Since you all love my inane blathering about the books I'm reading (sarcasm), I'm going to mention two more that I've just finished recently: The Scourge of God and When you are Engulfed in Flames.
The Scourge of God
This is another SM Stirling post-apocalyptic novel set in an alternate timeline (the action in the current novel takes place around this same decade) of the United States (mostly in the Pacific Northwest). This is a timeline in which all things technological have, for some reason, stopped working. And people are left to cope as best they can in a world without electricity, gunpowder, or internal combustion engines.
This is the fifth book in Stirling's Emberverse, an ongoing series that I've really enjoyed (there are five books thus far: Dies the Fire, The Protector's War, A Meeting at Corvallis, The Sunrise Lands, and The Scourge of God). I like the honesty of what life wold be like without technology - there's no Conan in these stories easily dominating all his enemies. No character is untouchable, no matter how integral to the story he or she seems to be. In this cold, harsh world everybody dies. And usually violently. The characters aren't all so perfectly good or perfectly evil that they become caricatures of themselves. Nothing is ever easy, even for the heroes of the stories. And there's plenty of well-written action, which is something I enjoy in a novel.
Here's a scene that I found noteworthy. It's an interaction between a Catholic priest, Ignatius, and Rudy, the book's main hero, as they are traveling together on a quest to find what may prove to be the cause of the Change. It's an interesting discussion of both the origins of legends and maybe even a little foreshadowing for what's to come at the end of their "quest."
"I have been thinking of what this quest means," he said, with the scholarly precision that he used for serious matters. "Have you noticed that you seem to be...collecting people? Of a particular type?"
Rudi chuckled. "Sure, and I so seem to have an attraction for disinheirited princes," he said.
"That is because you are a hero, I think."
Rudi frowned at him. "Well, thank you--"
The priest shook his head. "No, I'm using the word in a...technical sense. I suspect, my son, that you are a hero in the sense that Sigurd or Beowulf or Roland was. Heroes accrete heroes around them - heroes and great evils. I thought that was true only in ancient story, but apparently the archetype holds true in our lives as well."
"Ah," Rudi said softly. Was that a goose that just walked across my grave?
"Well, for my sake, I hope you're wrong, Father," he said. "I love the old stories, but sure and I'd rather listen to them than live them out."
"I too. Human beings live by their legends; but if what I suspect is true, then we are living in one." A wry smile. "But even Out Lord was refused when he asked that the cup pass from him."
"Something my mother said once...that my birth father had walked into a myth without knowing it. I hadn't expected the same to happen to me." He shivered slightly. "Does it make it better or worse that I know?"
"Perhaps we should have expected it," Ignatius said soberly. "We children of the change. It took the technology of our parents from us - but that is not all. Other things are...moving into the vacated spaces. It is as if time were moving backwards in some fundamental way."
"Back to the time of legends," Rudi said.
"Into the time of myths," Ignatius agreed.
"I wonder what will happen if we go back too far?" Rudi said.
Ignatius looked up at the stars. "We find God. Or God finds us."
The clash of Religions is a common theme in these books, as is the noting of the similarity of many religions. Later in the story, Rudy is talking about death and war with a Buddhist monk, Dorje.
"I was raised to be a warrior, but I've seen enough of war lately that it disgusts me, so. Not so much the fighting, but the...waste of it, the things that are broken that should not be."
"You have chosen a hard path, my son," the monk said. "One that will test your courage; and the risk of pain to yourself and the death of your body are the least of its trials. But be sure, if you have courage it shall certainly be tested; because no quality in this universe goes unused. Walk the Way you have chosen in its fullness; when you have reached its end, you will find that it is the beginning of another path."
"You don't think killing is the worst of sins, then?" he said, curiously.
Dorje sighed, "No, but considered rightly, it is...foolish. It is easy to kill. It is equally easy to destroy glass windows. Any fool can do either. Why is it only the wise who perceive that it is wisdom to let live, when even lunatics can sometimes understand that it is better to open a window than to smash the glass? But this world is mired in illusion, which is folly. As followers of the Way, we deplore the taking of life..."
Then he chuckled, slapping his knees. "Including our own! And more important, we deplore greedy or evil men taking the lives of those who look to us for instruction. There are few surviving pacifists in the world twenty-two years after the Change. A desire for peace does not imply submission to those who chose to be violent as their first resort."
Taking a cue from Tolkien, Sterling ends his books with cliffhangers that keep the reader hanging in suspense. He's a cruel, cruel author.
I also just discovered that Stirling has written another series of books, the Nantucket series (which may or may not be ongoing, I'm not sure), that are related to these novels (though instead of being set in an alternate Changed future version of our world, they send people from out time back about 800 years) and they may possibly help to explain what's going on. I'm reluctant to read these other books on the chance that they may ruin the ending of their sister-series, but I'm sure I'll get to them eventually. So much to read, so little time...
When You are Engulfed in Flames
This is another autobiographical peek into David Sedaris's life (as was Dress Your Family in Denim and Corduroy and Me Talk Pretty Someday (the other two Sedaris books I've read). I was laughing out loud constantly as I read this book, it's so filled with humor.
I suppose the irony is that Davis Sedaris is openly homosexual and doesn't make any attempt to disguise this fact in his books (there's no graphic depiction of sexual acts or anything like that in the books - they're not that kind of books). And I have definite anti-homosexual leanings (not the "go out and beat them up" kind, just the "resenting the 'you must accept our self-identification as a minority group!'" kind). Yet I love this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good laugh - anyone who can stomach some pretty hard profanity, anyway. Sedaris himself isn't foul-mouthed, but many of the people he recalls experiences with were very foul indeed.
I'll refrain from sharing any of the excessively profane comments made by people Sedaris has known, but here's an exchange that made me laugh. He's talking about a horrible, abrasive old woman who lived in the apartment across his hall.
It was a stranger who brought us back together. In the ten or so years before she retired, Helen cleaned house for a group of priests in Murray Hill. "They were Jesuits," she told me. "That means they believe in God but not in terlet paper. You should have seen their underwear. Disgusting."
In her opinion, a person who hired a housekeeper was a person who thought himself better than everyone else. She loved a story in which a snob got his comeuppance, but the people I worked for were generally pretty thoughtful. I felt like a bore, telling her how unobtrusive and generous everyone was, and so it came as a pleasant surprise when I was sent to clean an an apartment near the Museum of Modern Art. The woman who lived there was in her late sixties and had hair the color of a newly hatched chick. Mrs. Oakley, I'll say her name was. She wore a denim skirt with a matching blouse and had knotted a red bandana around her throat. With some people this might be it, their look, but on her it seemed like a costume, like she was going to a party with a cattle-rustling theme.
Most often a homeowner would take my jacket, or direct me toward the closet. Mrs. Oakley did neither, and when I made for the brass rack that she herself clearly used, she said, "Not there," her voice a bark. "You can put your things in the guest bathroom. Not on the countertop, but on the toilet." She pointed to a door at one end of the foyer. "Put the lid down first," she told me. "Then put your coat and scarf on top of the lid."
I wondered who would be stupid enough not to have understood that, and I imagined a simpleton with a puzzled expression on his face. "Hey," he might say. "How come my jacket's all wet? And while we're at it, who put this turd in my pocket?!"
"Something amuses you, does it?" Mrs. Oakley asked.
I said, "No. Not at all." Then I jotted down the time in my portable notebook.
She saw me writing and put her hands on her hips. "I am not paying you to practice your English," she told me.
She pointed to my notebook. "This is not a language institute. You are here to work, not to learn new words."
It went on for a while longer, but those were most of the parts that made me laugh the hardest.
Later, while he's in Japan to try to quit smoking, he makes several funny observations (including the origin of the book's title) that made me laugh. A lot.
In the end, we settled on Tokyo, a place we had gone the previous summer. The city has any number of things to recommend it, but what first hooked me was the dentistry. People looked as if they'd been chewing on rusty bolts. If a tooth was whole, it most likely protruded, or was wired to a crazy-looking bridge. In America I smile with my mouth shut. Even in France and England I'm self-conscious, but in Tokyo, for the first time in years, I felt normal.
A booklet in our hotel room includes a section on safety awkwardly titled [i]Best Knowledge of Disaster Damage Prevention and Favors to Ask of You[/i]. What follows are three paragraphs, each written beneath a separate, boldfaced heading: "When you check in the hotel room," "When you Find a fire," and, my favorite, "When you are engulfed in flames."
Further weird English from our trip:
On an apron picturing a dog asleep in a basket: "I'm glad I caught you today. Enjoy mama."
On decorative paper bags a person might put a gift in: "When I think about the life in my own way I need gentle conversations."
On another gift bag: "Today is a special day for you. I have considered what article of present is nice to make you happy. Come to open now, OK?"
On yet another gift bag: "Only imflowing you don't flowing imflowing." (This last one actually gave me a headache.)
And one last funy passage, for good measure, about his fish-like swimming abilities (as a nice little tie-in to the religious aspects of quoted The Scourge of God passages).
At the pool I currently go to, one of the regulars is a woman with Down syndrome. She's fairly heavy and wears an old-fashioned swimsuit, the sort with a ruffled skirt. Then there's this bathing cap that straps beneath her chin and is decorated with rubber flowers. Odd is the great satisfaction I take whenever I beat her from one end to the other. "I won three out of four," I told Hugh the first time she and I swam together. "I mean I really creamed her. "
"Let me get this straight," he said. "She's obese. She's as old as you are. And she has Down syndrome?"
"Yes, and I beat her. Isn't that great!"
"Did she even know you were having a race?"
I hate it when he gets like this. Anything to burst my bubble.
I no longer tell him about the old people I defeat. Older than I am, I mean - women in their late seventies and eighties. Then there are the children. I was in Washington State, at a small-town YMCA, when a boy wandered into the lap lane and popped his head, seal-like, out of the water. I would later learn that he was nine, but at the time he was just this kid, slightly pudgy, with a stern haircut. It's like he went to a barbershop with a picture of Hitler, that's how severe it was. We got to talking, and when I told him I wasn't a very good swimmer, he challenged me to a race. I think he assumed that, like most adults, I'd slow down and intentionally let him win, but he didn't know who he was dealing with. I need all the confidence I can get, and one victory is just as good as any other. Thus I swam for my very life and beat the pants off him. I thought this was it - he'd accept his defeat and move on with his life - but five minutes later he stopped me again and asked if I believed in God.
"No," I told him.
I thought for a second. "Because I have hair on my back, and a lot of other people, people who kill and rob and make life miserable, don't. A real God wouldn't let that happen."
I was happy to leave it at that, but before I could resume he blocked my path. "It was God who let you win that race," he said. "He touched you on the leg and made you go faster, and that's how come you beat me."
He really looked like Hitler then, eyes blazing like two little coals.
"If God knows that I don't believe in him, why would he go out of his way to help me?" I asked. "Maybe instead of making me win, God reached down and made you lose. Did you ever think of that?"
I continued my swimming but was stopped once again at the end of the next lap. "You're going to go to hell," the boy said.
"Is this still about me winning that race?"
"No," he told me. "It's about God, and if you don't believe in Him you're going to burn for the rest of eternity."
I thanked him for the tip and then I went back to my laps, grateful that at the church I had attended, the service was entirely in Greek. My sisters and I had no idea what the priest was saying, and when you're young that's probably for the best. L'il Hitler was only in the third grade, and already he was planning for his afterlife. Even worse, he was planning for mine. While changing out of my suit, it occurred to me that I probably shouldn't have contradicted him. It's insane to discuss religion with a child. Especially at the Y. What bugged me was his insistence that I'd had unfair help, that God had stepped in and pushed me over the finish line. I mean, really. Can I not beat a nine-year-old on my own?
Don't think that I've shared all the funniest parts of the book and now there's no reason to read it. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments that I'd have to post 80% of the book to share them all. If you like to laugh (and you're not too easily offended), read this book.