Thursday, October 30, 2008

MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! by Harry Harrison

Make Room! Make Room! is a 1966 science fiction novel by Harry Harrison. Set in a vastly overpopulated New York City of the future, it is, on the surface, a whodunit, although it has particularly more to do with overpopulation, lack of resources, and the societal effects of such developments.

Harrison’s writing is well-paced, his world is immersive, and his characters are well done, although it’s awfully convenient how often they happen to run into each other in a city of 35 million people. His tone is fairly bleak, and it’s obvious he’s got a message to communicate. And his concerns about the amount of resources the U.S. consumes are still relevant.

To those familiar with Soylent Green, the film this novel inspired, know that that movie’s creators went in an entirely different direction thematically. Charlton Heston’s classic Soylent Green moment is nowhere to be found here. Harrison’s theme is population control, specifically through birth control and sustainable development. Harrison bludgeons the reader over the head with this toward the end of the book, when the main character’s roommate launches into a rather lengthy soliloquy on the birds and the bees, in which he sings the praises of preventative birth control. This is rather out of place, and reminiscent of the way Upton Sinclair presented his socialist propaganda at the end of The Jungle.

Make Room! Make Room! is a solid, entertaining science fiction novel, with a still-relevant social message.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

SPIRITUAL ARTS by Jill Briscoe

Spiritual Arts: Mastering the Disciplines for a Rich Spiritual Life is a 2009 book on Christian living by Jill Briscoe. Based on Paul's letter to the Philippians, Briscoe outlines eight "spiritual arts" that Christians should practice and master: ministry, harmony, humility, intimacy, tenacity, maturity, serenity, and receptivity. Briscoe's enthusiasm for evangelism is impressive. Her broader points on Christian living are right on, even if many of her finer points are not, and her chapter on serenity is particularly good. 

Briscoe's writing style is not for everyone. She uses a simple, colloquial style that will turn off some readers because they may feel she's talking down to them. Her attempts at humor are extremely corny. Briscoe relates a lot of anecdotes, but often just in passing, without enough details to satisfy or make the stories stick. As a result, Spiritual Arts does not often engage the reader on that deeper level. Her points are sometimes repetitive, and yet the whole work feels scattered. 

Spiritual Arts has some decidedly valuable material in it, but it's definitely not for everyone.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008


A Natural History of the Senses is Diane Ackerman’s celebration of smell, touch, taste, hearing and vision. It is one part science text, as Ackerman gives thorough coverage of how each sense works, and part ode, as she also provides many vivid, detailed examples.

There are some very interesting facts here: for example, each hair on your head grows for two to six years, at which point the follicle rests and that hair falls out. Other times, Ackerman is strangely, egregiously wrong. For example, she says, “Our skin makes up about 16 percent of our body weight (about six pounds)” (p. 69). Lady, do you weigh 38 pounds?

Ackerman has a bizarre, spiritual obsession with evolution, like she’s crying out for a meaningful relationship with God while holding herself above such a concept. She’s high on mysticism but low on religion. This Oprah-style treatment of the world doesn’t gel well.

Ackerman writes utterly without inhibitions. The best example of this is her detailed account of how she once stuck her arm up a cow’s vagina (for veterinary purposes). She is also quick to connect every sense to sex as often as possible. Sometimes, it makes sense, other times it’s an obvious stretch, and the reader may well wonder why she’s trying so hard.

A Natural History of the Senses has some worthwhile material in it, although each section runs overlong. Ackerman’s unique style is both a help and a hindrance to this book, as she’s charming at times and tiresome and ridiculous at others.


Friday, October 17, 2008

ADAM OF THE ROAD by Elizabeth Janet Gray

Adam of the Road is a children’s novel written by Elizabeth Janet Gray and illustrated by Robert Lawson. It won the Newbery Medal in 1943. Adam of the Road chronicles the adventures of Adam, an eleven-year-old minstrel in thirteenth-century England, as he travels with his father and dog.

Adam of the Road is over 300 pages, making it rather long for a children’s novel (perhaps in this post-Harry Potter era, this is not the case, although Adam of the Road is geared to a younger audience). Adam’s adventures keep the book moving fairly well, although it does tend to drag a little toward the end.

The book may hold some interest for adults as well, although they may be off-put by the fairly one-dimensional supporting characters and the narrator’s constant explanation of Adam’s emotional state (at least in children’s fiction these writing flaws are defensible, and even deliberate). Some great degree of suspense is lost, however, if the reader scans the back of the cover. The reader knows what the dramatic crises of the book will be, then waits half the book for them to occur. As the book approaches its end, the reader may well become impatient for the inevitable satisfactory resolutions.

What Gray does well is give an excellent depiction of the thirteenth century. She immerses the reader in the medieval world to a degree reminiscent of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (even if it is somewhat sanitized for children). She uses the terminology of the day, too, so even adults would be advised to keep a dictionary handy.

Adam of the Road is a fine children’s novel, even if it is a little flawed. It’s definitely worth a read by anyone with in interest in medieval life.


Thursday, October 16, 2008


Kids Say the Darndest Things!, by Art Linkletter, is a collection of highlights from his talk show House Party. It was originally published in 1957. It is illustrated by Charles Schultz (of Peanuts fame), and originally featured an introduction by Walt Disney (later releases have an introduction by Bill Cosby, who hosted a second incarnation of Kids the Darndest Things! and did a poor job).

In a popular segment on Linkletter’s program House Party, he would interview small children, who often gave hilarious responses to (mostly) innocent questions. In this book, Linkletter presents some of his favorite moments from the show, and talks about some of the program’s background, including how the children were selected.

Although it loses something in its transfer to print, nearly everything in this book ranges from the amusing to the hilarious. Only the last chapter, a collection of stories that didn’t happen on the show (and mostly aren’t true), disappoints. These are stories marketed as real things children did but actually written by adults trying (and failing) to be clever. On the whole, they come off as annoying. Stories like these still make the rounds on email, and they still aren’t funny or credible.
On the whole, Kids Say the Darndest Things! is a funny, funny book.


Friday, October 3, 2008

NEUROMANCER by William Gibson

William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which won the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award, is considered the seminal cyberpunk novel. Indeed, the profound influence of Neuromancer can still be seen in cyberpunk of all kinds, from Shadowrun to Deus Ex to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Cyberpunk as it exists today largely reflects Gibson’s vision, from the use of loner characters to the portrayals of hackers, technology, and corporations to the very concept of cyberspace.

Neuromancer is the story of Case, a down-on-his-luck hacker, who gets a second chance at his career when he gets hired to do a mysterious hack for a mysterious employer with mysterious motives. In many respects, Gibson’s concepts are excellent. His world, inasmuch as he describes it, is immersive.

The fundamental problem with Neuromancer is Gibson’s narrative. He does a bad job of describing places, which makes the story jerky. The reader can easily keep track of who is doing what, but not why or where people are doing things. Actions just happen, seemingly arbitrarily, one after another, building toward an underwhelming climax. The reader may very well ask, upon the novel’s conclusion, “so what?” The story itself is fairly pedestrian – it seems like it would make a better video game than novel (and Deus Ex did borrow heavily from it, successfully). The book also suffers because none of the characters are particularly well-developed or sympathetic.

In Neuromancer, Gibson is, annoyingly, addicted to the use of the word “lozenge.” He uses it frequently, for all kinds of things, most of which aren’t actually lozenge. You could make a lozenge drinking game for this book. You could do the same with all the random drugs all the characters are on.

Undeniably, Neuromancer has style. It just isn’t a very good story.