Books Are Pretty

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In Memory of Central Park 1853-2022.

The years of the Bush administration must have been such a bittersweet time for artists. On one hand, there was such a plethora of craziness to write about. On the other hand, you’ve really got to put yourself out there in order to get ahead of the dystopic ball they started rolling.

Queenelle Minet places her novel just slightly ahead of this giant mess we’re all in, allowing herself to imagine a world fifty years in the future, where, evidently, we’ve kept electing more of the same kind of government and have at last gotten the world we deserve.

In Memory of Central Park looks at life in New York City in the mid 21st century, where city dwellers have finally let terror get the best of them and have literally pulled a giant dome over their heads and retreated, turtle-like, into a fear-based shell. After the complete economic collapse of the United States (please Barack Hussein Jesus Obama, please fix everything), New York secedes from the union and hides, filling the inside of the shell with wall to wall buildings, eliminating cars and roads. New York has become an anthill, and life continues to team in a series of fluorescent-lit corridors. There is a one-party government, the Liberty Party, whose corrupt cronyism is enforced by wandering groups of thugs called the Patriots, similar to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who wander the streets beating everyone who seems insufficiently patriotic.

Free speech, while not illegal, is still discouraged by the mysterious murders of those who oppose the government. Citizens, on grounds of preventing terrorist attacks, are no longer allowed to leave the city or communicate with the outside world. All information from the rest of the world is filtered through the fear-mongering government and tolerated by a population who values safety over freedom. Amidst all this, in one small section of the ant farm, a therapist named Noah dysfunctionally falls in love with his sister-in-law, Margaret. His love for Margaret awakes him to the realization that he has been numb to the realities around him, and for the first time begins to pay attention to the writing on the wall that spells out doom for their corrupt, claustrophobic way of life.

Joined in his burgeoning awareness are his professional colleague and friend, Phillipe, Margaret, and Appoppa, the boyfriend of his favorite client, Amy. Noah is drawn to the tough Amy, one of many New Yorkers falling deathly ill to a mysterious disease that seems to strike only those who live outside the walled-off neighborhood of the Party elite, who live in tall buildings erected on the place where Central Park used to be. In their quest to uncover the source of the illness, Noah, Margaret, Phillipe, and Appoppa inch closer to what will be either their salvation or their doom. Either way, there is no turning back.

In Memory of Central Parkwas based on a rough draft and series of ideas by Minet’s late husband Aron Spilken. According to the book’s prologue, Minet felt that “picking up where he left off with In Memory of Central Park allowed [her] to continue collaborating with him despite his death.” She seems to have blended their voices quite well, because the narrative flows fairly smoothly. In Memory of Central Park has a ring of truth to it, not because of her ability to exploit liberal fears but because of the strength of character she builds in everyman, Noah. His reluctance to take a stand is a small flame that burns in many of us; the urge to just keep your head down and take whatever happiness and contentment you can find. Life without sunshine, plants, animals, or trees isn’t that unbearable, after all, he’s got a room to sleep in, friends, food, and a good job. Best not to rock the boat and risk it all. Of course, rock the boat is what he must do, because there is also a small flame that burns in all of us that is not happy living in a world without liberty, and we all must choose which flame burns hotter and brighter.


In Memory of Central Park 1863-2002
By Queenelle Minet
September, 2008 by Synergy Books
Paperback, 251pp
ISBN: 978-1934454251

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Walking the Rainbow.

Initially I thought this was a self-published manuscript, due to the horrible title and book cover, and the fact that all the promotional blurbs were written by his friends, not to mention the cheap font and myriad typos. Then I thought it was an uncorrected galley proof, but it didn't say that it was, and the publicists who sent it to me usually only send final copies. But no, it seems it's an actual final copy from an actual publishing house out of Pittsburgh, Whitmore Publishing Co. Shame about the cover. It looks like it was designed at the very last possible second by someone who didn't give a damn about making it look good. You know how I feel about cover art. If only author Richard René Silvin had insisted Olga Grlic design it. It would have sold a lot more copies, I tell you what.

It's not like he couldn't afford her. One of the first things you learn in Silvin's memoir is that he's a really wealthy man. (In fact, I think he may have paid for the publicists himself, because this is not the kind of book they usually send me.)

A product of Swiss boarding schools* and top universities, Silvin went on to become a leader in hospital operations, rising to head up the international division of American Medical International, Inc., which oversaw a hundred hospitals in ten countries. While he touches quite a bit on the business end of things, Walking the Rainbow is primarily the story of his struggle living with the HIV virus. Already a successful businessman in an unsuccessful marriage, Silvin came out in the late 70's, probably the worst time in history for a gay man to say to himself, "Hey, let's see what I've been missing after all these years in the closet!"

Walking the Rainbow is not really so much a tale of his business or sexual exploits as it is a love story, detailing his relationships with Tim, the love of his libido, and, later, Bob, the love of his life.

All three men were diagnosed with HIV in the early-mid 80s, during the Reagan years when AIDS was an acceptable disease as long as it was killing off homosexuals. Silvin used his vast financial resources to travel first with Tim, then Bob, to Europe for cutting-edge treatment. Unfortunately, in the 80s and early 90s, cutting-edge treatment for HIV management is not what it is today, and Silvin and his partners ended up having a patient-eye view of life in some of his own hospitals.

During these difficult times, Silvin's money managed to keep a great deal of horror away from himself and his partners. Unfortunately, homophobia has quite a bit of clout as well, and after weeks of pain and sickness I wouldn't wish on anyone, Silvin still had to endure the insult of not having his relationships recognized and receiving substandard nursing care from ignorant staff.

While Walking the Rainbow is no Angels in America** or And the Band Played On, as long as fully half the population of the United States refuses to believe that the relationships of gay men and lesbians are "real," that it's okay to deny them hospital visiting rights and property rights and insurance benefits for their partners, if they are denied the ability to make life-or-death decisions for their partners or follow through with their partners funeral arrangements, if their children can be taken from them and if they can lose their jobs and receive a dishonorable discharge from the military solely due to their sexual orientation, every single one of their stories should be heard.


*Silvin attended La Clarière and Le Rosey. La Clarière was shut down due to substandard conditions, and Silvin was sent there WHEN HE WAS SIX. Who the hell sends a six-year-old to a boarding school? A boarding school ON ANOTHER CONTINENT? My six-year-old still sleeps with a stuffed dog and is afraid of monsters. According to Silvin, after the age of six he only saw his parents on holidays. He said they were like strangers to him. How do you put your baby boy on a plane and say goodbye to him forever? That being said, I've been threatening Christopher with Swiss boarding school ever since I read that. He doesn't seem to be taking me too seriously, though, only briefly looking up from the computer, where he was playing Homestar Runner, to say, "You can't afford it."


**Thinking of Angels in America made me want to watch the scene where Roy Cohn, played magnificently by Al Pacino, is diagnosed with AIDS by James Cromwell. Cohn tells Cromwell that he can't have AIDS, because AIDS is something that only homosexuals get, and since he is a powerful man, he can't be a powerless homosexual, therefore, he does not have AIDS. It's one of the greatest monologues ever written, I think, because it describes this particular mindset so very, very well. Let's watch it again!


Walking the Rainbow
by Richard René Silvin
February, 2008 by Whitmore Publishing
Paperback, 226pp
ISBN: 0874260736

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Citizen Alpha.

Yeah. Okay. Hm.

I've got to be honest, here. I couldn't get past chapter six of this book, because quite frankly, it made me grumpy.

The synopsis of Citizen Alpha on the back of the book says it's about a study group of graduate students versus a gang of warlords and terrorists, and the graduate students have to somehow rescue America from the threat of a nuclear holocaust.

A good idea, I suppose, but the story reads like Cliff's Notes, or a 9th grade book report, and ultimately I just couldn't hack it.

Each of the first few chapters are devoted to a different character, and their entire biographies are given in a terse, just-the-facts-ma'am style that didn't draw me in at all. Every single one of them read like this:

The warlords used their wealth to buy children from the less fortunate. Parents were often forced to sell their children in order to eat for the next year or two. Musad's parents, having nothing with which to raise their child, felt that they had no choice but to sell him to one of the local warlords. By doing so, they would also be though of much more higly at the mosque they attended as is was controlled by the warlord. Like all children taken by the warlords, Musad was trained to be a talibay child. Talibay children are considered property of the purchasing warlord, and they esist to enrich the warlord by begging for money. His parents were sad but thought he would have a better life as a talibay child.

A sad life, to be sure, but this is not character development. This is a series of facts about the character that does nothing to show the reader the soul inside.

And seriously, "his parents were sad?" They were sad? Sad? That's it?

These chapters seem almost dismissive, like the writer can't be bothered to give the reader any extra humanizing details, so we're left with nothing but plain, blunt sentences that gloss over an entire life of pain. There's a lack of care in the book that seems very disrespectful to both the characters as well as the reader.

Imagine if Charlotte Brontë had written like this.

Think of the opening scene in Jane Eyre where little Jane is banished from the sitting room.

Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarreling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group; saying, "She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation, that I was endeavoring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner- something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were - she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children."

"What does Bessie say I have done?" I asked.

"Jane, I don't like cavillers or questioners; besides, there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner. Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent."

A breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room, I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase: I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and , having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.

Now imagine Jane Eyre as Citizen Alpha:

Jane's aunt was cruel to her. Jane was sad and left the room to read a book.

Fan fucking tastic.

However, it must be said that I read excerpts of Citizen Alpha to Steve, who saw nothing wrong with it. He does not like to read, because he thinks most books take too long to get to the point. If you feel as he does, this may be the book for you.


Citizen Alpha
by Patrick E. Peterson
August, 2008 by Synergy Books
Paperback, 305pp
ISBN: 1934454206

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Mars Life.

When I first started getting books for review, it was 99% mommy book offers, which I accepted and was happy to review and didn't actually hate all of them, but I have to be honest: I don't accept very many of them any more, and mercifully I don't get many offers to review them. In fact, the progression of the genres over the years has gone something like this: Mommy book, Chick Lit, Chick Lit, Chick Lit, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Suspense, Chick Lit, and finally, I have arrived at science fiction. I can only assume publicists have either forgotten about my vagina or are choosing to ignore it. They wouldn't be the first.

Anyway, while we're on the subject, my vagina would like to address the portrayal of women in science fiction.

There's this:

and this:

I mean, I don't even know what's going on with that. Is she being canned? Is she going to meet the same fate as the girls behind her? Did they run out of girl-sized cans and had to make do with a chihuahua can? I don't understand.

I won't even discuss L. Ron Fucking Hubbard's views on women, and even Heinlein, who was apparently ahead of his day as far as women went, still drew these narrow images of women: busty, very young, like the Denise Richards-as-neuroscientist role in that James Bond movie, and of course they were slavishly devoted to some old fart that smelled vaguely of Heinlein himself (See Land, Stranger in a Strange. Sorry. I know it's a classic and one of the Greatest Ever, but still.)

Or, they'll try this trick where the best female character is beautifully thin, doe-eyed, has a job but it's well below the pay grade of the male protagonist, so she can better appreciate his genius, she's 25 and just can't help but love Captain Geritol, because of his brilliant mind, you see. But it isn't sexist, because they'll make references to the female President of the United States/Mars Colony/spaceship, or the genius' boss will be female, but we'll never get to know those women.

But one can't stay buried in the loving arms of Octavia Butler and James Tiptree, Jr forever, as much as one would like to, so I began Mars Life and wondered what Ben Bova, one of science fiction's big dogs, was going to give the ladies in the house.

Female president mentioned in passing? Check. Female Chief of the Navaho tribe, mentioned more than in passing but not much more? Check. And Miss Doreen McManus, a junior technician, who is described as having "lovely, thickly curled auburn hair, but it was cropped close in a strictly utilitarian style. Her face was oval, with the large, shy eyes of a waif. She thin and bony that [the male protagonist] wondered if she were bulimic."

Gah! So Doreen approaches the protagonist, Dr. Carleton Carter, who was sent to the Mars colony in exile, after losing his job at the university after being falsely accused of rape. Gah! Doreen asks Carter if she can join him for breakfast. The two are joined moments later by a women of the same professional status as Carter.

"Twenty bucks says she's old and a total bitch," I thought, and turned the page. Gah! I was right!

So Carter the Unjustly Accused but Brilliant starts an affair with Doreen, which squicks out exactly no one, and the book putters along with this story line until Doreen informs Carter she's going back home, to the colony on the Moon.

Then the following happens: Carter gets pissy and forbids her to go, and Doreen up and tells him to go fuck himself, saying that he's a narcissistic jerk who's only sleeping with her so everyone will be impressed that he can bang a girl over half his age. Further, he only wants her around so she can tell him how brilliant he is all the time, plus, he's a sexist jerk who totally sucks. And then she leaves.


Then he hits on a married woman closer to his own age, who also thinks he sucks and also thinks that rape charge may have some merit. This is the best science fiction book ever.

Sorry for the spoilers, but it was just too awesome not to share. Be comforted by the fact that this was a minor plot point, and I promise I won't spoil the major ones.

Mars Life is a continuation of books by Ben Bova about the colonization of Mars. By the time we check in with these recurring characters, things aren't going so well. The United States, major funder of Mars exploration, is firmly controlled by anti-science religious whackadoos, who cut government funding to Mars. The fundies are upset because fossils have been discovered at last, indicating the remains of an ancient civilization. They feel, correctly, that if this knowledge were made known, it would decrease the power of the Magical Sky Fairy who created the Earth in 6,000 years, and this would also decrease their political and social power, which by this time is pretty all-consuming. They've already had total success in eliminating the theory of evolution from public schools, and are successfully banning discussion of Mars discoveries from the classroom as well. Dr Carleton Carter, who claims he was run out of the university by the extreme right wing who manufactured a rape charge against him, is there to dig around in the Martian village, and other characters, in particular Jamie Waterman and his awesome wife Vijay, who are there to save the program by finding alternate funding. The colony gets screwed by the fundies at every turn, and you can feel the frustration steaming off the pages in little wavy lines of heat.

This seems to me to have been written with a lot of passion by Bova during a time where this fear of religious zealots destroying science and preventing kids from learning seemed eminent, you know, way back in 2007.

It's my wish, and probably Bova's, too, truth be told, that this book seem ridiculous and histrionic ten years from now. At the moment, it seems sadly plausible.


Mars Life
by Ben Bova
August, 2008 by Tor Books
Hardcover, 432 pp
ISBN: 0765317877

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