Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

The Big Cheese


Why You Should Loan Books To Your Friends

The Agony Column for June 13, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


I loan a lot of books to a couple of friends. It's something I've just always done, since we all discovered that we have similar tastes. They're just as rabid about reading as I am, and read as fast or faster than I do. Loaning books to Reading Buddies (RB1 & RB2, for example) is often the father of interesting experiences. Mostly what happens is that you will loan someone a book, and get it back say a month or so later. You pop it open, fan through the pages, and there it is -- the stub from your utilities bill of two months ago. Or the grocery receipt from the person you loaned it to, replete with 25 kinds of fresh vegetables, because, as it happens, they're vegetarian. Then there's the 'What's that book doing on my shelf?' experience, when you're looking for one yours and find one of theirs. Instantly, you're catapulted back into the time when you read that book, and your kids were in sixth grade and fourth grade respectively, and you were reading on the porch before you painted it a bright blue.

Books are more than entertainment experiences; they're wonderful physical objects, mementos as well as holders and hiders of mementos. And all of this gets mentioned because last week I bought myself a big ol' slab of fine American Cheese. That would be Douglas Preston's and Lincoln Child's 'The Cabinet of Curiosities', which ends up being chocolate bonbons, a triple cheese burger and chili cheese fries with extra onions all rolled into one pretty delightful calorie-free package. As I read and greatly enjoyed this book, plowing through it two days, I thought, now here's a book that RB1 would like. Didn't he like the other books by these guys?

The latest novel by the Preston/Child conglomerate is a rocking return to roots for these purveyors of fine American Cheese.

So, I dig up the other books by these guys that I have, 'The Relic', 'Mount Dragon' and 'Reliquary'. I even dig up Jennifer Toth's 'The Mole People', just because I know they praise the heck out of it in the end of 'Reliquary'. Flipping through that book, an envelope falls out; a father's day card from RB1's son to him, from, well, let me flip back through that damn book in a pile, that's it, 5 years ago. His kid would have been graduating into 8th grade then. Mine would have been....

Nothing like a bit of research to pep up the new novel. Jennifer Toth's 'The Mole People' is mentioned in the acknowledgements of 'Reliquary'. If you're interested in this, check out a movie titled 'Dark Days' -- it's incredible.

And you can see the path I'm headed down. Back in reality, I'm beginning to think that, having finished 'The Cabinet of Curiosities', I'll have time to do what should be done with such a big, greazy slab of cheese. I'll be able to recommend it to those searching for something to give Dad for Father's Day. OK, that's done it. Kids, buy this book for your Dad if he reads this sort of thing. Preston and Child hit on so many levels, they press so many easy buttons on the Dad machine, you've got a pretty good chance that Dad will like it. Plus, it's really new and he's not likely to have bought it himself yet. I only managed to get it after going to the bookstore to find that it had been marked in stock but could not be found. With the help of my very friendly and knowledgeable bookstore clerks, we looked everywhere; in SF, in general fiction, on the book cart where they put the overflow, on the big rectangular display case. Then, as I'm poking about I overhear one clerk mention to another that [Some guy's name] has taken it home. Oops.

'Mount Dragon' suffered from being a medical thriller that followed 'The Hot Zone', a non-fiction work that outmoded almost all medical thrillers.

Don't let this happen to you! Run now down to the bookstore, buy this book, so your Dad can loan it to someone else who can use his child's Father's Day card as a bookmark. You can sentimentalize about the part where they find the remains of thirty-six meticulously murdered street kids from the 1860's and 70's. You can cherish the memories of yesteryear, when a big fat old cheeseburger really tasted great, or 'The Cabinet of Curiosities' proved to set the perfect weekend spent on the back porch in the summer sun.

Look, there's a picture of the monster on the cover!

And in case you didn't get it, yes, 'The Cabinet of Curiosities' is a big ol' slice of American Cheese. It does what American authors can somehow do like no authors of no other land. It stops rational thought while making you feel as if you're learning something, thrills you and chills you while you safely warm yourself in the sun. It's a mass of contradictions, and they start pretty damn early on. Like, on page 3-, you've got the presumably pneumatic archaeologist from another Preston/Child novel saying "I have to be the hooker", "her breasts bouncing" and reflecting that "the outfit made her feel sassy, bold, a little sexy." A couple of pages later, she's analyzing a 19th century dress and has "lugged over a portable stereozoom microscope, laid it on the table, and brought it into focus." We're talking a crystal clear focus here folks. We don't get any feedback if the outfit makes archaeology more rewarding.

OK, so it's not Shakespeare, that's established. But it does keep the pages turning with a plot that's all over a map of New York which thankfully does not mention the Twin Towers, their demise, or any other unpleasantness. Preston and Child have their own dose of unpleasantness to disburse in this case a century old set of serial killings and a modern kill-alike. Or has the original author returned to his old ways? These authors have certainly returned to their monster in the museum ways, and it's a welcome return to my way of looking at it.

The follow-up to 'Relic' was NOT made into an even cheesier movie than the first novel. Of course, it's going to be hard to top the 'fishing with policemen' scene of 'Relic'.

Look, we're talking about a book with the word cheesy almost precisely in the center of novel. And we're talking about a novel where the writers really, really know how to crank up the tension and terror. They hang an absolutely heinous fate over characters we come to like. They let us get to know these characters (they're not so hot with the women, however. You might have guessed that.) And they bank successfully on the popularity of Sherlock Holmes and figures vaguely like Sherlock Holmes. It's shameless, shameful fun. Trust me, IF DAD LIKES THIS SORT OF THING (and you know that better than anyone), he'll like this particular thing. Problem solved, hit it to the independent bookstore near you and pony up the full price. You go to the discount store, you're going to get cooties.

You may find yourself the victim of cootie bugs if you do not buy the books above at an independant bookstore or the book below real fast wherever you can get it.

If you find yourself in a cootie situation there is, if not a cure, at least a compensation. That is to pony up some real bucks and buy dad one of the 800 or so copies of Paul Di Filippo's 'A Year In The Linear City'. I'm telling you right now, it's not going to arrive in time unless you do some serious shipping. But whenever it arrives, if you know someone (even yourself) who loves Big Wow science fantasy of the likes of China Mieville, then you owe it to yourself, or whomever you're buying for to get this book and get it pronto. There's not a whiff of cheese about it. It's a full quality production, a fact I will now demonstrate by publishing a full size scan of the front cover illustration, not too coincidentally, I might add, done by Edward Miller, the gent who did the illos for 'Perdido Street Station' and 'The Scar'.

Could the texturing on this painting be a PhotoShop effect? It's an evocative illustration of Di Filippo's narrative.

What's inside lives up to the cover and more. Di Filippo has turned in a remarkably easy to read piece of art. It's funny, it's fast, it's wildly imaginative. I can't tell you anything about beyond what I tell in the linked review. What I can tell you is that it combines a real sense of fun, not unlike that sported by Preston and Child, with an unbound imagination that results in several Big Wows in the brief 80 pages. If the setup doesn't yield one, then the characters within will. Di Filippo proves that your characters can be pneumatic and charming without being groan inducing. His inventions will live with for years beyond the time you read the novel.

Preston & Child may not be quite so fortunate, but you know what, that's a big fat old book. Give it to someone, loan it to someone, buy it for yourself and enjoy the hell out of 'The Cabinet of Curiosities' and 'A Year In The Linear City'. Loan them away. Get them back and put them on a shelf. Three years from now, remove them and ask yourself what you were doing when you read them. Come to think of it, find a book on your shelf now, pick it up -- and remember.




Rick Kleffel

Dedicated to my Father, who taught me the importance of stacked books