Monday, August 31, 2009

Cha-aar-lie the Spi-i-der

I continue my years-long Neil Gaiman kick with Anansi Boys, a quasi sequel to his amazing American Gods.
The verdict? It's good, but a step down. I have no particular complaints - the characters, plot, setting, and theme are all excellent as always, and the writing continues to be strong - but it didn't beat me over the head with its awesomeness like American Gods did.


Part of the problem is that the scope of the story is smaller. I mean, American Gods was EPIC. You had every deity ever, shaken together and stirred and drained into the morass of middle America, brought to the brink of annihilation by a perverse Ragnarok. And mysterious identities, a range of locations, layered plot... all cool stuff that kept the energy going.

Anansi Boys is just a smaller scope. It's mainly concerned with the legacy of one particular deity from American Gods, Anansi the Spider. In contrast to the primarily (though by no means exclusively!) European/Middle-Eastern pantheons of AG, AB focuses on a sort of animist African/Carribbean pantheon of animal gods. Spider, Tiger, and Bird are the most important. It feels more like the working-out of old grudges than anything else.

Again, that scope isn't bad... AB looks at the intersection between the supernatural and the human world. AG was about decay; AB is more about... evolution, maybe? The two main characters, Fat Charlie and Spider, are children of Anansi, and each follows their own path before being thrown in together. It's more focused on small moments and relationships, and basic emotions like jealousy, fear, greed, compassion, sympathy, and pity.

Gaiman does make a gesture towards the end at transforming this into a Big Plot. We're meant to believe that, if the bad guys win, all human imagination will turn away from delight and creativity, and plunge into hatred and fear. Maybe? I sort of had a hard time buying it... again, after seeing the huge range of gods on display in AG, it's a bit hard to believe that what happens to a single demigod would really have such huge effects.

I need to say some nice things... Fat Charlie is an excellent character. I like the humor of the book, which is mainly character-driven. Gaiman did do a good job at subverting my expectations; a couple of plot points were obvious in advance, but on the whole I did not expect the book to take all the turns that it did. A couple of scenes, particular those with Bird, were nicely ominous and frightening. I dug Monkey - would have liked to see more of him.


I realize it sounds like I'm ragging on the book, when I don't mean to at all. It's good. Read it if you like Gaiman. Just don't expect another American Gods.

Since reading the book, I have learned that many people strongly prefer the audiobook version to the printed one.  I generally avoid audiobooks, but in this case I can see it making a positive difference.  Anansi comes from the oral tradition, and it makes perfect sense that this story would adapt well to the cadences and intonations that you get from a talented storyteller.  I'll definitely try that if I circle this way again.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Vonnegut in Retrospect

I've been following the oddest, most delayed reading chain lately.  I often read books in a stack about two deep - that is, I'll read one book "in the background," putting it aside whenever a newer book comes along.  I'll finish up that newer book, then possibly continue reading other newer books, until I run out, at which time I'll return to the original book.  It's a little odd, but I've done this for most of my life, so it feels more or less normal to me.

Right now, though, my reading stack is... maybe four or five books deep.  I got some awesome books for my birthday last month, which are making for great background reading; whenever I borrow a book or check one out from the library, though, a timer starts ticking, so I prioritize that book until it's done.

I'm finally unwinding the stack.  I wrapped up "Armageddon in Retrospect," the last book published under Kurt Vonnegut's name.  It was published posthumously, and as his son Mark explains in the introduction, it collects together for the first time a set of letters, speeches, and short stories by Vonnegut on the subject of war.

Ultimately, this is mainly a short story collection, with just a few non-fiction pieces leading the way up front.  It's a pretty fascinating collection... not amazing, and not a must-read, but a great way to get a peek into a great mind while it's developing.

Reading this book felt a lot like reading Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia."  In both cases you can see the authors working through their experiences with war, trying to make sense of their feelings and deciding how to communicate them.  Both books aren't exactly great, but pave the way for masterpieces.

"Homage to Catalonia" leads the way to the rage of "Animal Farm."  "Armageddon in Retrospect" anticipates "Slaughterhouse-Five."  Many of the stories are set in the aftermath of the Dresden firebombing, and Vonnegut's humanism pokes through, struggling to find the proper expression.  He has a difficult task here, which he explicitly described in a speech earlier in the book: how to make clear that one could, without defending Nazism, feel bad about the German babies, women, and cripples who were indiscriminately slaughtered as part of the Allied war effort.

The stories are good, but nothing here is really breathtaking or revolutionary.  Weirdly enough, I thought that the best story was the title story, which is also the one that has least to do with war.  Despite the title, the story "Armageddon in Retrospect" involves no epic battle.  There's a struggle, of a sort, but it's the sort of struggle Vonnegut cares most about: a personal struggle.

Anyways.  This has been a meandering review, but it's a meandering book, so I don't feel bad.  Worth checking out if you're a Vonnegut completist like me.  If you're just looking for some really good Vonnegut short stories, stick with Welcome To The Monkey House instead.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Credit Crisis is Dead!

Last week I got a letter in the mail from Capital One, my credit card company.  I opened it, wondering if they had started sending me those annoying checks again.

Nope - it was a letter informing me that they had increased my credit limit!  This made me quite pleased.

I had actually applied for an increase about a year ago.  I don't really need a higher limit - I've never exactly come within striking distance of my current one, and always pay off the balance in full - but ever since my apartment complex started letting me charge my rent to my card, I've gotten closer to it.  I figured that I MIGHT need a higher limit some day, and in case applying for the increase would hurt my credit score, I wanted to do it early to get it over with.

They'd turned me down, for no particular reason, but a search online revealed that they and all the other credit card companies were doing the same to everyone.  It's all part of the credit crisis: because the banks have been so nervous about their exposure to debt, they try to make their balance sheets look as solid as possible.  They do this by minimizing the amount of money they make available to lend out, which is why they've been reducing credit card limits and freezing any extensions to existing ones.

Apparently that will soon be a thing of the past.  It will be interesting to see how things play out in response to the new credit card reform act passed by Congress this year.  The banks are whining about how they will need to raise fees on their best customers, but I agree with Chris Farrell at Marketplace Money.  The best consumers will be able to call the shots, and if some banks try to screw them over, other banks will profit by stealing them away in exchange for better terms.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Change == Good

I've been baking bread from whole wheat for a couple of years now.  The last few times I needed to replenish my stock, I picked up King Arthur's White Whole Wheat.  Not because I prefer it to the regular kind, but because it was the only type of whole wheat available at my Trader Joe's.  TJ's has since switched to a an in-house brand of the same thing.

The front of the package claims that you can substitute White Whole Wheat for equal amounts of flour in both all-purpose and whole-wheat recipes.  I've regarded this with extreme skepticism.  Anyone who has eaten both types of bread knows that they don't taste the same; how can the same flour work for both?

I've been pretty happy with bread loaves I've made with it, though I think I could stand to back off the sweetener a little bit - white whole wheat is not as bitter as the regular kind, so it probably doesn't need as much honey.  So far I've avoided substituting it for regular all-purpose flower, until this weekend.  I finally took the plunge and made a totally non-whole-wheat recipe: Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars, the first thing I ever really learned to bake.  It calls for 2 1/4 cups of white flour; I substitutes 1 cup of White Whole Wheat for 1 cup of the flour.

And, amazingly, the cookies turned out good!  They don't taste the same as usual, but I think you could miss the difference if you didn't eat these as often as I do.  It tastes different, but definitely not bad at all.  Maybe just a tiny bit heavier, a little fuller, not quite as light.  Still pretty addictive, I'm sad to say.

So, that's one occasional baker's verdict.  Next time I may try doing a full substitution to see how it compares.  So far, I'm pretty content with it, and evidently it is as healthy as they claim.  Hooray for food!