. I won’t say much to not spoil the story, but if anyone else reads this and has some insight, I’d be interested in hearing it.

First, I don’t get the code. I don’t get how it was supposed to work. Anyone understand it? The explanation doesn’t make sense to me.

Second, I don’t understand how the Google employee, Kat, falls for the idea of what the puzzle might provide, if solved. She is a tech person, not into something supernatural. Unless that is another point the author is trying to make.

However, in spite of these concerns, the book is still very entertaining, fast paced, and does explore some interesting questions. It makes you think, at least a bit.

 

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

9780316197014_p0_v1_s260x420The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz is the first official addition to the Sherlock Holmes canon since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle last laid down his pen. Officially sanctioned by his estate, the conceit of The House of Silk is that there was an adventure of Holmes that was so sensitive and involved such important power-brokers of England that Dr. John Watson had it sealed for 100 years before it could be published. Thus, it occurs relatively early in the cases that form the canon even though it was published so late.

It is also presented as if it were written late in the life of Dr. Watson, and the author, Horowitz, uses the opportunity to have Watson reflect on a number of facets relating to his relationship to Holmes. For example, he laments that he never really gave much thought to Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Holmes and Watson. This gives some nice insight into how Dr. Watson viewed the world he shared with Holmes.

sherlock holmes consulting detectiveI’m one of those who discovered and devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories as a kid. Not only did these stories introduce me to a different way of looking at the world — deductive reasoning — but they took me to a different time which, looking back, was both more sinister but more naive than our own, at the same time. These stories and the basic idea behind them form so much of what we see in our media today, from the obvious Elementary and Sherlock to shows such as Monk and House, shows I generally tend to enjoy. I also was what seemed to be the only person who got into the Sherlock Holmes “role playing game” as a kid, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, a game that had an excellent foundation, but which I simply couldn’t get others to play. I was therefore pretty excited to find this new addition to the Sherlock Holmes mythos.

The House of Silk is a very well written tale that is grand in scope. The mystery that Holmes and Watson are drawn into is very intricate and twisted. The various characters are handled well. The way Holmes is handled is particularly gratifying. At one point, in which the situation is rather dire and Watson receives some assistance from a third party, I felt a little disappointed that Holmes would need to be bailed out, but it turns out the Holmes had his own solution. Overall, it was a very gratifying read and a great addition to the Holmes adventures.

There were two minor quibbles I had. First, the conceit of the novel, that this was a particularly sensitive case that couldn’t be published at the time of the original cases, felt like it closed more doors than it opened. That is, it didn’t seem to leave much room for any further adventures. Of course, there is a lot of “unaccounted time” in the life of Holmes that could be filled in, but exactly how any other story would be added is a little uncertain. Possibly there is no plan to do so, but given the success of this novel and other media versions of Sherlock, I would be surprised if the estate does not take advantage and push on this.

Sherlock-HolmesThe other quibble is that Holmes, while the central character and the most critical character for advancing the plot, is also, in some odd ways, not that present. He is of course there, all the time, giving his insight, but he feels a bit detached, a bit distant. Maybe it is part of the idea that Watson is telling this story many years after it happened, and of course his personality dominates. Whatever the reason, Holmes almost feels a bit more like a plot device than a real character. Maybe that’s the way all of Doyle’s stories were too.

However, these are minor quibbles and the story itself is a very fitting successor of the Holmes mythos. A fast and satisfying read, I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever enjoyed the original stories. This novel certainly makes me want to finally break out that annotated set of stories I’ve had on the bookshelf for more than a few years and rediscover this great character.

The Sun and the Moon by Matthew Goodman

The Sun and the Moon, by Matthew Goodman, was a random pickup, something that I grabbed at the used bookstore because I had credit I wanted to use but, to be honest, while the book’s taglines intrigued me, I had some serious doubts that I would enjoy it. If I’d had to pay full price, I very likely wouldn’t have.

However, The Sun and the Moon is one of those pleasant surprises, one of those hidden gems that delight. It does drag on a bit, with seemingly longer than necessary descriptions of life in New York in the early 1800s. However, as I went along, I began to appreciate them more and more as pictures of a distant time that gave me a better feeling for the New York and United States that Goodman is exploring.

The context of the book is one in which a newspaper, in an attempt to build circulation, publishes a hoax about, of all things, the discovery of life on the moon. One of the most astonishing things about this story is that in the 1800s, such a notion was not so odd that people were all that skeptical. In fact, even educated people believed that bat-men lived on the moon. The hoax, clothed in the language of the science of the day, provided a convincing enough picture that people fell for it, hook, line and sinker. In retrospect, the hoax may be considered one of the first pieces of science fiction.

A very interesting side story is that of Edgar Allen Poe, an up and coming poet who was also very interested in both science fiction and hoaxes more generally and who begrudged Richard Locke, the author of the so-called “moon hoax,” for the notoriety he gained that Poe could not. The narrative weaves between Locke, Poe, and the new penny newspaper that, as a consequence of the moon hoax, became the most read paper in the world. PT Barnum also plays a role, perpetuating hoaxes of his own (including a 160-year-old former slave who was purported to be George Washington’s nurse-maid).

In the background of all of this is the life of the average New Yorkers who live in this very vibrant era. And it is that backdrop that proves the most interesting of all of this story. How New Yorkers responded to these sensational “news” stories and the men who told these stories is fascinating. If one can get by the some times flowery descriptions, one is in for a very interesting look into how our fellow countrymen viewed themselves and the world almost 200 years ago.

At that time, the “plurality of worlds doctrine” — that life on other planets was not only possible, but was almost a certainty given God’s vastness — was a common belief (though one stubbornly resisted by the Catholic Church). Charismatic theologians promulgated this belief as an obvious consequence of the greatness of God. The people at the time were thus naturally predisposed to believe in life on other worlds. This tendency to believe in the plurality of worlds was a direct consequence of the strong Christian faith of the country. Goodman quotes De Tocqueville, who remarked at the time that the United States was “where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls.” It is amazing the degree to which such beliefs have completely changed since then while the basic makeup of the country has remained relatively similar.

One side note regarding Poe was interesting. Poe had a custom to attach literary rivals and others with whom he disagreed. In one such exchange, Poe remarked of a rival: Clark is “noticeable for nothing in the world except for the markedness by which he is noticeable for nothing.” I’ve got to find a way to use that sometime.

Overall, while not of much importance for 21st century citizens, this book offers a tale of human nature and human endeavor that is truly fascinating. From the extraordinary efforts the protagonists go to in building a new type of newspaper to the very different way that people viewed the world, the window this book provides into a different time is worth a few moments of our own.

American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis

The founding of the United States of America is of near mythic proportions in our history, and rightly so. The men that revolted against Great Britain, developed the Constitution, and guided our country through the rocky first steps have become men of legend. Because of this, it is often hard for us to remember that these men, as great as they were, were also just human, like the rest of us, with their virtues and vices, passions and foibles.

In American Creation, Joseph J. Ellis puts the founding of America in the context of the people who were responsible. Ellis is a master story teller, a first class historian with an ear for telling history. Rather than a chronology of the founding, he gives us a series of episodes that highlight not only the grand achievements of the era, but also the failures, often the result of the very failings of these men that do, in the end, make them human.

Ellis chooses 6 episodes that not only illustrate the role the founders had in the formation of the US, but also the role that happenstance played. He describes the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the winter at Valley Forge as a decisive turning point in how Washington fought the Revolutionary War, the arguments by Madison for a strong federal government in the Constitution, the efforts by Washington and his cabinet to find a solution to the country’s relationship with the Native Americans, the formation of the Democratic party by Madison and Jefferson, and Jefferson’s exercise of the same near-monarchial power he so vehemently despised when he executed the Louisiana Purchase.

These stories describe how the passions of these men often led them to live political lives full of hypocrisy, arguing on one side of an issue that they had been the most vocal opponents of. However, these men knew their place in history and worked to massage how future generations might judge their place in history.

The story of Washington trying to reach peace with the Indians was particularly interesting as I had not been aware of this history. In the end, Washington did make a treaty with the Creek Nation of the south, but simple demographics rendered it meaningless as white settlers kept pushing west. For the same reason the British could never win the Revolutionary War (once Washington stopped directly engaging them), so the US government could never stop the displacement of the Native Americans from the American frontier.

However, probably the most fascinating part, to me, was about the writing and subsequent adoption of the Constitution. Madison was the most vocal and ardent advocate of a strong central government, a government he proposed should have veto power over the states. He lost that battle. Because of the inability of the different sides to come to agreement on the questions of executive authority and the relationship between federal and state power, these were left rather vague. Ellis argues that what the founders thus created was not a document that had the answers to all of their, and subsequent Americans’, questions, but a framework for arguing and deciding these questions. The vagueness let the government expand and contract as needed, as history dictated. They created a living document — a living government — that could adapt with time. To me, incidentally, this is the exact opposite that those that read the Constitution literally and try to understand the intentions of the founders, try to do. There was no single intention of the founders; rather, they created a system that was inherently unclear on many important and central questions precisely because they didn’t have a clear answer.

In addition to the early country’s relationship with the Native Americans, Ellis describes the complex relationship the founders, and the country as a whole, had with slavery. These two issues he points out as the two biggest failings of the founders — their inability to address them. Ellis argues that maybe there was no solution, that the two problems were inherently insoluble. In any case, both are two stains that the founders knew posterity would judge them for, and rightly so.

In the end, this was one of the most interesting books I’ve read on the founding of the US. Ellis provides insight into what these men really achieved, what was remarkable about those achievements, even the creation of political parties that we so often, today, rail against. I learned a great deal about how our country was founded, who the men involved were, and how different our country might have been if a few winds had blown in just slightly different directions. This is a book I highly recommend to all who care about the foundations of our republic.

Machine Man by Max Barry

Max Barry is a master at seeing our world and distorting it to extremes in order to reflect it back to us in all of its absurdities. His previous novels, Syrup, Jennifer Government, and Company each looked at the disfunction implicit in how our society functions and, in doing so, gives us a new perspective in where we might be heading.

Machine Man is no different. When an engineer, Charles Neumann, loses his leg in an accident at work, the way he responds is very different than how most of us might in his situation. Being an engineer, he begins to improve on the prosthetics he is issued at the hospital. However, once he realizes that the new leg he has built is better — faster, stronger, and smarter — than the leg he used to have, he embarks on a journey of self-improvement the likes of which the world has never seen.

Of course, Charles is simply taking being an engineer to a completely new level, reengineering his own body. However, at some point, his bosses take notice and see other uses for what Charles is doing. What happens when Charles’ inventions are viewed not only as improvements on prosthetics but also as products to be sold, including to the military? And where does Charles’ self-improvement end? These are the basis of a plot that does more than just take us on a wild roller coaster ride, but also tries to shed light on the question of what it means to be human.

In an age in which one form of self-improvement — doping — is ubiquitous in professional sports, one can ask what happens when trying to improve on human biology is taken to the extreme. Barry offers us one glimpse of what might be. It’s a vision both thrilling and a bit disconcerting.