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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Majoring in classics, minoring in murder? A handful of college students are united by dark secrets in Donna Tartt’s spell-binding 1992 debut, ‘The Secret History’

December 16, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 16, 2016

I first read The Secret History in the mid-1990s, a few years after its publication, and not long after I’d graduated from college. That makes it awfully tempting for me to compare and contrast myself with the narrator of Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut novel.

Richard Papen is a classics scholar — literally a student of the language and literature of ancient Greece; I barely have any proficiency in any language other than English, but I’ve always been a bookish sort. The only child of a miserly gas station proprietor and a receptionist, Papen was raised in a fictitious small Silicon Valley community called Plano, which he dismisses as having “little of interest, less of beauty”; I grew up outside New York City, and while I too (perhaps unfairly) dismissed my suburban community as being bland and uninteresting, I was a frequent visitor to Manhattan’s diverse, lively and culture-filled precincts. He readily, if sometimes clumsily, lies about his background in order to keep himself on par with his glamorous college acquaintances; I never had the nerve to attempt such deception.

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‘The Hunger Games,’ Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular 2008 novel, challenges the reader’s conception of love and reality

December 14, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 14, 2016

If hearing or seeing the words The Hunger Games doesn’t spark at least a flicker of recognition in your mind, then you probably were not literate, conscious and residing in the United States for most of the years 2008 through 2015.

That first year, of course, was when American TV writer and young-adult novelist Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games, her tale of a teenager in a post-apocalyptic United States who is essentially drafted as a competitor in a televised life-and-death battle of adolescents from across what used to be known as North America. The book and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, were enormously successful, selling 4.3 million copies in 2010, the year the finale was published.

Book sales grew exponentially, reaching nearly 28 million copies by 2012, when a movie adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence was released. Three film sequels appeared in late November of the following three years. (The last book, rather notoriously, was split into two films.)

I’ve watched and enjoyed the first two movies, and I toyed with the idea of reading the books, but I never acted on the impulse until I saw a copy of The Hunger Games sitting on the small shelf of free books at Joe Van Gogh’s Broad Street store in Durham.

I can now report that the Hunger Games book is a lot like what I expected. Like the movie, the book is briskly paced and enjoyable. Collins’s novel feels more nuanced than the film adaptation because some of the story’s emotional beats develop more organically here.

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It was a dark and stormy week: Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ is a masterful, influential whodunnit

December 7, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 7, 2016

It is early August in 1939 or thereabouts. Ten men and women of varying ages and backgrounds have gathered on Soldier Island, an isolated point of land about a mile off the coast of Devon, England. They will soon discover that each person present is united by a grisly secret — and moreover that they’ve been assembled by someone with malevolent intent. As a storm closes in, cutting off the uneasy inhabitants, members are killed, one by one. With their numbers dwindling, and the bonds of trust among the party becoming ever more frayed, the survivors reach an even more unnerving realization: The killer is someone among them…

This, of course, is the plot of Agatha Christie’s classic 1939 murder mystery, available now as And Then There Were None but first published in the United States as Ten Little Indians. The title under which the book was originally published in Britain included a vicious racial slur that is rarely if ever used in polite company. Its name was taken from a post-Civil War minstrel song, the lyrics of which inform the plot of and were quoted in Christie’s book.

I had neither read this book nor seen any of the various TV or film adaptations of it until just this past week. (I am, I must confess, unfamiliar with all of Christie’s work.) I was visiting some friends in Virginia when the book happened to come up in conversation; I prevented my friends from naming the killer, announcing that I hadn’t actually read the book (and also disclosing the original title). They offered to loan me a paperback copy — a 2011 reprint that refers to “soldiers” rather than “Indians” or this notorious epithet — and here we are.

Some consider And Then There Were None, as I shall call it, to be Christie’s masterpiece; fans named it her most popular book in a poll conducted in 2015 to mark the 125th anniversary of the British writer’s birth. Having now read the book, it’s blindingly obvious that myriad works are descended from Christie’s tale.

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Stephen Goldin constructs an amiable but rather forgettable ‘Trek to Madworld’ in his 1979 original ‘Star Trek’ novel

December 3, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 3, 2016

I initially couldn’t remember how I acquired Bantam’s February 1998 reissue of Trek to Madworld, a 1979 Star Trek novel by Stephen Goldin. After thinking about it for a while, I decided that the book must have been mailed to me gratis by the publisher thanks to my stint as books columnist for the short-lived periodical Sci-Fi Invasion!

I certainly don’t remember reading the book, which is pleasantly mediocre, and which was one of a handful of original Star Trek novels that helped maintain the franchise’s popularity between the cancellation of Gene Roddenberry’s pioneering TV series in 1969 and the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.

How did I obtain a copy of Trek to Madworld? Well, the story isn’t very interesting. Here it is:

I visited Ye Olde Family Homestead for Thanksgiving. A day or two before I was to return to North Carolina, I was sitting on the couch in the living room. There’s a free-standing bookcase on the south wall; the north wall is completely lined by built-in bookshelves. I happened to look south (that is, to my right) and for some reason noticed three Star Trek books on a lower shelf. I decided that I should read one of them; as to which got chosen, well, need I say any more?

The book opens as the U.S.S. Enterprise embarks on a routine mission: Ferrying legendary explorer Kostas Spyroukis and his daughter, Metika Spyroukis, back home to Epsilon Delta 4 from the conference world of Babel, where they had unsuccessfully petitioned the Council to admit their colony as a full member of the United Federation of Planets.

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Notes towards a taxonomy of the novels of John le Carré

October 18, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Oct. 18, 2016

The British author John le Carré has written 23 novels, according to Wikipedia, of which I’ve read about two-thirds. If one were to draw a Venn diagram of le Carré’s oeuvre, there would be two main “bubbles,” or categories: Those in which the protagonist is a professional spy and those in which she or he is not.

An example of the former would be all of the so-called George Smiley novels, of which Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is perhaps best known: Smiley devotes his entire career to British intelligence. An example of the latter would be many of le Carré’s other books, such as two of my favorite novels by him: 1993’s The Night Manager, in which a hotel manager is drafted for an operation targeting illicit international arms dealers, and 2001’s The Constant Gardener, in which an ordinary British diplomat begins to uncover shady doings by a multinational company after the death of his unfaithful wife.

Several other le Carré books feature amateurs who dally in espionage. There’s The Russia House (1989), wherein a British publisher becomes a courier for a spy ring; The Little Drummer Girl (1983), in which a radical English actress is recruited to locate a Palestinian terrorist; and Our Kind of Traitor (2010), in which a professional London couple decides to help a Russian money launderer and his family defect to England.

And what, you may ask, of the overlapping between the two bubbles? This area is dedicated to two kinds of novels. One type has multiple leading characters, some of whom are professional spies and some of whom are not; the other, a leading character whose status is nebulous or transitional.

In The Tailor of Panama, there are two main characters: The eponymous tailor and the duplicitous British spy who recruits him. Obviously, this homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana belongs to the first type, as does A Most Wanted Man, with its multiple characters, some intelligence professionals and others (more or less) ordinary individuals. A Perfect Spy tracks its main character, Magnus Pym, from childhood through a key episode in his adulthood; this book, of course, belongs to the second type.

I’ll touch upon this le Carré taxonomy later this week…

‘At Empire’s Edge’ is a fun but negligible science fiction adventure

October 13, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Oct. 13, 2016

At Empire’s Edge, a 2009 novel by William C. Dietz, is an entertaining if low-rent science-fiction thriller set on a remote colony world in the far future.

The book’s main protagonist is Jak Cato, a “section leader” in a group of genetically engineered police officers whose psychic sensitivity enables them to identify a race of malevolent alien shape-shifters known as Sagathi. When a space battle forces his unit to set down on Dantha, the planet’s venal ruler, Uma Nalomy, arranges to have Cato’s fellow cops murdered in order to use their prisoner as an assassin.

This deadly scheme is prompted by the imminent arrival of a high-ranking official of the Uman (read: Human) Empire. Isulu Usurlus may be decadent, but he’s a relatively decent sort, and he’s outraged by Nalomy’s blatant corruption, oppression of her subjects and squandering of imperial resources. By replacing one of Usurlus’s trusted aides with the shape-shifter, who goes by the unfortunate name of Fiss Verafti, Nalomy hopes not just to tighten her grip on Dantha but to expand her influence on the galactic stage.

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Contemplating the silver-screen impact of various science fiction masters, part 2

September 17, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 17, 2016

Yesterday, I took a quick survey of the number of feature films based on the work of several different science fiction grand masters, taking into account some of their TV adaptations as well. Now, I conclude that all of the stuff I wrote about adds up to…

Well, not very much, I guess.

The truth is that numerous factors make it difficult to adapt many of these novels and stories properly. For one thing, to be blunt, some of the science fiction grand masters’ writing just isn’t very good. Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, to single out two, were not exactly known for their lively characterizations.

Moreover, much of the grand masters’ work offers little in the way of cultural and sexual diversity. This is especially true of the oldest stories by the oldest writers. (A notable exception is Le Guin’s many explorations into radically different future societies.)

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Contemplating the silver-screen impact of various science fiction masters, part 1

September 16, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwobotites.wordpress.com
Sept. 16, 2016

In 1975, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America presented its first ever Grand Master Award to the prolific Robert Heinlein, who ultimately authored 32 novels and 16 anthologies. The writer, who died in 1988, is probably best known for his novels Stranger in a Strange LandThe Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Starship TroopersLocus, a trade magazine for the science fiction, fantasy and horror publishing industry, named Heinlein its all-time best author in 1977, 1987, 1988, 1998 and 1999.

Stranger in a Strange Land, which was published in 1961, was a precursor to the sexual revolution and helped define the free-love hippie aesthetic; it also introduced the word grok (to understand profoundly and intuitively) into the language. Just two years ago, Heinlein was the subject of a 624-page authorized biography.

Heinlein was one of the indisputable legends of 20th-century science fiction, but he’s had surprisingly little influence on the world of movies. In the 35 years preceding his death, only a single Hollywood production was openly based on his work — 1953’s Project Moon Base. (That said, The Brain Eaters, released in 1958, was an uncredited adaptation of Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters; the author sued the producers and settled out of court, according to the invaluable Internet Movie Database.)

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The essays in Eddie Sarfaty’s ‘Mental: Funny in the Head’ are also funny on the page

August 10, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 10, 2016

Mental: Funny in the Head is an engaging collection of personal essays by comedian Eddie Sarfaty. The book, published in 2009, conveys a variety of moments from across the Long Island native’s adulthood, starting with the story of his coming out to his nonagenarian Orthodox Jewish grandmother (a tale that was previously published in the 2005 anthology When I Knew).

The book’s topics range from the amusing to the morose. Both of the opening essays, “Second-Guessing Grandma” and “Lactose Intolerant,” about a milk run gone awry, belong to the former category; among the latter are “Cheapskate,” about a soul-crushingly thrifty boyfriend, and “My Tale of Two Cities,” in which Sarfaty and his mother take his father, who suffers from dementia, on a second honeymoon tour of Paris and France. But even in his darker moments, the author manages to wring some humor out of the situation — a trait he may have inherited from his father, who once told a Jehovah’s Witness, “I’m sorry, but my covenant is with Lucifer.”

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‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ launches an unlikely protagonist onto a heroic journey

August 9, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 9, 2016

Last month, my Sibling-in-Law’s family was once again kind enough my parental unit and I to join them for part of their annual summer visit to Ocean City, Md. This year, fortunately, I wasn’t suffering from dental pain, and no violence to books was inflicted during the trip.

Despite — or more likely because of — the lack of suffering and drama, I managed to zip through a novel during my time on the beach. I very much enjoyed consuming The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the 2003 bestseller by the British author, illustrator and poet Mark Haddon.

The narrator of The Curious Incident introduces himself this way on the second page of the book:

My name is Christopher John Francis Boone. I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057.

Eight years ago, when I first met Siobhan, she showed me this picture

Sad face

and I knew it meant “sad,” which is what I felt when I found the dead dog.

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Brian Daley provides fast-moving space opera fun in ‘The Han Solo Adventures’

July 7, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 7, 2016

Sometimes, when I pick up certain books that I read years ago, I am transported to past eras of my life. There was a stretch in the summer of 2003 when I would frequently take a picnic lunch from my apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, amble over to Riverside Park and read one of the hefty volumes from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I no longer recall which of the books I consumed during those warm, lazy afternoons, but I think of those idle summer reading sessions anytime I pick up the third or subsequent entires from the Potter chronicles.

Similarly, when I reread the first two volumes in Douglas Adams’s “increasingly misnamed trilogy” of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels, I recall sitting in the backyard of the house where I grew up, also on a summer day, and virtually inhaling the words that I still enjoy these many years later.

The other day, I was looking for books to discard from my personal collection when I noticed a long-forgotten paperback that bore the clunky title of Star Wars®: The Han Solo Adventures. This yellowing mass-market paperback was published in June 1992 by Del Rey, an imprint of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. It’s an omnibus edition of three space opera novels licensed from George Lucas’s Star Wars universe; its cover boasts, “For the first time, all three books in one volume!”

The three books contained therein — Han Solo at Stars’ EndHan Solo’s Revenge and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy — were all written by science fiction author Brian Daley. They were originally published over what seems like an unbelievably short period: Han Solo at Stars’ End debuted in April 1979, according to Wookieepedia, while the trilogy concluded in August 1980 with the release of Han Solo and the Lost Legacy.

As soon as I saw the book, I knew that I wanted to reread it, and almost as soon as I started rereading it, I began recalling the novel’s intricate particulars in detail. All three books are rip-roaringly fun adventures that pay loving homage to the eponymous smuggler, his immense fur-covered Wookiee sidekick, Chewbacca, and their battered, deceptively ordinary-looking freighter, the Millennium Falcon.

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An ex-jock gets tangled up in a scheme to abscond with ill-gotten cash in the crime thriller ‘Caught Stealing’

June 30, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 30, 2016

More than 16 years ago, novelist Colin Harrison published a gritty crime thriller called Afterburn. I read it not long after its release, and while a lot of the details have faded with time, I remember its brutality. One of the main characters is tortured by mobsters eager to recover some missing money; although at least one character in the book arrives at a happy ending of sorts, most of the others experience grievous and permanent harm along the way.

I thought of Afterburn recently while reading Caught Stealing, a 2004 Charlie Huston novel that shares part of the earlier book’s premise, along with its penchant for putting characters through the grinder. Moreover, the volumes have almost the same setting — Manhattan at the close of the 20th century, although Harrison’s book takes place in 1999 while Huston’s spans Sept. 22 through Oct. 1, 2000.

Huston’s protagonist is Hank Thompson, a 30-something (or nearly so) alcoholic bartender. He inadvertently gets caught up in a vicious caper when his neighbor asks him to take care of his cat, Bud, while he goes to visit his terminally ill father.

The neighbor is named Russ Miner, and he’s got a secret: Although his father is dying, he’s actually skipping town in an attempt to avoid cutting his partners-in-crime in on the $4.5 million dollars taken in a string of small-town bank robberies around the country — money which they trusted him to store until the heat had cooled a bit.

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Comedian Aziz Ansari surveys the state of ‘Modern Romance’ with his first book

June 2, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 2, 2016

One of the things I did on my trip to Colorado last fall, besides watch a Stanford football victory with my Sibling, was watch a few episodes of Master of None with my Sibling and Sibling-in-Law. This sitcom, a Netflix exclusive, was released the day before the Stanford-Colorado game and generated a fair amount of buzz. It was co-created by and stars comedian Aziz Ansari, a native of Columbia, S.C., whose parents emigrated from India.

We enjoyed the episodes. About two months later, come time of the winter solstice, that prompted my Sibling’s family to give me Ansari’s book, Modern Romance. Due to one thing and another, I began reading it in late February, but it wasn’t until last week that I finished the volume.

The book, Ansari’s first, is a comic examination of, yes, contemporary romance, mainly among heterosexuals in America. But some of the most interesting aspects of the text actually describe how modern domestic romance compares and contrasts with the way things used to be here and the way things are in four foreign nations — Japan, France, Qatar and Argentina. (To be precise, it mainly involves the state of things in those countries’ capitals.)

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James Hynes delivers tart comedy-inflected horror with a trio of novellas in ‘Publish and Perish’

May 12, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 12, 2016

In the fiction of James Hynes, academic politics is the conduct of warfare by other means. Characters regularly pursue vendettas against rivals by inviting (or not inviting) certain people to meetings or by giving their comments scant consideration. Bureaucracy is used to crush the spirit of those who fail to distinguish themselves or to suck up to the people in power, and few accomplishments are more prized than securing tenure.

I stumbled upon Next, Hynes’s fourth novel, in a secondhand bookstore last year. Ever since, I’ve been working my way through Hynes’s oeuvre: Soon after I encountered Next, which was published in 2010, I read his third novel, The Lecturer’s Tale, published in 1997. Just this week, I read Publish and Perish, a trio of horror novellas involving American academics.

The first entry in Publish and Perish, “Queen of the Jungle,” is the volume’s weakest entry. This is not because of any flaw with the plot or the writing but because the main character, a career-minded English professor named Paul, is such a despicable heel.

Although he may once have genuinely loved his wife, Elizabeth, his ardor seems to have been entirely subsumed by his jealousy over the divergent paths their careers have taken. Paul’s once-promising dissertation, which he had hoped to parlay into a book, lies in tatters after having been shredded by a critic; he’s a departmental nonentity at the Iowa state university where he’s drearily finishing up a postdoctoral fellowship, and he has no clear notion of where he might go next. By contrast, Elizabeth has become a rising star at a prestigious university in Chicago after her own dissertation was published and unexpectedly won a major prize.

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A very dubious argument about the use of a certain racial slur

May 10, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 10, 2016

Author’s note: This post involves a racial slur and as such may not be appropriate for all readers, especially young ones. MEM

Larry Wilmore, host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show,” wrapped up the April 30 White House Correspondents’ Dinner in controversial fashion. He spoke for about 20 minutes, cracking jokes at the expense of many of the politicians and broadcasters in attendance as well as a few, for instance Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who weren’t. TV networks such as Fox and MSNBC got some flack, as did all of print journalism and C-SPAN’s audience.

Some of the wisecracks landed, like when Wilmore referred to Trump’s having said that if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were a man, she’d fare poorly with voters and quipped, “[I]f Hillary Clinton were suddenly a man, her biggest problem would be finding a bathroom she’d be allowed to use in North Carolina.” But most of the jokes went over poorly with the audience, such as when Wilmore joked that Obama and pro basketball player Steph Curry both “like raining down bombs on people from long distances.”

Wilmore worked up to a pretty heartfelt climax. Near the end, he said, in all sincerity, “When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn’t accept a black quarterback. Now think about that. A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team — and now, to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world.”

This earnest sentiment earned Wilmore one of his biggest ovations of the night.

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