Reviews: 2005-2009

  1. One for the Morning Glory by John Barnes
  2. Making Book by Teresa Nielsen Hayden
  3. GPS Mapping: Make Your Own Maps by Rich Owings (The Map Room)
  4. Making Maps by John Krygier and Denis Wood (The Map Room)
  5. Playing with Trains by Sam Posey
  6. Walking with Your Ancestors by Melinda Kashuba (The Map Room)
  7. How to Lie with Maps, 2nd ed., by Mark Monmonier (The Map Room)
  8. Seeing Through Maps by D. Wood, W. L. Kaiser & B. Abramms (The Map Room)
  9. From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow by Mark Monmonier (The Map Room)
  10. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
  11. The Geist Atlas of Canada by Melissa Edwards (The Map Room)
  12. Arthritis Without Pain by Scott J. Zashin, M.D. with M. Laurette Hesser (Ankylose This!)
  13. Our Dumb World by The Onion (The Map Room)
  14. Longitude by Dava Sobel (The Map Room)
  15. Canada Back Road Atlas (The Map Room)
  16. Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden (The Map Room)
  17. Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris
  18. Smile When You’re Lying by Chuck Thompson
  19. Lost States by Michael J. Trinklein (The Map Room)
  20. Rhumb Lines and Map Wars by Mark Monmonier (The Map Room)
  21. Cartography Design Annual #1 ed. by Nick Springer (The Map Room)
  22. Marsbound by Joe Haldeman
  23. Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi
  24. Two Inexpensive Star Atlases (The Map Room)
  25. Map Addict by Mike Parker (The Map Room)
  26. Paris Underground by Mark Ovenden (The Map Room)
  27. The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester (The Map Room)
  28. Bloom County: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1: 1980-1982 by Berkeley Breathed

One for the Morning Glory

Just finished John Barnes’s 1996 fantasy novel, One for the Morning Glory—about which I’d heard good things, so when I saw it at the library I picked it up. Most of the reviews I’ve seen compare it with The Princess Bride, but I think that’s superficial: it’s because both are playful and light in tone, rather than the heavy high-vatic drudgery one expects from epic fantasy. True, this is a fairy tale that does not take itself completely seriously; but, while the tone is light, breezy and immediately engaging, the story itself is not frivolous, and is at times quite dark. It is, as some have commented, the Brothers Grimm at novel length, with the wonderfully subversive proviso that the characters themselves are fully aware that they themselves are in the middle of a Tale, and conduct themselves accordingly. It’s tremendous fun, and worth a read if you can find a copy; unfortunately it appears to be out of print at the moment.

Making Book

Late last week, a copy of Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Book finally arrived from Amazon; I’d ordered it in late December (that’s “special order” for you). It’s an interesting collection of short pieces on diverse topics—often autobiographical, such as getting excommunicated by the Mormons or dealing with narcolepsy, and often whimsical. It reads, in other words, like a blog before the fact: proof positive that such writings did exist before them thar Internets; they were just in zines and such, and as such harder to find. More to the point, it reads like Teresa’s excellent blog.

The meat of the book, in substance if not in length, is the essay “On Copyediting,” derived from an internal document at Tor Books for their copyeditors. Since my work has, from time to time, included such diverse elements as may be considered copyediting, this was compelling stuff. But, probably because my own copyediting was highly specific and technical, viz., federal statutes and regulations, I wasn’t aware of some of the more general idiosyncracies of the field. Notably, style sheets—I’d never heard of them before in a copyediting context (an article reprinted in a 1994 book is probably not referring to CSS). So much for doing any freelance copyediting. But, Google is my friend: here’s a sample style sheet and, from the SFWA, “A Writer’s Guide to Understanding the Copyeditor.” Aha. Now, we had those at Justice; they just weren’t individualized, naturally.

Playing with Trains

Sam Posey’s Playing with Trains will not reveal anything new to anyone already involved in the hobby of model railroading, but for the general reader it’s a reasonably good, and evocatively written, introduction to the state of the hobby.

Posey, a former race car driver and a sports commentator, spends the first half of the book on his own model railroading history, from his childhood, with his mother helping him build his first layout, to his adulthood, when he hired someone to build his expansive Colorado Midland layout with his family. (My father read the book while he was visiting, and sniffed, as many in the hobby would, at the notion that he paid someone else to build his layout.)

The second half of the book is a new-journalism-style look at the state of the hobby, with Posey visiting a number of luminaries of the field—none of whom will be unfamiliar to anyone who’s been reading Model Railroader for the last couple of decades—and talking about their approaches. This part is a little light, a little superficial, but its great strength is crystallizing a schism in the hobby that I was only dimly aware of myself: the schism between the operators who focus on simulating, in miniature and in precise detail, the work—and paperwork—undertaken by real railroads (think Tony Koester) at the expense of scenery, and those focused on jaw-dropping scenery at the expense of realistic operations (think Malcolm Furlow, or even George Selios).

Most of us, naturally, are somewhere in the middle: we’d like to do more than run trains around in a loop, but we’d like to do more than run them on bare plywood. The Koester mode is in the ascendancy at the moment, to the extent that his book on layout design elements isn’t about the elements’ function in the abstract, it’s about replicating real things: for example, not about understanding how an interchange works in theory, but in copying a real interchange. This is a considerable change from the Armstrong mode, where understanding how real railroads work is the necessary first step, not simply slavishly replicating what really existed (without, I suspect, necessarily understanding why it existed).

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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Just finished reading Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Despite the title’s superficial resemblance to Menzies’s 1421 (a crackpot theory that the Chinese discovered America), Mann’s 1491 is a serious survey of new research on pre-Columbian Native Americans. The new, emerging consensus can be summarized as follows.

  1. There were more—a lot more—people living in the Americas prior to the Europeans’ arrival. Tens if not hundreds of millions of people.
  2. They were a great deal more sophisticated—in philosophy, politics, agriculture and science—than the old shibboleth of the “noble savage” gave them credit for. Much of the Amazon, for example, was not a wild place, but a vast orchard.
  3. Their societies were far more dynamic. Rather than existing in a time warp for millenia, civilizations rose, fell, and rose again. The Inca empire existed for a mere century before Pizarro’s arrival, for example. There was, in other words, history.

And then the Europeans showed up—and with them, smallpox—and everything went to hell. A series of epidemics nearly obliterated the population. Sweeping far ahead of European contact, the disease left a few paltry survivors unable to maintain their culture’s infrastructure. Civilization collapsed. Animal populations exploded on the leftovers of Native American agriculture. Forests swept over the landscape. The wilderness European settlers and explorers encountered was, in effect, a new development; the people they encountered were not savages but survivors.

1491 left me with a sense of just how much has been lost forever, and with a desire to read more about it. Not that I plan to learn Nauhatl and start a new career in Native American studies; I’m just irredeemably curious. Less-known, complex histories have always drawn my attention: it’s why I gravitated to modern French history, which is so complicated and messy but less studied, during my university career.

It also touches on some of the environmental history that I enjoyed so much in Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism. I believe these two books are the only works of history I’ve read since leaving my Ph.D. program in 1999; I haven’t been able to read much history for fun since then. But these books are wonderful.

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Arthritis Without Pain

Of the new TNF-alpha antagonists—principally etanercept (Enbrel), infliximab (Remicade) and adalimumab (Humira)—that have generated so much attention in recent years and that have promised a revolution in the treatment of arthritic conditions, three things can be said. One, they’re extremely expensive, costing thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars a year to administer. Two, they’ve been the subject of an intense marketing and media campaign on their behalf by the pharmaceutical companies, by doctors, and by advocates, who want as many people taking these new treatments and as many prescription drug plans covering them as possible. And three, from all accounts, they really do work.

The cost makes me blench, and the marketing makes me nervous. But there’s a rationale behind both, and that is that these treatments are unlike anything else that we’ve taken before. They are far more complex to manufacture than traditional drugs, and they cannot be taken orally—the digestive system would destroy the proteins before they hit the bloodstream—and so must be administered by infusion or injection. They are, in other words, qualitatively different from any other arthritis treatment out there, and considerable explanation is therefore required.

There is therefore ample justification for a book such as Arthritis Without Pain: The Miracle of TNF Blockers, written by rheumatologist Scott J. Zashin with M. Laurette Hesser. While it suffers from the breathless “miracle-cure” rhetoric that I’ve seen before and that sets off my internal alarms, it does a respectable job of explaining what these treatments are, how they work, and how they fit in with other arthritis treatments out there. The detail is considerable, from how these treatments are administered, to how long they may take to take effect. And, to be sure, their potential side effects and drawbacks are mentioned as well.

Arthritis Without Pain was first published in 2000; this is the revised 2004 edition. But events have already overtaken things somewhat: Enbrel and Humira have since been approved for ankylosing spondylitis, for example. And it’s primarily a book for people with rheumatoid arthritis; those of us with other rheumatic conditions for which these treatments are (now) indicated may be a little disappointed with that focus.

Another shortcoming too obvious to me as a copyeditor, but that most of you couldn’t care less about: the book could frankly have been better written and better proofread. (Page 6: “More than 23 million Americans have [osteoarthritis]. Over one-third are women.” Why that’s more significant than the nearly two-thirds that are, presumably, men I have no idea.)

And is it truly necessary to use the ® symbol in every instance of a trade name? Style guides would not indicate so. But the fact that Zashin and Hessler cannot talk about Enbrel and Remicade, but only Enbrel® and Remicade®, may have something to do with the fact that Zashin has worked as a paid consultant for the companies involved. I would be more comfortable with reports about TNF antagonists that came from sources not so closely affiliated with the companies who made them.

Seeing in the Dark

I just finished reading Timothy Ferris’s Seeing in the Dark, a book about amateur contributions to astronomy. This is something I’ve been struck by the more I get into astronomy: it not only accepts amateur contributions, it relies on them. While professional astronomers compete for limited time on research telescopes, the sheer number of amateurs looking skyward allows them to do things that professionals simply can’t (because there are fewer of them looking through fewer telescopes). Such as long-term observations of single objects (like variable stars), and searching for asteroids, comets and supernovae. (The subsequent PBS documentary did not emphasize this point to the same extent.)

I’m struck by this partly because it’s not the same with herpetology, or at least the wildlife conservation part of it, where amateurs are frequently seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution—with the notable and important exception of frog monitoring. (On the other hand, you can’t poach a comet.)

But Ferris points out that amateur astronomy is a relatively recent phenomenon, a result of larger apertures and digital cameras passing into amateur hands; a half-century ago, amateurs were limited to long-focal-length, small-aperture refractors and reflectors, and planetary observations. A lot has happened to empower amateur astronomers since then. In the meantime, amateur herpetologists have been facing increasing regulations and sharp professionalization, both of which restrict the lay enthusiast from doing meaningful work in the wild, and send many of us to our basements to focus on exotics.

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Smile When You’re Lying

Let’s face it: travel writing, for the most part, sucks. It’s vapid, junket-driven, cliché-laden dross in which anything remotely interesting is boiled away for fear of offending the travel industry whose ads pay for said junkets and for the travel sections of the weekend editions of newspapers in which this stuff appears. Chuck Thompson makes this point in his new book, Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer. Not even the Lonely Planet guides (“Lonely Planet is the only publisher I know of that seems to actively dislike its readers”) are exempt.

It’s an entertaining read, but it doesn’t quite make it. Attacking the clichés of the genre would make for a pretty slim volume; there are chapters sharing his experiences as a travel magazine editor, as a travel writer, and as a traveller, full stop. They seem like padding to me, but if nothing else, they explain how easy it is to become jaded by the travel industry. His realization that his dislike of the Caribbean is because of the juxtaposition of luxury resorts and endemic poverty resonates with my own ambivalence about the idea of vacationing there. His off-colour, disaster-laden travel stories are just the sort of thing that would be unlikely to appear in the travel section of a newspaper, but it’s hardly transgressive that they’re seeing print—Paul Theroux was writing stronger stuff 30 years ago.

And there’s a point there: there are two genres of travel writing, the literary sort (Chatwin, Naipaul, Theroux) and the advertorial sort; this book is about the latter (even if, in one telling passage, Thompson nails Theroux for writing the advertorial pabulum that his overall body of work seems to stand against).

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Marsbound, Joe Haldeman’s latest novel, starts slowly and intimately: the first quarter of the novel is spent following his young protagonist, Carmen Dula, and her family on a weeks-long trip up a space elevator and thence on their journey to Mars. The second quarter unfolds like a Heinlein juvenile (except for the sex), with Carmen’s struggle to survive on Mars personified by a stern and bureaucratic authority figure with whom she comes into conflict. Once Carmen runs away and stumbles upon a colony of Martians, however, the similarities to, say, Red Planet end. The novel pivots, draws back in scope and dramatically accelerates its pace; years fly by in the same number of pages that described hours, as Carmen returns to Earth orbit with a posse of Martians—who turn out not to be indigenous to Mars and unsure of their own origins—as they try to figure out where they come from. Marsbound finishes as another iteration on a common Haldeman theme: human beings facing the judgment of overwhelmingly powerful aliens. The Martians and other aliens are wonderfully imagined in this otherwise spare novel, whose two halves never quite fuse into a satisfactory whole.

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Zoe’s Tale

John Scalzi’s aliens are sparsely described and unconvincingly Other (he’s no Larry Niven) and his characters are usually some variation on smartass. But his novels, with exciting plots and witty dialogue (see “some variation on smartass,” above), never fail to entertain. So it is with Zoe’s Tale, which is a retelling of the story of The Last Colony (which missed winning this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel by a whisker) from the point of view of the protagonists’ adopted daughter, Zoë. (Why she loses the umlaut in the book’s title, I have no idea.)

The Last Colony suffered from a couple of plot holes (viz., where did those werewolves go, and how did Zoë get that deus-ex-machina technology?) that Zoe’s Tale fills fulsomely. In fact, it’s impossible to consider Zoe’s Tale absent The Last Colony: it’s very much a mirror image of that novel. The two novels are both case studies in limited first-person narration: neither John Perry, the protagonist of The Last Colony and Zoë’s stepfather, nor Zoë herself in Zoe’s Tale, knows exactly what the other is doing; essentially, these are two books trying to tell the same story. Two blind grabs at the same elephant. The end result is that Zoe’s Tale deals in detail with what The Last Colony mentioned in passing; unfortunately, the converse is also true: the grand plot of The Last Colony is given short shrift in Zoe’s Tale—key points are mentioned briefly, plot twists are telegraphed—and I’m not sure if Zoe’s Tale stands alone as a result.

The tension between the novel’s two ambitions—a retelling of the events of The Last Colony from Zoë’s perspective, and an attempt to explore Zoë’s tragic background and her role as an object of veneration for an entire alien species—is sometimes strained, and I think the latter suffers a little bit at the expense of the former. Despite Scalzi’s breezy and accessible prose and the book’s positioning as a young-adult novel, Zoe’s Tale is an ambitious book. Despite its flaws, it mostly succeeds, in that it’s got lots of good bits in it and is fun to read. Which, in the end, is really what matters, don’t you think?

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Bloom County: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1: 1980-1982

I’m as happy as a clam at high water that the entire run of Bloom County is being published in book form for the first time (the original collections didn’t include every single strip). The first of five volumes is now out—my brother gave it to me for Christmas—with the second volume coming in April, which isn’t soon enough.

Volume one contains strips we haven’t seen since they ran in the newspapers—they didn’t make it into Loose Tails or Bloom County Babylon. Some even had to be reproduced from less-than-pristine or low-resolution copies, but at least they’re there.

The early strips project a lot of exuberant chaos, and feature characters that disappear not too long afterward: Major Bloom, Limekiller, Bobbi Harlow, a local member of the Moral Majority, a local Ted Turner clone. Opus and Bill the Cat make early appearances, and we’ll have to wait until volume two for the Giant Purple Snorklewacker. Also, Chuck and Di show up an awful lot for some reason. As Berke Breathed himself notes in the annotations, the strip hadn’t found its voice yet.

About those annotations. Some of them are by the author; some of them are there to explain the early-eighties gags—thirty years later, the political and cultural figures that served as the butt of Breathed’s jokes are now apparently too obscure. Bloom County was a product of its times; are they really expecting to find a receptive audience for it among people who don’t know, for example, who Alexander Haig was?