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09-11-09: Paul McAuley Fights 'The Quiet War' : Return or Rebirth?

Some writers are damnably ahead of their time. Paul McAuley has always been there before there was a "there" to be at. He colonized the stars long before the British space opera fleet left the solar system. And he returned to earth with grit and valor when his comrades were still gallivanting among the stars. Now, he's in two places at once.

It's hard to say whether the latest novel by
Paul McAuley, 'The Quiet War' (Pyr / Prometheus ; September 22, 2009 ; $16.00) is a return to space opera, or a rebirth of space opera. What's easy to say is that it is surely a wonderfully written novel, regardless of genre or setting. Prose counts, immensely, and McAuley writes the sort of textured prose that draws a reader in. McAuley's opening here is a perfect example. He seamlessly segues from a scene that could be in the present to a scene that must be in the future. He uses language to make us comfortable and then whisks us away to another world.

'The Quiet War' is really a seamless melding of two often-disparate genres; near-future dystopias and far-future space operas. The conceit is very clever and rather simple. Things moved fast, faster than we could have imagined. One moment we were on a green and plentiful earth, and the next some fraction of humanity was re-imagining itself in custom colonies built around the solar system, while on Earth, the luxury gap became an abyss while the planet went to hell. McAuley's high concepts and deft science fictional plotting are unparalleled here. He's taken the science fiction toolkit apart and put it back together in a manner both intensely original and yet entertainingly familiar. Pharaonic projects to rebuild the devastated ecology are matched with exotic out-world habitats. The Earth is being invaded by aliens — from earth itself.

But beyond all this, what distinguishes McAuley's work is not simply his immensely clever imagination and his clear-headed understanding of technology, nor is it his ability to write exciting plots. What makes 'The Quiet War' worth your valuable time in a world overpopulated with space operas are the literary virtues of his writing. He creates memorable, complicated and prickly characters, who we can imagine as having lived in our world even though they come from a world we could not have imagined without McAuley's world-building skills. And all of these characters have one question at heart; what is human? Who are we? It's an eternal question, yes, but McAuley's answer is charmingly, intriguingly, intelligently complex. And when you read this novel, you'll know at least two answers; we are what we write – and what we read.



09-10-09: Karen Armstrong Makes 'The Case for God' : In What Do We Trust

There's been a lot of writing recently on what makes us believe. It's in our DNA, we're told, in our neural network. We're wired to believe in some deity, be it a bearded old man who disapproves of homosexuality and abortion, a vengeful warrior who keep throngs of virgins queued up for martyrs, or a benevolent super-scientist who lives in the now. That's only the beginning of the list, and the disparity of concept is apparent. Just what do we strive to believe in? Does God have a character arc? Is the concept of God being spun by religions that all claim access to mutually exclusive versions of the truth? Whatés behind the curtain?'

Those are pretty common questions. For the uncommon, enlightening and entertaining -to-read solution, one had best pop over to your local bookstore and pick up the
'The Case For God' (Alfred A. Knopf / Random House ; September 22, 2009 ; $27.95) by Karen Armstrong. Armstrong is definitely your go-to scholar when it comes to talking about God. From 'Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Life In and Out of the Convent' to 'The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions,' she's written eighteen books covering all aspects of religion and never been struck by lightning. I'd say that was a pretty good clue that she's on to something.

What Armstrong does and does incredibly well in 'The Case For God' is to examine the concept of God and the role of religion or mythos. It was pretty straightforward until science stepped in and radically wrenched even our understanding of belief itself. In this book, Armstrong deconstructs and traces our notions of belief and God through the ages, with the idea that there is something there, but it's not what anyone currently "believes."

Armstrong is first and foremost a compelling writer. Her prose is crystalline and easily read. Even though weére reading non-fiction, she manages to imbue her words and work with a sense of urgency, and there's a good reason; we're blowing ourselves up over an argument that does not ask the correct question. It's not about belief. It's about actions, about what we do to experience a reality beyond that which gets us through the day. To my mind, her vision of god is closer to that of H. P. Lovecraft, as something unknowable, than that of any religious sect currently filling pews. We've got it backwards. You donét believe then act. You act your way into belief. Live the life, and the life will reveal to you that which is beyond life. Perhaps, ultimately, a little human compassion.

The virtue of Armstrong's book is her amazing ability to walk through history and bring forth alternate visions from common facts, her skill at transforming the reading experience, in a sense, into a religious experience. This is not a diatribe for one side or another, but rather an exploration of the world, the humans who crawl across the face of this world and their pitiable attempts to understand both this world and another world, a world we know exists with every thought and breath. It's the world of the soul. This book is not simply a religious history, or a philosophical examination of religious beliefs, though it involves aspects of both. 'The Case for God' is an examination of the human soul for humans who read. Reading, like religion, takes us beyond the world in front of our faces. Reading this book, you can explore what is beyond and come back with an understanding of what is within.



09-09-09: Josh Bazell Manages to 'Beat the Reaper' : Better Late Than Never

OK, I managed to miss this one when it came out in hardcover, and I have to say to my readers and the author and the publisher and even the good folks at Capitola Book Café who all knew correctly, as it happens that I'd love this. Mean culpa. And hey, better late than never, especially when you're trying to 'Beat the Reaper.

I'm going to say that, as ever, I was just really busy when
Josh Bazell and 'Beat the Reaper' (Back Bay Books / Hachette Book Group ; September 14, 2009 ; $14.99) blew though town the first time. How else could I have passed by a book with a beginning that grabs you, throws you down and then threatens to "trach" (ie, shove an emptied Bic Pen in the trachea of) the reader in the first few pages is beyond me. But not any more. lFor reasons unbeknownst to even myself, I picked up this book and have not managed to put it down. Sure, it treads the line of what we at home like to call "puh-posterous," what with a plot line that involves witness protection, hit men, the mafia and doctors, but it takes that line at a ferocious pace with hilarious prose that will have you in stitches. And if you are in stitches, you'll worry about the quality of the work.

Bazell wrote his definition-of-page-turner while he was working as a medical resident at the University of California at San Francisco, and he uses his medical knowledge like a scalpel, to peel away our illusions of "health care" and replace them with a darkly comic vision of the system gone to hell and not even knowing. It's also a great source of humor. The comic pacing of the language and action is impeccable, which helps the reader race through male wish-fulfillment fantasies in grand style.

Style is everything here, and it is such a good thing that pretty much nothing else matters, though most of what else there is up to the level of Bazell's prose style. He can write a book that's laugh-out-loud funny, horrifically violent, and highly informative in one paragraph. For the most part, this is a guy book, and in fact, I'm guessing that the publishers know the ages of their audience. This trade paperback is ridiculously easy-to-read; the print is largish and the lines are nicely spaced. I wish more publishers would take this tack, because, if the book is this much of an attention-grabber, they'd sell a lot more book and all readers would be a lot happier. And as a footnote, fans of footnotes in their fiction will quite enjoy Bazell's asides. Readers who enjoy Joe R. Lansdale, Charlie Huston and the Dexter TV series (and books, for that matter) should run, not walk and make sure that unlike me, they manage to 'Beat the Reaper.'



09-08-09: A Review of 'Breathers' by S. G. Browne : Breaking Through the Lifeist Barrier

S. G. Browne has an agenda. Love is in the air, and so is death. It so happens that Browne, apparently the very definition of die-hard romantic, believes not just in life after death, but love after death as well. And he's a man who likes his humor like his martinis — dry. Assuming that he believes in drinking before death, of course.

Browne certainly believes in drinking after death, or at least his protagonist and first person-narrator, Andy does. 'Breathers' is an interesting in book in many ways. It's a fun, easy read, but it's also quite intelligently conceived. This isn’t, in general, the first association one makes with a work about the living dead. We see zombies at the movies, and we think they're kind of scary, really gory and pretty simple. Everyone's brain thinks the same thing; a rotting corpse that stumbles along and growls, "Brains!"

'Breathers' is a zombie novel where the brains were used to write, not to cater. Browne has a quite unique style that achieves humor by taking his situation with utter gravity. So seriously, you can even take a look at Undead Anonymous. If you like your humor absurd and dry, if you like a good bottle of wine, then you'd be well advised to read the in-depth review of 'Breathers,' because the book, not the breathers, might be just your cup of ... tea, we'll call it. Yes, tea. With a side of venison.



09-07-09: Fran Gage Welcomes 'The New American Olive Oil' : What You Need to Know, Plus Recipes

Fran Gage has written what is certainly the essential book for those of us who want to know how to choose a good olive oil, and more importantly — what to do with it. 'The New American Olive Oil' (Stewart, Tabori & Chang ; April 1, 2009 ; $29.95) fires off with a smart, sharp and short précis about olive oil; everything from how it is made to the varieties you can find and most importantly to me, how to choose a good oil. Here's a book that offers a swift end to your ignorance as regards olive oil.

There's a lot of mystery about it, or at least there was to me. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I thought olive oil had a lot in common with wine. And it does, to a point. Both involve crushing fruit and extracting liquid. But that's really about it. Olive oil is pretty technology-friendly, especially when it comes to the crush. The centuries-old method, which involves crushing the olives with stones and filtering the oil through mats, sounds rustic and appealing, but is really pretty inefficient and critically, simply doesn't give you the best oil. As it happens, olive oil is degraded by exposure to oxygen, something to keep in mind throughout your buying decision procedure. The stones are slow, and the that exposes the oil to more oxygen; the mats also contribute to oxidation, and they’re difficult to clean. A high-tech, high-speed hammer mill is a much better solution.

That's just the beginning. Gage goes on to detail the history of olive oil, especially the recent growth of California quality olive oils, the varieties and grades of olive oil, (you only want extra-virgin), the qualities of olive oil (fruity, bitter, pungent), the defects (yikes, a lot of them to look out for), US, California and International standards, tasting pairing, cooking and health tips. There are lots of clues on the bottles that will help you choose a good olive oil. Here are some tips; first and foremost, understand that olive oil, unlike wine, does not grow richer with age; rather, it grows rancid. So buy no more than a six-month supply for yourself. Don't keep it by the stove, and don’t keep it in the light. Look for bottling dates. There are three basic styles of olive oil, so think about getting a very small six-month supply of each for your cooking needs. Gage also talks about a number of American olive oil brands to point you in the right direction at the store. Plus, you get the lowdown on all those flavored olive oils, good and bad.

Those cooking needs will increase exponentially as you go through Gage's recipes. She offers recipes for appetizers, sauces, salads, soups, fish, vegetables, side dishes, doughs, pasta, meat, poultry, and desserts. I tried an incredible olive oil truffle she made — you just cannot believe how good chocolate infused by olive oil is. You can find some of these recipes at her website. But the book is a gorgeous production, huge, four-color pages, that lie flat when your cooking. And you will be cooking, for the first time in your life, I'm guessing, with good olive oil — and know why it is good.



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