Archive for the 'Books' Category

China Miéville invents an incredible alien civilization in ‘Embassytown’

February 14, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 14, 2019

I know the British author China Miéville by his reputation for being one of the more inventive science-fiction scribes working today. However, until recently, the only work of his that I’d read was his novelette “Reports of Certain Events in London,” a haunting epistolary tale about streets that mysteriously appear and disappear in that city.

Miéville’s 2011 novel, Embassytown, is narrated by one Avice Benner Cho, a native of the eponymous community on the planet Arieka. Cho lives in a future so distant that Earth’s location has been forgotten by humanity, which along with other sentient races lives in cities scattered across at least one galaxy. (Trade and travel is enabled by a mode of faster-than-light transportation known as immersion.) As it happens, one of the strangest places in existence is her native world, an isolated outpost populated by a race of alien genetic engineers called the Ariekei, also known as the Hosts.

There’s no simple way to describe the many-legged Hosts, which “walked with crablike precision … with a gait that made them look as if they must fall, though they did not.” They see through moving eye-corals, described as a “constellation of forking skin.” Each hears through a many-colored fanwing that extends from its back; each grips using a giftwing mounted below its primary mouth. Their technology, called biorigging, is completely organic — Ariekene buildings, batteries, power plants, planes, garbage cans and even their equivalent of spacesuits are all living beings.

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In ‘The Feed,’ a young married couple goes through hell after society’s disintegration

February 12, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 12, 2019

Think about what you do with your computer, phone and/or tablet: Scrolling through social media, favoriting your friends’ posts, checking and responding to emails, posting a rant or status update, sampling the headlines on your favorite news and entertainment websites, watching videos, sharing a funny meme or interesting article, voting in polls.

Now imagine doing all these things — and so much more — exclusively using your brain, with each activity consuming not seconds, or even tenths of a second, but mere thousandths of a second. What’s more, imagine if equipment enabling this instant networking could be implanted in utero. This near-future innovation serves as the basis for Nick Clark Windo’s 2018 science fiction novel, The Feed.

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Harry Harrison’s debut novel, ‘Deathworld,’ is a light and breezy science fiction adventure

February 7, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 7, 2019

As a child, I spent a bunch of time loitering in the science fiction section of libraries and bookstores; my friends also tended to be sci-fi enthusiasts. From these times, I have vague memories of the covers of paperback books written by Harry Harrison, whom I associate with a series of books about someone or something called the Stainless Steel Rat. However, I don’t think I’d ever actually read any of Harrison’s fiction until just the other week, when I zipped through his first novel.

Like many sci-fi adventures prior to 1980, Deathworld was initially published in periodical form. But even though the tale dates to 1960 (when its Connecticut-born author was 35), the book has a spare prose style and propulsive narrative that makes it feel like a much more contemporary work.

The hero of this work, Jason dinAlt, left his native stuffy, caste-conscious farm planet of Porgorstorsaand at age 19 and hasn’t looked back since. He became an itinerant gambler after realizing that he possessed unusually long runs of sustained success at games of chances — a phenomenon enhanced by his fickle psychic powers, which at times grant him amazing awareness of his environment and the thoughts of the people around him.

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Joe Haldeman postulated a peaceful first contact in his 1976 novel ‘Mindbridge’

February 5, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 5, 2019

Author’s note: This post contains some minor spoilers for the terrific novel The Forever War. Although these spoilers are rather trifling, If you have any interest in science fiction and haven’t read that book, I urge you to do so before you read this post! MEM

Joe Haldeman made his bones as a science fiction author in 1974 with his first genre novel, The Forever War. Like much of Haldeman’s work, this gritty soldier’s-eye perspective of a centuries-long conflict fought between humans and a mysterious alien race was informed by the author’s experiences as a draftee who was injured during his service in the Vietnam War.

Under a pseudonym, the Oklahoma-born author published two adventure novels featuring a merman before releasing another book using his own name. That volume was Mindbridge, a 1976 work which borrows a few techniques from The Forever War while tackling a story that in many ways is quite different from its predecessor.

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A psychic astronaut hits the road in Clifford Simak’s 1961 novel ‘Time is the Simplest Thing’

February 2, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 2, 2019

Shortly after the opening of Time is the Simplest Thing, the 1961 Clifford D. Simak novel, protagonist Shepherd Blaine realizes that the machine he is telekinetically operating has entered an artificial structure in a desert on a faraway planet. The open-aired dwelling is occupied by a sprawling pink blob about 12 feet high with a base 20 feet in diameter.

“Hi pal,” the Pinkness tells the probe, “I trade with you my mind.” In that instant, the alien creature swaps a slice of its consciousness with part of Blaine’s… and in the next, Blaine’s mind is recalled to his sleeping body at the Fishhook complex in Northern Mexico.

It emerges that Blaine — and yes, his first name is capital-S Symbolic — is a sort of psychic astronatut who works for an organization called Fishhook. Over a century or so beginning around the end of the 1900s, Fishhook has harnessed psychic powers to explore outer space, a task to which human bodies and ordinary technology proved ill suited. As soon as Blaine awakens, he realizes that in a matter of minutes, the scientists at his organization will review recordings from the probe he’s been using and discover that he has been compromised.

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Astronauts face peril on a remote planet in Poul Anderson’s 1966 novel ‘World Without Stars’

January 31, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 31, 2019

I continue this month’s (inadvertent, I swear!) tour of early novels by science fiction and fantasy grand masters with World Without Stars, a 1966 tale by Danish-American author Poul Anderson.

The book revolves around an ill-starred voyage by the merchant vessel Captain Felipe Argens and his crew of eight. The Meteor is bound for a remote star located outside our galaxy, a place where sentient technology users have developed despite the relative paucity of heavy metals (due to the vagaries of the formation of isolated heavenly bodies).

Humanity is but one of many species that use space jump to zip from one point to another in Anderson’s far future. What’s more, galactic inhabitants are blessed with virtual immortality courtesy of the “antithanatic,” an internal system that instantly rejects “any hostile nucleic acids.” People don’t live forever, for as our narrator, Argens, relates, “sooner or later some chance combination of circumstances is bound to kill you.” And without selective memory editing every so often over the decades or centuries, brains become overwhelmed with information and eventually succumb to madness.

Still, the travelers are engineered to survive all but the most extreme exigencies, which means that for Anderson to imperil his characters, he must meet a high barrier. Naturally, the author realizes this, and he’s up to the challenge: In chapter five, out of 17 in the book, Meteor crash-lands on a distant planet. Two of the astronauts die instantly; one lasts only a few hours longer.

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Paper-thin characterizations help sink Robert Silverberg’s 1969 science-fiction tale ‘The Man in the Maze’

January 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 30, 2019

Every so often, I’ll think about books that I read, or at least tried to read. A long time ago, probably when I was a teenager, I stumbled across a promising book in my local library’s science fiction section. It was set in an ancient and deadly maze constructed millennia ago by a mysterious alien race that had long since gone extinct. The heart of this sprawling, city-sized labyrinth housed a former interstellar ambassador who lived in self-imposed exile after having been tainted in the course of making first contact with an alien species. This contamination, which took place unbeknownst to the ambassador, left him telepathically emitting a flood of noxious emotions that quickly sickened anyone who entered the same room as him.

Into this tableau enters a starship crew on a desperate quest: To evade the maze’s numerous dead ends and lethal traps, reach its center and recruit the embittered exile for a dangerous mission that could save humanity from extermination.

This seemed like a surefire premise for a science-fiction thriller. Unfortunately, experience belied expectations; my teenage self began reading this book but never finished, put off by meandering philosophical and psychological digressions that hopelessly bogged down what I’d expected to be an action-packed story.

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Richard K. Morgan’s dynamic 2003 debut novel, ‘Altered Carbon,’ is an entertaining murder mystery set on far-future Earth

January 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 29, 2019

Richard K. Morgan’s 2003 debut novel, Altered Carbon, is an immensely entertaining synthesis of two genres: The noir-style hard-boiled detective story and the hardcore cyberpunk science-fiction tale.

The narrator and protagonist of the tale is Takeshi Kovacs. A one-time hoodlum from Harlan’s World, Kovacs endured a rocky experience as a marine for the United Nations’ interplanetary protectorate before becoming a member of a shadowy group called the Envoys, a contingent of planet- and body-hopping warrior monks with the lethality and mission-oriented amorality of James Bond.

Kovacs has bombed out of the Envoys and been placed in punitive deep freeze when he’s summoned back to consciousness on Earth by Laurens Bancroft, an ultra-rich, nigh-immortal centuries-old Methuselah who needs a can-do private investigator to unravel the mystery of his death.

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Aliette de Bodard fashions a fascinating albeit understated crisis in deep space with her ingenious novel ‘On a Red Station, Drifting’

January 28, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 28, 2019

Aliette de Bodard’s 2013 novel On a Red Station, Drifting is an intriguing, understated science fiction story set in a future galactic empire where Vietnamese culture reigns supreme.

The story begins as Lê Thi Linh, a magistrate — here apparently signifying a planetary governor — arrives at an interstellar outpost known as Prosper Station. Linh has preemptively fled her position on the Twenty-Third planet because of an approaching invasion fleet led by an insurrectionist warlord. Resources are scarce on Prosper Station because of the rebellion, which the emperor finds himself unable or unwilling to resolve. The position of chief human administrator on Prosper has fallen to Lê Thi Quyen, whose husband was drafted by the empire.

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In George R.R. Martin’s 1981 science fiction thriller ‘Nightflyer,’ the possibilities raised by a long journey and a malevolent force are thwarted by bad company

January 26, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 26, 2019

As a youngster, I loved almost everything about space. If I found a book, movie or TV show with a spaceship in it, I wanted to read or watch it.

This enthusiasm has persisted into my adult, albeit in somewhat diminished strength. (I still haven’t seen Solo: A Star Wars Story, for instance, and it took me months to watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi.) These days, I’m especially intrigued by science fiction stories concerning mysteries or atrocities committed aboard a spaceship — for instance, Event Horizon or Supernova.

Given that background, you can understand why I was excited to run across George R.R. Martin’s 1981 novel Nightflyers in my library’s online catalog. Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the book’s potentially dynamite scenario was tempered by my disinterest in the 10 travelers whom the author imperils.

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A biologist investigates impenetrable mysteries in Jeff VanderMeer’s enigmatic 2014 science-fiction novel ‘Annihilation’

January 22, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 22, 2019

When I saw Alex Garland’s Annihilation last spring, I found myself captivated by the atmospheric, understated science-fiction story. I recently read the book it’s based upon, Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, which similarly establishes an odd and unsettling mood.

The story unfolds entirely from the perspective of an unnamed biologist, the template for the movie’s Lena, played by Natalie Portman. Much like Garland used an interview with Lena after her emergence from the strange Area X to frame most of the events, the book unfurls as an account that the biologist has written in her journal following the dissolution of her four-woman expedition.

The exploration party is led by an older psychologist and includes an anthropologist and surveyor. (The movie’s group was led by an older psychologist and had an anthropologist, but featured a physicist and paramedic.) The biologist has followed her husband, who vanished along with the previous party sent into Area X before mysteriously returning to the couple’s home; unlike in the movie, the husband — here a seaman turned paramedic, rather than an army special forces operator — has died.

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Strangers in a strange land grapple with their lust for death in Fritz Leiber’s strangely poignant post-apocalyptic novella ‘The Night of the Long Knives’

January 16, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 16, 2019

If you’d asked me just yesterday to recite everything I knew about Fritz Leiber, I’d only have been able to tell you that he was one of the old grand masters of science fiction. This is correct, but only in a limited technical sense. While the Chicago native was the fifth person to be named a grand master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in 1981, his biggest impact on speculative fiction was actually in fantasy, by way of his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

As it happens, I was browsing my local library’s collection of science-fiction electronic books earlier this month when one of Leiber’s titles caught my eye. I initially thought that this 1960 novella was known to me as an old science-fiction movie. Here again, I was mostly wrong; the movie of that title, released in 2005, is a 45-minute documentary concerning the deadly 1934 purge of opposition figures that then-chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered to strengthen his control over the Nazi party and German society at large.

Long story short: I started reading Leiber’s tale on the strength of (somewhat mistaken) name recognition and a short blurb about the contents of the book. As it turns out, The Night of the Long Knives is an engrossing story about drifters in a hellish wasteland who are drawn together by happenstance.

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The pioneering ‘Mission to Horatius’ is both a path-breaking and pedestrian ‘Star Trek’ tale

December 31, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 31, 2018

It’s safe to say that when Star Trek debuted in the late 1960s, its corporate masters had no concept of its potential. NBC considered axing the show in 1968, after ratings for the series’ second season sagged, but a fan-led campaign of protests, letters and postcards persuaded the network to extend the show for a third year. (There would be no fourth season, of course, although the show eventually inspired a number of books and toys before segueing into a string of movies and television productions.)

Given corporate America’s initial cluelessness over Star Trek, it follows that initial efforts at merchandising the show were rather spotty. I mention this because for no particular reason I came across a copy of Mission to Horatius, the very first licensed book containing an original Star Trek story.

The 1968 novel was written by Mack Reynolds, an obscure but prolific science-fiction author who died in 1983 at age 65. The story, which was purportedly aimed at a young-adult audience, is straightforward enough: The U.S.S. Enterprise has been dispatched to respond to a mysterious distress call originating from the distant solar system Horatius. Centuries ago, three of the system’s planets were settled by humans, but the colonists have long been out of touch with their ancestral planet of Earth.

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Can a movie adaptation be better than the book? In the case of Ernest Cline’s 2011 tale ‘Ready Player One,’ that argument can be made

December 28, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 28, 2018

This spring, when I watched Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, I had yet to read the 2011 debut novel by Ernest Cline on which the movie was based. I recently did so, and I’m here to tell you that the book is… OK.

I can see why Spielberg would have wanted to adapt the tale for the big screen. The man at the center of Ready Player One, the late computer programmer James Halliday, harbored “an extreme fixation on the 1980s, the decade during which he’d been a teenager.”

That was, of course, the period when Spielberg was arguably at the peak of his cultural influence. E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, which Business Insider ranked as Spielberg’s second-biggest box-office hit, premiered in 1982. Raiders of the Lost Ark and its first two sequels came out in 1981, 1984 and 1989, respectively; all three are top-10 earners on Business Insider’s list. The Color Purple, slotted 12th by BI, was released in 1985.

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John Sandford and Ctein tell an enjoyable story of interplanetary travel in their 2015 novel ‘Saturn Run’

December 18, 2018

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

Saturn Run, a 2015 science fiction novel by prolific thriller writer John Sandford and mononymic polymath Ctein, is a diverting tale about two spacecraft racing to uncover the secrets of a mysterious alien artifact hidden in the far reaches of our solar system.

Sandford, a Pulitzer Prize–winning former journalist who’s probably best known for his 29-book “Prey” series, joined forces with Caltech-trained photographer/physicist/computer scientist Ctein for this tale, which I believe represents Sandford’s first venture into space. None of the characters evince much complexity, but the scenario is gripping enough to make Saturn Run a fun read for science-fiction enthusiasts.

The story opens shortly before an astronomer accidentally detects signs of an alien craft approaching Saturn in early 2066, an event that triggers a frantic U.S. government effort to retrofit a space station for interplanetary travel and research. This project is initially disguised as an effort to accompany and support China’s Martian Odyssey, a ship intended to establish humanity’s first colony on the red planet, but the subterfuge evaporates a few weeks later when every astronomer on Earth notices the alien vessel exiting the solar system.

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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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