Archive for the 'Books' Category

Timothy Zahn builds a fun and engaging science-fiction universe in ‘Night Train to Rigel’

March 21, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 19, 2018

Timothy Zahn’s 2005 novel Night Train to Rigel is a fast-moving thriller set in a galaxy on the verge of war.

The tale, which is the first volume of a five-book series, is narrated by one Frank Compton. A former spy who used to work for the future equivalent of NATO, Compton is more or less between jobs when a bullet-riddled courier hands him a ticket to ride the Quadrail, a transit system that connects star systems around the galaxy.

Compton’s slain recruiter turns out to be an agent of the Spiders, the mysterious mechanical creatures that control the Quadrail. They’re concerned that a malevolent faction may have found a way to circumvent the hyperdimensional railway’s restrictions against transporting weapons. If true, such a development would trigger major bloodshed between the handful of alien empires who control most of the galaxy.

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Characters attempt to stave off madness amidst the deep freeze in Matthew Iden’s entertaining thriller ‘The Winter Over’

March 18, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 18, 2018

Matthew Iden’s 2017 novel The Winter Over is an entertaining thriller set at an isolated Antarctic station beset by a growing number of troubling events.

The main character is an engineer who as the book opens is about to spend her first winter at Shackleton South Pole Research Facility. (This fictitious base is modeled after a real place, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.) Cass Jennings and her colleagues are disturbed to discover, just days before the start of roughly nine months of isolation, that a resident has frozen to death.

That’s hardly the only blow to morale. A few weeks after the deep freeze has cut the station off from the outside world, unexplained glitches disrupt Shackleton’s heat, electrical and communications systems. The outpost’s troubles begin accumulating, placing Jennings and everyone else under extraordinary pressure.

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Suffering out of time: Billy Pilgrim doesn’t quite float above it all in Kurt Vonnegut’s antiwar novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’

March 15, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 15, 2018

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the great antiwar novels of all time. First published during the Vietnam War, it revolves around the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, near the end of World War II, a controversial two-day offensive that claimed more than 25,000 lives in a city some thought devoid of military or strategic significance.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is a hapless chaplain’s assistant captured during the Battle of the Bulge. Along with other Americans, he’s shipped first to a prisoner-of-war camp and then to Dresden, where the detainees are pressed into involuntary servitude. They survive the bombing because their bomb shelter — a meat locker beneath the titular Slaughterhouse-Five, which is being used as a barracks in part because of livestock shortages — happened to have been dug farther down than nearly all of the city’s other refuges.

Pilgrim’s experiences before, during and after the bombing map closely to those of Vonnegut’s. The novel, published in 1969, is semi-autobiographical: Vonnegut himself makes cameos during a few of the POW scenes and dictates the first chapter, which is really a preface that happens to be presented as the book’s first chapter.

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Social and financial forces silently war in the American heartland in Colson Whitehead’s novel ’Apex Hides the Hurt’

October 14, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Oct. 14, 2017

Like many places, the Midwestern town at the center of Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novel Apex Hides the Hurt is torn by battling crosscurrents. In Winthrop, one especially acute conflict pits a nostalgic longing for the past against an eagerness to embrace change — the kind of conflict, one outsider will discover, that’s hard to settle in a town still rent by deep, unspoken feelings about race, history and money.

The seemingly placid town of Winthrop is ruled by a congenial three-person council that’s normally very good at finding consensus. The group consists of Albie Winthrop, a batty divorce whose forefather manufactured and sold barbed wire to customers far and wide; Regina Goode, a grounded divorcee of decidedly more modest means, but whose roots run at least as deep as Winthrop’s; and Lucky Aberdeen, a wildly successful local software entrepreneur whose vision for the future of the town will bring as much change as that of Albie’s forefather did back in the late 1800s.

The specific issue that summons the New Yorker who is the focus of Whitehead’s novel is nomenclature. Aberdeen wants to change the town’s name to New Prospera. Goode wants to change it back to Freedom, which is what the place was originally called by her ancestors, former slaves fleeing the ashes of the Confederacy. Winthrop, of course, is perfectly content with the name that the town has had ever since it was officially incorporated by an alliance among his and Goode’s progenitors.

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Cait Murphy’s ‘History of American Sports in 100 Objects’ admirably fulfills its mission

September 14, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 14, 2017

Cait Murphy’s 2016 survey, A History of American Sports in 100 Objects, is a lively tour of — well, of exactly what the title represents.

Murphy begins with a roughly 900-year-old red stone statue standing 9 inches in height, one of the few remaining relics of the Native American sport known as chunkey. The pastime, popular throughout much of North America, was founded in the community of Cahokia, which was once the continent’s largest city north of Mexico. A number of the other objects the author selects are similarly obscure, such as the “lawn bowle” — an oak bowling ball the size of a grapefruit — that once belonged to a 17th-century Puritan resident of Boston, or the riding boots of Tad Lucas, a female rodeo star who earned thousands of dollars during the Great Depression.

But many of the objects Murphy highlights are more familiar, or at least invoke recognizable names. The book’s early pages also include such items as Abraham Lincoln’s handball; one of the dumbbells that pugilist John L. Sullivan used to train before the last bare-knuckles heavyweight title fight, held in rural Richburg, Miss., in July 1889; and James Naismith’s original rules of basketball, written at a YMCA school in Springfield, Mass., and now housed at the University of Kansas, where the inventor of basketball taught physical education and (of course) founded and coached a hoops squad.

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‘Carry the Rock’ elegantly explores the troubled history and contentious present of Little Rock, Ark.

May 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 22, 2017

Jay Jennings’s 2010 nonfiction book, Carry the Rock, is an excellent look at a small city in the American Deep South. The writer skillfully uses the 2007 football season of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., as a prism for examining the state capital’s fractured racial past.

Central — indeed, all of Little Rock — may be most famous for the contentious integration of the school in 1957, the anniversary of which was celebrated during the season Jennings tracked the Tigers football squad. Over the course of 230 expertly written pages, the author sketches the history of Little Rock from the time its eponymous riverside feature was first marked on a map (as le Petit Rocher) by a French explorer in 1722 up through recent years. Along the way, he introduces us to Central’s coaching staff, a few of the school’s notable players and alumni, and some of the current-day residents who shape the civic discourse of the city.

The man at the heart of Carry the Rock is Bernie Cox. Gruff, old-fashioned but soft-voiced, Cox had won seven state championships from the time he became Central’s head coach in 1975 until Jennings embedded with the squad. Cox developed a specific way of doing things over the years, and he demands the same consistency of his players:

Cox told the freshmen that when they went to the locker room that day, there would be a table and on the table would be a notebook and they were to print their names in the notebook, along with their student numbers — so if there were a dozen John Smiths in the school, there would be no mistaking which one it was — and the names of their parents or guardians. He never said “parent” without also saying “guardian” because he had learned over the years that many of his players didn’t grow up like he did, with a mother and father and siblings in the same home. Often the grandmother or grandfather would be the one in charge, or an uncle or aunt, especially when the mother or father was fifteen or sixteen when the player was born.

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An adolescent explores frontiers within and without in Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Girl in Landscape’

April 21, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 21, 2017

Jonathan Lethem’s 1998 novel Girl in Landscape is a coming-of-age tale set on an alien world.

The story unspools from the point of view of 13-year-old Pella Marsh. Her father, Clement Marsh, a New York politician, recently lost an election and is planning to move to an alien world with his wife, daughter and two young sons. Their preparations are interrupted when Caitlin, Pella’s mother, suddenly falls ill in a prologue set on a future Earth.

The old world is a dire place. Most humans (at least in New York) have retreated underground because the sun’s intense radiation has made the outdoors deadly. But the city’s infrastructure is failing, and morale seems to be terrible. Indeed, the deadly collapse of a subway tunnel combined with the specter of mass suicides — Raymond, the 10-year-old middle child, calls this “that lemming thing” — are two major reasons why Marsh’s party lost the election in a landslide.

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Fiascos and hilarity abound in ‘My Heart is an Idiot,’ Davy Rothbart’s collection of essays about life and love

March 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 22, 2017

Davy Rothbart, the Michigan-born writer and magazine editor, is like most people: Get some drink into him and he tends to develops the gift of gab. Also like most people, inebriation tends to lower Rothbart’s inhibitions and impair his judgments.

What sets Rothbart apart is his knack for getting into hilarious misadventures — often but not aways with a helpful nudge from spirits — and his ability to spin them into enjoyable stories. Happily for readers, he’s assembled some of his wackiest hijinks in My Heart is an Idiot, a 2012 collection of essays that documents some of his strangest exploits and describes some of the people he’s met during his various jaunts.

The book, which functions as a sort of haphazard memoir, begins with an amusing but largely ordinary childhood reminiscence. “Bigger and Deafer” details the mischief Rothbart and his brothers got into when Davy was inspired to mislead his deaf mother about the phone conversations for which they were serving as intermediaries. The best part about the story is the twists that take place on its final page.

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A lot of hard work went into developing the comedy career depicted in the Steve Martin memoir ‘Born Standing Up’

March 13, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 13, 2017

I missed almost all of Steve Martin’s entire career as a standup comedian while it was happening.

I wasn’t yet born when Martin first performed before paying audiences as a latter-day vaudevillian at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Bird Cage Theater in 1963; the same was true when he struck out on his own as a Southern California comedian and TV writer three years later, before comedy clubs had even been invented. (Folk-music venues hosted many of his shows.)

I was far too young to watch TV when Martin started appearing irregularly on talk shows in the early ’70s. I was also too young to attend any of Martin’s performances when he became a touring comedian a few years after that, or to watch his early appearances on Saturday Night Live. (He’s served as SNL guest host 15 times, starting in 1976, second only to Alec Baldwin’s 17 stints.)

I did have some friends who were very big fans of offbeat comedy, despite their tender ages, and I do remember them mimicking Martin’s best bits and showing me videocassettes of their favorite routines featuring him. So there was something vaguely familiar to me about seeing Martin appear in bunny ears in the cover photograph of Born Standing Up, his account of his childhood and the first two decades of his performing career. And thanks to catching snippets of SNL reruns and later Martin appearances on the show, I was certainly familiar with characters like his wild and crazy guy.

But even if I hadn’t been — even if I’d just known Martin from mid-career movies such as RoxanneDirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bowfinger — I think that I might have enjoyed the actor-author’s 2007 memoir.

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Madness at the turn of the millennium: Salman Rushdie’s ‘Fury’ chronicles a disaffected writer’s experiences in New York and abroad

February 6, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 6, 2017

New York City at the turn of the millennium, writer Salman Rushdie not unreasonably posited in his 2001 novel Fury, was full of motion and spectacle. The opening paragraph gets right to business:

Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a gold age. Outside his window a long, humid summer, the first hot season of the third millennium, baked and perspired. The city boiled with money. Rents and property values had never been higher, and in the garment industry it was widely held that fashion had never been so fashionable. New restaurants opened every hour. Stores, dealerships, galleries struggled to satisfy the skyrocketing demand for ever more recherché produce: limited-edition olive oils, three-hundred-dollar corkscrews, customized Humvees, the latest anti-virus software, escort services featuring contortionists and twins, video installations, outsider art, featherlight shawls made from the chin-fluff of extinct mountain goats. So many people were doing up their apartments that supplies of high-grade fixtures and fittings were at a premium. There were waiting lists for baths, doorknobs, imported hardwoods, antiqued fireplaces, bidets, marble slabs. In spite of the recent falls in the value of the Nasdaq index and the value of Amazon stock, the new technology had the city by the ears: the talk was still of start-ups, IPOs, interactivity, the unimaginable future that had just begun to begin. The future was a casino, and everyone was gambling, and everyone expected to win.

The opening is somewhat misleading, however. Although Fury immediately and vividly captures the frenzy that was New York circa 1998–2001, the novel is quite coy about revealing many of the details of the life of its protagonist. This is, of course, an intentional choice by Rushdie: Solanka has deliberately suppressed major episodes from his childhood, to the point where repressed trauma threatens to destroy his entire life. Moreover, the character suffers repeated blackouts, prompting him to wonder whether he may have committed a series of vicious fatal assaults on wealthy young women that command the full attention of the tabloids.

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