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Doc: A Novel

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Having read Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, I anticipated reading her new book Doc: A Novel. She did not disappoint.This is a novel inspired by history and the life of John Henry "Doc" Holliday. Not the legendary gambler and vicious gunslinger Doc Holliday but the person behind the euhemerism. I have not read accurate biographies of Holliday, but in an appendix to the book the author quotes her sources and they seem plausible. I will not comment the accuracy of Russell's research because all I knew about Holliday before reading this book came from old B movies, Territory by Emma Bull, and an old episode of Star Trek.The book begins with John Henry as a boy and a bright pupil in a prosperous family in Georgia. When they are ruined by the Civil War, his prospects seem dim, but an uncle supports his education until he graduates from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia with a D.D.S. degree (hence the nickname "Doc"). All seems to be well, but he contracts tuberculosis at the age of 21.Holliday moves west to find a more salubrious climate to allow him to recover from TB or at least live longer: first Texas, then Kansas, then ultimately Arizona. The rest is history.Well, not quite. Most of the book is set in Dodge City, Kansas, with the Earp brothers and a cast of tens, who are listed in the front of the book as "The Players". The author has put the names of her fictional characters in italics for the convenience of the reader. I am particularly pleased that Russell did not succumb to the pull of the Holliday legend: she only mentions the notorious shoot-out at the O.K. Corral in passing.Although I was able to be immersed in the narrative, what I notice on reflection is that there are so many binary polarities in this book: male/female, white/colored, capitalist/prole, respectable/lowdown, East/West, cultured/uncouth. The polarity I noticed most was literate/illiterate. Holliday, a missionary, a half-breed boy, and Holliday's mistress Kate Harony are informed by music and literature and can express themselves articulately. The inarticulate, such as Wyatt Earp, are sullen and resentful of those who inhabit a larger world in this sense. It certainly gives one a new opinion of Holliday to see him inquiring of a visiting missionary regarding whether the second symphony of Brahms has been published yet.Since the author says she has 'three degrees in anthropology' it isn't surprising to find structuralism throughout the book. However, her strength as a writer is characterization, and her characters are so alive that the academic scaffolding never overwhelms the narrative.Here is one of my favorite bits of characterization: "Belle Wright undoubtedly believed that Dr. Holliday's courtesy to Johnnie Saunders and China Joe stemmed from an admirable democratic conviction that they were every bit as good as he was. In reality, he thought himself no better than they: a significant distinction. It was not a surfeit of brotherly love that informed John Henry Holliday's egalitarianism. It was an acute awareness of the depths of disgrace into which he himself had fallen." I'm not sure if this is historically attested, but I find it profound and plausible.Doc is a good read with emotional and psychological depth that gives the reader a better perspective on an interesting period of history.
Candidate Without A Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt

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Anybody who thinks atheists are immoral monsters should read this book. The author, Herb Silverman, is a good guy, a professor of mathematics, and, by the way, an atheist.SIlverman's autobiography starts in Philadelphia and tells how he ended up in, of all places for a secular Jew, South Carolina. I particularly like his accounts of running for governor and applying to be a notary public, both activities which were banned to atheists in South Carolina (he became a notary but not governor). He must have a pretty good temper and sense of humor to thrive in such an environment.Other interesting items in the book are the author's involvement in secular organizations and his role in the founding of the Secular Coalition of America.His summaries of his debates with various theists are well done and I am so stealing his talking points -- he makes his points in a very concise, effective way.
Percival's Planet: A Novel

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This book was a disappointment to me, but it is not exactly the author's fault -- I requested the book thinking it was nonfiction. As historical fiction it did not work for me -- I could not correlate the fictional Tombaugh with the historical figure. In general, I think it is a mistake to write fiction about recent historical figures, unless is it satire. Too much is known about the protagonist to give the author room for imagination.
Zone One: A Novel

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This is the first book I have read by Colson Whitehead. I am bored by vampire and zombie books, but, after hearing Whitehead's reading at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Halloween, 2011, I had to read it.The verdict: Excellent! His prose style is lively, inventive, and witty, which is the exact opposite of the not-yet-dead characters in the book. The living characters are so deadened by Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder that they do not differ much from the zombies, except for not having a taste for human sushi. The predominant emotion is nostalgia for lost times and cool toys: nobody has smartphones any more, or photos in the cloud or any of that. Secondarily, there is the lack of friends or family who all got devoured. But the toys and luxury items seem to be what is most missed.Behind the zombie story there is a devastating debunking of consumer culture with all its distractions, but this is done in an understated way, not with hostility and overt contempt like Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.Indeed the whole book is understated, echoing the deadness of the living. Many horrific events are recounted, but they do not horrify because they are presented flatly, without shriek words such as the standard Lovecraft vocabulary.I will be reading more books by Whitehead soon.
The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass

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Liaei was created in the distant future of Earth, at a time when the oceans had shrunk to a small briny lake and there were few people living on it. We learn this from several momentum-destroying infodumps early on. She was created from ancient DNA, just about the last available from that ancient time, our epoch. She grows and is educated by the small, androgynous people of that time, but she grows secondary sexual characteristics and hair on her head, and eventually menstruates. Although our time is barely remembered, Liaei's education consists of dialogues mostly rehashing 20th century issues such as racism, sexism, and pornography. I need to discuss the ending of the book, so the rest of this review contains spoilers. Liaei was created to mate with the Clock King, who seems to be kept in suspended animation until prospective mates are available. The mating fails, but Liaei does not make a serious effort. The Clock King gets sealed up again, but there might be no more possible mates, so to what end? Liaei seems to make a choice that affirms feminism: she chooses self-development over being defined by roles determined by her sex and her reproductive function. However, this means that the human race will become extinct sooner than necessary. This is odd: this is a pro-feminist tract which undercuts itself at the end. Surely the pending extinction of her species would suggest to Liaei that she should perform her intended reproductive function? This book is didactic and preachy and that diminishes its quality as a story. Neither Liaei nor the author seem to be aware of the contradiction I mentioned in the ending. If there were any such signs of doubt or disapproval of Liaei's choice I would think that this was an ironic critique of feminism. However, the story is so deadly earnest that it appears that it is just incoherent.
d.Evolution

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I'm going to fudge a few details to avoid spoilers. A young man is thrown into the future and finds a terrible dystopia. Then he learns it's his fault. He sets out to make things right, despite the fact that just about everybody despises him for what he did.The dialog is pretty stilted and unconvincing. The characters spend a lot of time agonizing and talking at length about moral principles. I don't think that people in their situation could afford the luxury.The ending of the book is a major imagination fail: the resolution would result in nearly everyone in the world dying from starvation.
First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See

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Note to ebook producers: when generating the ePub version, be sure not to disable the feature that allows the reader to control font size. This did not work on my Kobo.I struggled through the first 3 chapters and did not find anything that would justify more eyestrain. Too bad -- the other reviews make this book sound somewhat interesting.
Crackpot Palace: Stories

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Well, this book did what I wanted: it filled my quota of weird for July, 2012.Ford has the ability to take odd premises and build worlds around them.'Polka Dot and Moonbeams' seemed like a lot of noir films I have seen, but I did not make the connection to the particular jazz musician Ford mentions.'Sit the Dead' was so convincing that I searched for gritchino to learnabout these witches or vampires. All I found was a town in Tul'skaya oblast', Russian Federation.'84 Deathdick Road' was a Twin Peaks kind of story: it even has owls.Then he throws in tulpas, doppelgängers, the Jersey Pine Barrens, Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Ganesha (tricky, but with a good attitude): lots of my favorites.He was kind to append to each story a brief account of what prompted him to write it.One can then play the game of imagining what sort of story one would have written based onthe source material: Ford's stories were more detailed and orthogonal to consensus reality than mine,which is what makes it worthwhile to read his versions.
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