Paul’s Book Reviews: Fiction, a Memoir, and a Guidebook

Dear Jennaveieve,
I’m having an affair with an older woman. Shes’ a lady of some sophistication, and makes a refreshing change from the teen agers I know (like Alektra, for example, or Chanel). The sex is fantastic and I think I’m in love. But ther’es one very serious complication and i’ts this; shes’ my Gran! — Lionel Asbo: State of England

lionel asboLionel Asbo: State of England
by Martin Amis
I’m having a hard time pinning down why I so like this novel. It’s not about anything serious, but it’s great fun to read. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

Martin Amis can be an intimidating writer. A few of his earlier novels were experimental, the writing therein alien and dense. Those novels put off many readers and reviewers. A subset of Martin Amis novels, however, are romps through English popular culture, and these are the ones people rave about. Lionel Asbo: State of England falls into the romp category.

As with other Martin Amis novels, Amis introduces and maintains notes of high tension throughout Lionel Asbo. The primary note of tension is Des Pepperdine’s sexual secret, the one he must keep Lionel from learning lest Lionel go all Happy Fun Ball in retaliation. There is Lionel’s out-of-control temper itself, a constant danger. There are the pit bulls, an increasingly frightening presence, who later in the story will have you gasping for air. Amis is very very good at this sort of thing.

And like his father, Kingsley Amis, Martin is a wicked observer of English pop culture. Lionel Asbo is a thug and a bully. He makes stupidity a virtue (though he is, as you’ll discover, anything but). Lionel by choice lives the live of a petty criminal, as happy in prison as he is out of it, until he suddenly and unexpectedly wins the lottery and becomes a multi-millionaire, the British tabloids’ Lotto Lout, at which point he embraces his new role as celebrity thug and bully, hobnobbing with footballers, rock stars, and Spice Girls, squandering his money yet perversely investing wisely and growing ever more wealthy. But make no mistake: there’s nothing funny about Lionel. He’s pure evil, as he demonstrates again and again.

Young Des Pepperdine, the nephew Lionel raises, is the novel’s note of sanity and decency. But he’s more than a straight man to Lionel: he’s the narrator, the person the novel is really about. Lionel never changes. Des grows, gets an education, marries a lovely woman, lands a real job, and becomes a father. In spite of Lionel.

It’s a funny, charming, insightful, sometimes frightening, and always intelligent story, even if it is about nothing in particular. If you were intimidated or put off by some of Amis’ earlier novels, come back for this one. If you are already a die-hard Amis fan, you’ll find him here at the top of his form.

city of thievesCity of Thieves
David Benioff
A well-told, tensely plotted story of average men and women forced into heroism during the WWII siege of Leningrad. Some of the characters seem stereotyped, and the author appears to have learned most of what he knows about the siege from books, but he does a great job putting it all together and making it seem authentic (though I suspect conditions were far worse than he depicts them).

The value of this story is in acquainting Western readers with the incredible hardships and sacrifices the Russians endured during WWII, their patriotism and determination in fighting the invading Nazis. We have a skewed view of who won WWII; the Russians bore the brunt of the fighting, devastation, and death; the Russians really defeated the Nazis.

Throughout, Benioff tries to hint at how things really were for Soviet citizens during the war, those outside the immediate circle of characters we follow through the story: the narrator Lev, and soldier Kolya, the partisan sniper Vika. We learn of the brutality of the NKVD, the contempt with which the military treated civilians, the widespread anti-Semitism of the Russian people, the near-collapse of Soviet civil society. But that’s just backdrop … this is a hero story, and Benioff never loses sight of that: our little band of heroes suffer, persevere, and survive against impossible odds; the Nazis are relentlessly evil; the winter kills even the strongest of men.

Sometimes you need heroes. I devoured this novel.

the dog starsThe Dog Stars
Peter Heller
I have friends who swore off post-apocalyptic science fiction after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars is the antidote. You all can come back now, you hear?

Which is not to say Peter Heller’s hellscape is populated with unicorns and ponies. It’s a hellscape, all right, the continental US reverting to nature after a blood disease has killed off more than 99% of the population, unfortunately before we did anything to combat global warming, which is now compounding the problem of survival with a devastating drought. Two men live near an abandoned airport somewhere in the high plains of eastern Colorado, defending their homestead against occasional marauders bent on killing them and taking whatever they have. One is a poet who likes to fish and hunt and fly; the other a monosyllabic survivalist with a taste for weaponry and killing. The poet narrates, and he has plenty of time to tell his story as he patrols their domain in an old Cessna. The poet has a beloved dog and a soft spot for an extended family of Mennonites who have managed to survive on a farmstead several miles away. One day, while flying, he makes a radio transmission for old time’s sake and gets a garbled response, enough to let him know that someone like him … a pilot … is living at the airport in Grand Junction, just at the limit of his flying range. After the death of his dog he decides that voice from Grand Junction is the only thing he has left to live for, and flies off in that direction. Along the way he sees a man and a woman tending sheep and cattle near a stream in the Rocky Mountain foothills. And then the story gets better (I’ll stop now lest I spoil it for you).

The narrator, Hig, he of the dog and hunting and fishing and flying, is the definition of a sympathetic character. He pulls you in, and you find yourself part of his dangerous, depopulated world, believing everything he relates. Since I am a pilot and was able to validate all the flying information Heller’s character passed on, I gave Heller the benefit of the doubt and believed everything he told me about trout, elk, bear, deer, and the rapidity with which roads and buildings will crumble after we’re no longer around to maintain them … Heller clearly knows his stuff, and the writing is crystal clear. Did I mention the narrator, Hig, is a poet? Some of the writing here reminded me of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

I’ve told you enough by now to show you that there is an element of hope in this post-apocaplytic world of Peter Heller’s, and that is what makes it a more compelling read than Cormac McCarthy’s ultra-severe The Road. I was frightened, fascinated, and uplifted. And I will not forget this story for a long time. The Dog Stars earns my highest recommendation … do read it!

hangar flyingHangar Flying
General Merrill A. McPeak
During my career as a fighter pilot I served under several USAF chiefs of staff. Each had his eccentricities, but General McPeak (or, as we called him, Skeletor) stood out. He didn’t like the word “regulation,” forcing every existing USAF reg to be rewritten as an “instruction.” He introduced a new uniform with Navy-style sleeve rank; then, after every officer had been forced to buy one, dictated a return to the old Class A uniform. He deactivated the Tactical Air Command and Strategic Air Command and combined them into a new Air Combat Command. He forced us all to learn and implement the then-current (and utterly useless) civilian business management fad, Total Quality Management. Everyone thought he was an egomaniac run wild.

When I heard of this book those memories came rushing back, and I almost didn’t buy it. But then I remembered when General McPeak, some years after he had retired, publicly called then-President George W. Bush “stupid,” and I thought, “what the hell, I’ll give it a try.” And I was very pleasantly surprised. Because this isn’t a book about being a chief of staff, or a general, or even a colonel. It’s a book about flying fighters.

McPeak recounts the flying portion of his career, from flight training in T-28s and T-33s to operational assignments in F-100s and F-104s and back to F-100s, with a stop along the way for a tour with the Thunderbirds, leading to his time in Vietnam where he flew as a Misty FAC. Exciting stuff, great war stories, and plenty of sensible advice about flying and fighting. McPeak writes with both pilots and non-pilots in mind; he’s clear and to the point, and he has a gift for explaining the complexities of air-to-air and air-to-ground maneuvering. It’s a great history of an important era in the development of modern fighter tactics and weapons, and along the way he talks about the other officers he flew with, some of whom I later came to know well when I followed McPeak’s footsteps into fighters.

My only complaint about this gripping narrative is that McPeak self-censors. He has, as his crack about President George W. Bush indicates, more to say: he hints at some of the institutional buffoonery he encountered during his flying days, especially the outrageously counterproductive organizational ideas and decisions that caused us to be so ineffective in Vietnam, but he restrains himself, cuts himself off short. I kept wanting to say, “C’mon Skeletor, you can be more honest about what you thought about the nation’s civilian and military leadership during a decades-old war.”

This is a pretty shit hot book, though, and if you want to read about flyin’ and fightin’, you can’t go wrong with Hangar Flying.

the long earthThe Long Earth
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Reader reviews seem to gravitate toward two extremes: one-star reviews written by disappointed fans of Terry Pratchett’s other works, and four-star reviews from readers enthusiastic about the science fiction theme in this work.

I wasn’t familiar with Terry Pratchett before reading The Long Earth, so I can’t compare it to his other novels. And though I’m enthusiastic about the idea behind The Long Earth—interested enough to keep turning pages all the way to the end—the shiny object at the center of the story didn’t entirely make up for the passionless, almost 19th century way Pratchett tells the story. For that reason I’ll rate it between other readers’ extremes.

The bright shiny object here is the idea of parallel worlds, an infinite series of earths that suddenly manifests itself to mankind in the early 21st century (there had always been a few men and women who could move from world to world, but at the start of this novel a diagram showing how to build a “stepper” appears on the internet and suddenly nearly everyone is stepping between worlds). Each world is slightly different from its neighbors, but all are recognizably Earth. Some have different climates. Some are encased in ice, some in water. Some are moonless and dead. But most are hospitable, and virgin to boot, with clean air, water, trees, and bountiful game. Strangely, though, none have humans (though many have hominids). Mankind begins to spread out, colonizing neighboring worlds, living off the abundant new lands, and within a couple of decades people are building settlements literally hundreds of thousands of parallel worlds away.

Pratchett chooses to focus on one young man, a “natural stepper” who can move from world to world without the mechanical stepping device, and one who does not suffer bouts of nausea when he steps, enabling him to step from world to world at a fast pace. He goes into partnership with an sentient artificial intelligence, and together they become the Lewis and Clark of parallel world exploration. But though they pass through millions of worlds and see many strange things, they mostly talk philosophy to each other, and that’s what I mean about the passionless 19th century feel of this book. It’s an old fashioned novel of ideas: what action there is is secondary, and there is no sex at all (even though, toward the end, the young man and his AI sidekick are joined by a young woman who is also a natural stepper).

Through a bit of authorial artifice, Pratchett makes it impossible to move anything made of iron from world to world. This forces people moving into new worlds to live as rustic pioneers, and naturally the first thing they do is to start mining iron and making steam-driven machinery for their sawmills and such, so in addition to the 19th century manner of his storytelling, Pratchett gives his story a veneer of steampunk—there’s even an airship.

The science fiction hook of The Long Earth—that infinite series of slightly differing worlds—was so appealing to me that I was more than willing to wade through the protracted conversations between the two main characters. As a few other readers have observed, this novel seems like a setup for a series of parallel world stories, perhaps with more character development and action. There are any number of jumping off points for such stories, and perhaps Pratchett means to explore them. Then again, The Long Earth may just have been a one-off, Terry Pratchett having fun with a big concept.

just rideJust Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike
Grant Petersen
The 3-star rating is for the informational value of this guidebook, not its literary value, though I must say Grant Petersen writes clearly and well. Just Ride is a guidebook full of useful information, particularly in the area of bicycle construction and materials, geometry, and proper sizing. It would be of great value to someone thinking about getting into bicycling, or to an experienced rider in the market for a new bicycle. It was of value to me, even though my next bicycle purchase is two to three years away.

The first half of Petersen’s guide explains his own riding philosophy, which is antithetical to the racer/triathlete ethos and look that has taken over bicycling in the USA. Picture a Danish rider pedaling to work on a practical, comfortable bicycle, dressed in normal clothing and shoes, and you have a pretty good idea of where Petersen (a life-long rider, a man of opinions, and the founder and owner of Rivendell Bicycles) is coming from. Most of this section is entertaining in a making-spandex-clad-poseurs-look-silly way. Some of his opinions go against the trend (he generally rides without helmet and gloves, for example) and some are, at least to me, suspect (as when he argues that bicycle shoes are unnecessary, which runs counter to my own experience). But hey, reading this section of the guide was like having a good conversation about bicycles and bicycling with an experienced veteran, and I don’t mind a little disagreement.

The second half contains the technical information I mentioned at the beginning of this review, and I must admit I learned a lot from it.

Just Ride is a two-hour read, cover to cover. A bicycle enthusiast friend told me there wasn’t a lot of heft to it and recommended I order a copy from the local library. Unless you want a copy to keep and refer to from time to time, borrowing is probably the best way to go with this particular book.

See all my reviews

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