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Monday, July 09, 2012

The Books I Read: May - June 2012


Columbine by Dave Cullen

I don't know what you can say about a book like this. Columbine was the word poised on the lips of any high schooler. Everyone asked themselves if they were a potential victim. It got to the point where my sociology professors refused to read any papers about Columbine because they had read so many. Everyone spent the next 2-3 years asking why, how, and what can we do to prevent it from happening again. No one got any answers. And now it seems like everyone's almost forgotten about the small-town tragedy. It's especially important to me because it happened in my senior year of high school. In another life, a few tweaks here and there, I could have been one of the killers.

The book jumps around a little. It starts with a detailed description of the preludes to the event (an assembly, the prom, etc.) and the known, verified events of 4/20/99. Then it splits into two narratives. One is the aftermath and analysis thereof. How the cops screwed up, how the media screwed up, the heroes and maligners among the students. The other is a profile of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and their evolution into what they became. The book is one of the most complete, well-thought historical event analyses I have ever read (but I haven't read many).

It's nice to know after ten years in such a personally interesting event, what really happened. The untruths behind the trenchcoat mafia and Marilyn Manson. The influences and avenues they used to get the weapons they needed (that are still open). I never knew that the "Do you believe in God? Yes." story was never corroboratable, or how non-methodical the massacre was. The media did a horrible job of reporting the truth around the event. The police and SWAT team did a horrible job of taking action. They could have saved lives if they'd taken more risk, but I don't think they knew what they were dealing with. No one did, they still don't. That's part of the reason it fascinates.

Anyone who grew up plus-or-minus the Columbine era should read this book. You're probably already interested in Columbine because you were one of them. This book is on the long side. But it's well-written, explains everything with journalistic integrity, and gives great insight into why it became a thing, and why it no longer is.


The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers (unfinished)

More like Captain Snoozebear, amirite? No? Well, I'll work on it.

This book is awful, awful, awful. This is probably the worst book I have ever read. It was translated from German, but it does not translate. Its plot goes nowhere -- there is nothing at stake and no tying thread. Any obstacles are immediately overcome and never revisited. It tries to be cute with a random illustrations (which are poorly sketched) and faux-encyclopedia entries a la Douglas Adams, but these are just failed attempts. You don't have a book if all you have to offer to the reader is "whimsy".

And this goes on for 700 pages. I'd like to repeat that because it's vaguely important. Seven hundred pages of a story with no thematic thread, no character arc. Just character goes from A to B to C and encounters Alice-In-Wonderland style creatures that you never see again.

The aforementioned encyclopedia entries are the worst. It's supposed to give brief descriptions of all the magical people and places that Mr. Bluebear encounters, but they never have a damn thing to do with the plot. They're more like jokes. But there are SO MANY of them. It's page after page of bullshit that has no relevance. The book is like a D&D Monster Manual. I got 200 pages into it and decided it was a waste of my life. My wife (bless her heart) did finish the book, but felt so drained from it, she put off starting another one for a few weeks. If, as an author, your book is so bad that it turns people off from reading other books, you should probably just kill yourself.

Wait, wait, I got it. More like CAN'Tain BlueBEAR it? Eh? Eh?


You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing by John Scalzi

Part of my purchases for Scalzi's Planned Parenthood drive in the wake of the Susan G. Komen scandal. I really hate books that are just a collection of blog entries. Why don't I just read it for free on the blog? All the archives are up there.

Nonetheless, this book is good for people wanting to make a career of writing. This book will not help you write better. This isn't like Stephen King's On Writing or Bird by Bird or any of those. You learn about writing for a living, whether that's novels, ad copy, corporate material, or anything else freelancey, and what you need to do to make that possible. I think it will help you learn, in terms of principles of writing for money, not where to go to get jobs.


The Native Star by M.K. Hobson

This book had a wonderful beginning. It started with intriguing characters -- a good ol' country witch (the sticks and herbs and perfumes and potions kind) in the Dr. McCoy vein, a hearthrobby lumberjack, and the stuck-up city boy with horrible secrets. It was an intriguing universe too -- the old west with magic. It's a hero's journey story. The first half is great, but the second half feels paddy, where magic can "suddenly" do things just because it can. Just to provide obstacles for the heroes.

At a certain point the story feels more concerned with showing off what this universe can do and the "neat stuff" in it than it does on resolving the plot. It even needs a prologue to tie its beginning and ending together. And nothing in the prologue has any bearing on the plot in-between. I'm surprised this got past the editors -- it's one of the worst reasons for a prologue. It unmade the story for me from the best thing I read this span. Good idea, execution needs work.


Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh

Non-fiction. I can't remember why I had this story on my "to-read" list in the first place, besides that maybe it was an intriguing idea. A sociologist entrenches himself in a Chicago gang and learns all the ins-and-outs, how they function, what they do to survive, make money, adapt. How do you live as a criminal? Gangs are one of the greatest cultural unknowns, perpetuated by TV and movie myths gorged with gangsta flavor and overhyped drama.

They don't come close to telling the real story. Day-to-day life is different -- punishment for breaking rules is meted out with punches and prevention from selling crack. Rewards are small. There are efforts to bring together gangs in midnight basketball tournaments. Drive-bys tend to be back-and-forth scuffles until two gang members negotiate for peace. Most families work communally to provide (one apartment in the projects might have a working oven, another a working refrigerator, another a TV). Wheels are greased with bribes and favors. Families blend together and gang ties determine what you can and can't do.

This book does a really good job of showing how gangs work. The problem is at this point, it's a little dated. The research is taken from the early 90's. There's no mention of cell phones or Internet. So sadly, everything might have changed.


Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

When I first heard of this book I was intrigued. World War Z with robots? Yes, please. When I heard it'd been optioned by Steven Spielberg, that was the clincher.

Unfortunately, the book was not as good as I hoped. It's a series of events from different perspectives, like World War Z. But in that one, you really felt that all the ideas were explored, like a Beethoven symphony. This is a pop song. None of vignettes have enough meat to give you a character arc. It's more journalistic, it's not about the characters or the plot. It lacks the human story of a war. You could tell the author of World War Z cared about his subject. You can't tell that in Robopocalypse.

World War Z explored its story in single person vignettes. In Robopocalypse, the stories are about four or five different characters, epistolary style. They tie together in some ways. But in many ways, not. For example, there's the plotline about the Japanese guy whose love doll becomes infected with the robo-go-crazy virus. There's only four chapters explore his story. One is about when his robot accidentally goes nuts, one is about the start of the revolution, one is about the defense he set up for it, and the last is when he deus ex machina's the solution (in a way that's totally implausible for any programmer).

There is no lead-in to anything. It's like it takes the "come in early, leave late" motif way too seriously. It's disjointed. There are huge events that take place with no build-up, so it's like cheating. There's a girl who gets robot eyes. At one point she joins the human rebels for the first time. Then the next time we see her, she's coordinating army teams, with no explanation of how she got to that point.

The other thing is, well, the author. He has a Ph.D. in robotics, so I have no authority to say that he doesn't "get" them. Plus it's science fiction, so anything goes. But I've been working around computers all my life. I've seen how they think, and the author's representation doesn't gel with mine. They work with logic and conditionals. They can't create, they make decisions based on anything but evidence. They can't even generate random numbers, it's not in their nature. They do nothing unless someone tells them to. But that's not how it goes in the book.

It'll probably make a good movie, especially with Spielberg attached. But it's a mediocre book. There's a story here, but it's not a well-written one.
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