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J. N. Mohlman (Barrington, RI USA)
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Behemoth: B-Max: Book One B-Max
Behemoth: B-Max: Book One B-Max
by Peter Watts
Edition: Hardcover
16 used & new from CDN$ 81.97

5.0 out of 5 stars The best so far!, June 25 2004
Before I can review the content of Peter Watts' "Behemoth: B-Max" there are two facts I need to mention. The first is that it represents the third book of a trilogy, and I would strongly recommend one tackle the first two volumes ("Starfish" and "Maelstrom") before reading this one. The second is that "Behemoth" should be one six hundred page book, but because of trends in the publishing industry it's being published as two separate volumes. The author is completely forthright about this fact, and I believe him when he says that this was not his preferred method of publication. Because of this approach, precious little is resolved in this first volume; so if you aren't a fan of cliff hangers, you might want to wait until "Behemoth: Seppuku" is published in late 2004/early 2005 to read this volume.
For those of you who are new to the series, here is a brief synopsis that should tell you whether or not these books are for you. Essentially, the story arc is about evolution: human, animal and electronic. By mixing a blend of biology, computer science and chaos theory, Watts has created a near future Earth where man is simultaneously at the height of his powers and walking the knife's edge of total ecological failure. In an effort to maintain the high standard of Western living mankind has turned to deep sea geothermal power to meet their energy needs. Miles below the ocean, specially engineered humans culled from the dregs of society maintain these power plants. However, what no one could have expected was that they would encounter an organism that would unleash an apocalypse. Part hard science-fiction, part post-apocalyptic, the first two books represent a genuinely original voice in the genre.
All that said, "Behemoth" represents another superb piece of writing by Watts; it contains all the tension and fascinating science of the earlier volumes, but also displays his increasing talent. The structure of the book is more sophisticated and subtle than the previous volumes, and I say this not to criticize the earlier books, but to highlight the strengths of this one.
Set five years after the events of "Maelstrom", "Behemoth" finds the remaining rifters and the surviving North American elite living in an uneasy truce on the floor of the Atlantic. Presumably safe from the disease that is ravaging the rest of the world, they have managed to come to an accommodation that allows everyone to live and let live. Foremost among the rifters are Lubin, the one time spy, and Lenie Clarke, the Meltdown Madonna herself. Opposite them is Patricia Rowan, their one time nemesis and sometime ally. Alone, they might have formed a shifting but stable triangle; however, their constituents, particularly the more militant rifters, force a situation that is never far from open warfare. This dichotomy is beautifully executed by Watts, and represents a shift in his approach. Where much of the tension in the prior two books was environmental, in "Behemoth" he has created a human drama that surpasses its astonishing location.
In contrast from the fragile existence on the ocean floor, the reader is presented with the contrast of Achilles Desjardins, the human god who fights chaos for the CSIRA. While occupying perhaps only a third of the book, these chapters are the most powerful. Consisting only of Achilles' thoughts, history and worldview, they paint a comprehensive portrait of one of the most powerful men on Earth. Perhaps most remarkable is that Watts makes him despicable and sympathetic at the same time, all while keeping him something of an enigma.
Given the fact that this is the third book of a trilogy, and further given the split nature of the title, any more attempts at a plot summary would risk grave spoilers. Simply put, it is science fiction as it should be written. Watts uses his setting as a means to consider our slow suicide as a species in the form of ecological decay, and the complex, and ultimately unknowable workings of the mind. He separates himself from much of what is on the market by injecting humanity and pathos into his writing; his world, no matter how brilliantly conceived and executed, is a means to a greater end. This stands in stark contrast to other "hard" SF novels which exist solely to cram technical information into a fictional setting while ignoring such fundamentals as plot and characterization.
What is perhaps most engaging about Watts' books is that he has made the mundane unique and terrifying. No one gives much though to the web as an environment, but he sees an electronic landscape filled with predators and prey. Most of us think of the ocean as the beach, but Watts reveals a world every bit as alien as the surface of another planet. Finally, his attention to detail is superb, without being overwhelming. Watts' world is replete with history, but much of it is only alluded to; this creates a world that is weighed down by history, and a novel that isn't. An excellent example of this detail is his web site. I can't post the URL here, but a simple web search will turn it up. There one can find mountains of what one might call "side-story" it doesn't fill in any gaps per se, but it does further flesh out the Earth of the 2050's.
If you're a fan, a probably have said more than I needed to to sell you on this book. However, if you are new to the series, I hope I have managed to pass on the incredible originality and superb writing Watts has to offer. This is a trilogy that is unique in my experience, and "Behemoth" represents the best contribution thus far. This is definitely not one to be missed.
Enjoy!
Jake Mohlman

Secret Life
Secret Life
by Jeff VanderMeer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 23.91
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking glimpse into a remarkable imagination, June 10 2004
This review is from: Secret Life (Hardcover)
There are many things that are remarkable about Jeff VanderMeer's newest collection "Secret Life", but what is perhaps most remarkable is how in spite of a host of different subjects and thematic approaches, it still fits together as a whole. What exactly that "whole" is is open to question, but whatever it is, it certainly represents arguably the most unique, and certainly one of the most exciting, voices in fiction today.
Actually, it should come as no surprise that VanderMeer can weave so many disparate parts into something comprehensive; while there may be writers with more innate talent, I find it hard to believe that any author is more dedicated to the actual craft of writing. This comes through not only in the insightful endnotes that accompany each story, but also in writing that has plainly been pored over and molded to perfection, much like the mantle being chipped away from a gemstone to reveal the hard, perfect core.
With twenty-one stories that are not directly (but certainly thematically) linked, it would be difficult to review "Secret Life" in its entirety in the space available. Instead, a few general comments, and then some brief comments on a few of the best pieces. First, for those readers who have already encountered VanderMeer's other work, this volume will be a particular treat. Both Ambergris and the world from "Veniss Underground" are heavily represented, but what makes these stories particularly intriguing is that they represent various stages in each world's evolution. For example, "Learning to Leave the Flesh" is set in an Ambergris, but it is not the Ambergris which so delighted readers in "City of Saints and Madmen". There are familiar elements, but it is much more like our own world the baroque marvel that it becomes. Conversely, "Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose" contain very familiar Ambergris elements, but seems to be set long after the era of "City of Saints and Madmen".
Even more provoking is the development of the Veniss world. The first, "The Sea, Mendeho, and Moonlight" was written when VanderMeer was only seventeen, which is impressive. However, it is only when this story is bumped up against "Balzac's War" which happens hundreds, over even thousands, of years later, can the true breadth of VanderMeer's creative vision be realized. There are also several stories written in the second person, which, while the author never specifically mentions it, must of have contributed immensely to his ability to write the perfectly executed second section of "Veniss Underground".
As for specific stories, there are those who may think this is a cop out, but the best was probably the title piece, "Secret Life". Set in an office building that is a world unto itself, the story is perhaps most engaging for how it makes the mundane seem bizarre and new. Moreover, layered over this bustling little world is the author's characteristic wit, poking fun at the absurdity of the modern workplace, while not being so condescending as to deny it's not something we all need to do. Ultimately, it's a story about seeing the remarkable in everyday things and is probably the best executed of all the pieces.
"The Bone Carver's Tale" is another beautiful piece, which is in a way ironic since it deals with the nature of beauty, as seen through the eyes of a bone carver (surprise, surprise) during a time of war in Southeast Asia. "The General Who is Dead" and "London Burning" are both interesting looks at the ultimate futility of war. While both are brief, they are notable in that the imagery they use is simple without being hackneyed and absolute without being preachy. Finally, there is "Mansions of the Moon (A Cautionary Tale)" which in setting is very reminscent of H. P. Lovecraft, but in style somehow similar to H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine". If I had to pick one story for VanderMeer to develop into a novel, it would probably be this one just because it is so distinct from his other work.
I could go on, but I fear my enthusiasm would risk spoiling the stories for others, particularly when it comes to the Ambergris and Veniss pieces. "Secret Life" will thrill VanderMeer fans even as it ensnares new readers with his utterly unique perspectives (not to mention the dazzling cover art). Moreover, even as "Secret Life" gives a look into VanderMeer's development as a writer, it also offers glimpses of what is to come, including a stand alone (the author's words) excerpt from his recently completed (but not yet published) novel "Shriek: An Afterword". Whether a true champion of the New Weird (if one must classify in genres) or a neophyte, "Secret Life" is another treat from one of the most exciting voices in fiction today.
Jake Mohlman

Miracle (Bilingual)
Miracle (Bilingual)
DVD ~ Kurt Russell
Price: CDN$ 6.98
41 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars When the actors aren't acting, June 8 2004
This review is from: Miracle (Bilingual) (DVD)
As the Cold War fades into memory, it is hard to explain the on-going, almost mystical fascination with The Miracle on Ice; the defeat of the vaunted Soviets by a bunch of unknown American college kids. Yes, national pride plays a big role, and more generally everyone loves an underdog. But I think what has really made this event such a cultural touchstone is the pure joy that surrounded it. Across the nation, and the world, for a myriad of reasons, but distilled and purified in the players and coaches who pursued their dream not for fame and fortune, but because the only dreams worth chasing are the hard ones.
"Miracle" captures this spirit down to the smallest nuance; in a day and age when you are as likely to read about athletes in the police blotter as the sports page, it is refreshing to watch people play for the pure joy of sport and love of the game. The ability to capture this love of the game was made possible by the fact that every single one of the actors portraying a hockey player was first and foremost an actual hockey player. That's not to say they can't act, but they sought out the opportunity because they have scored Eruzione's game winning goal a thousand times on a rink or pond or even on asphalt and they wanted an opportunity to tap into a little bit of that magic. They didn't audition for "Miracle", they tried out for it, and once they had the job, they went to training camp to prepare for filming. This attention to detail comes through in spades; I know hockey, but you don't have to be an expert to realize these guys are in great shape and have been on the receiving end of a check more than once.
In contrast to these raw and unseasoned actors stands Kurt Russell, a Hollywood veteran (and admittedly a very big hockey fan). His portrayal of Herb Brooks is dead on; from the voice and mannerisms down to the single minded determination to beat the best team in the world. Moreover, his punishing conditioning regimen and mind-bending schemes are accurately portrayed without bogging down in details that would likely bore even dedicated fans. The supporting cast is likewise strong, and wisely limited in large part to just Brooks' wife and assistants. This focus mirrors the way Brooks lived the game and minimizes distractions.
So the film has real hockey players and fine actors in all the key roles but the most daunting task for the director still remained: how to portray a game where the outcome is know when the NHL hasn't found an entirely effective view for live games. The answer was to use as many ice level shots as possible, which serves a twofold purpose. The first is that it is much easier to follow the puck when it is the focus of the shot, and at the same time, when a hit or injury is the key part of the scene, the puck isn't a distraction. The other reason this approach is successful is because this player's eye view of the ice injects a sense of urgency that makes victory seem in doubt even when it is a known factor. A corollary to this approach is in the narrative of the game with the Soviets; the director wisely chose not to reinvent the wheel and used Al Michael's definitive call, which includes key commentary from Ken Dryden which can be informative for the non-hockey fan.
In the end, what this all adds up to is the perfect encapsulation of the joy I referenced above. The cold hard fact is that we are unlikely to ever see such joy in sport again, as professionals have come to dominate Olympic team sports and high schoolers join the pro ranks as soon as they graduate and middle schoolers go to strength and conditioning camps under relentless pressure from their parents. What "Miracle" portrays is a joy born of a love of competition, a love of sport and a love of teammates that has become all too rare. That's not to say that this movie only portrays sunshine and roses, but the ultimate goal transcended any one individual. Some of the best scenes in the movie have nothing to do with hockey, but rather the camaraderie that comes from sharing simple things with good friends.
Superb in its portrayal of perhaps the greatest sporting event of all time in every aspect - from acting to wardrobe to the game on the ice, "Miracle" is an absolute joy to watch. It wisely frames the geo-political import of the game and then sets it aside, focusing instead on the beauty of sport and the satisfaction of hard earned accomplishments.
Jake Mohlman.

Skeletons on the Zahara
Skeletons on the Zahara
by Dean King
Edition: Hardcover
21 used & new from CDN$ 3.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating tale of survival, June 1 2004
"Skeletons on the Zahara" by Dean King reflects a recent trend in history writing towards more personal, localized discussions of history. Books like "Twelve Days of Terror", "The Devil in the White City" and "Krakatoa" taken events that were enormously important when they occurred, but which have, over time, faded into vague remembrance. By looking at these forgotten events, the author has an opportunity to not only tell and original story, but also reflect upon the era as a whole, and draw conclusions about how it shaped, and was shaped by, the event in question.
Handled poorly, this approach can feel severely contrived, as the writer attempts to shoehorn a host of effects into his ill-fitting cause. However, when done successfully, as is the case with "Skeletons on the Zahara", the author brings a unique perspective to the period, while engaging the reader with new adventures. In fact, if nothing else, this is an adventure story, detailing the appalling and yet somehow inspiring story of sailors shipwrecked on the North African coast and captured into slavery.
King sets the stage, by explaining the disastrous consequences the War of 1812 had on the commercial shipping industry in New England, and how limited prospects on land and potentially rich rewards at sea drove men to a life of danger and separation from their families. Offering personal glimpses into the lives of Captain James Riley and his crew, he paints a portrait of ambitious men, living life on the edge between prosperity and destitution. At the same, he offers a glimpse into the life of a merchant on the Sahara, where not just material wealth but life and health itself is determined by the desert's fickle and unrelentingly brutal conditions. By juxtaposing lifestyles that couldn't be more different except of their common precariousness, the author nicely sets the stage for the clash of cultures to come.
When Riley wrecks along the coast of Africa he and his crew find themselves in a world as alien as that of another planet. As they are placed into bondage, there world is literally turned upside down; as white New Englanders they may not have been pro-slavery, but they certainly never anticipated being held in servitude to Africans. Over the following months, Riley, in a remarkable display of leadership and loyalty to his crew manages to wheedle, cajole and bluff their way to salvation even as they suffer horrendously at the hands of their captors and the elements.
While the story of survival is remarkable in and of itself, the glimpse King offers into a time and place most modern American's are entirely familiar with is fascinating. Operating within a clan based feudal system, North Africa in the early nineteenth century was a place of shifting, capricious alliances, where attention to personal survival and aggrandizement were crucial. Although he couldn't have been aware of the labyrinthine political systems he was ensnared in, Riley and his crew on more than one occasion almost sparked open war.
However, it is in placing Riley's narrative within the larger historical context that King's book truly shines. While the aforementioned aspect of slavery is paramount, "Skeletons of the Zahara" also offers insight for our own age. Even as America struggles to understand the Arab mind, King offers at least a glimpse into a culture that is fundamentally different, but not necessarily at odds with, our own. The compassion shown by numerous Arabs to the sailors outstrips the brutal culture in which they operate. This common humanity touched Riley deeply, and made him a crusader for abolitionism for the rest of his life. There is no reason to think this humanity has eroded over the years, and King obliquely argues that it can become the basis for a new understanding with Islamic culture today.
Part adventure story, part history, part social commentary, "Skeletons of the Zahara" breaths new life into a forgotten tale of survival. Given that Riley's narrative helped shaped the minds of such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau, it is worth reading in its own right, but when coupled with King's historical analysis it rises to a different level. While sometimes presumptuous in his narrative, King has nevertheless produced a book that highlights cooperation and commonality across cultures at a time when such elements are sorely lacking. The author, while primarily interested in telling a fascinating story of survival, is also able to offer precedent for mutually beneficial interaction between American and Islam.
Jake Mohlman

Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded: August 27, 1883
Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded: August 27, 1883
by Simon Winchester
Edition: Paperback
63 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes meandering but always fascinating account, May 4 2004
In "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded" Simon Winchester has produced a comprehensive account of one of the most widely known, but perhaps least understood, natural disasters of the last 200 years. While his account often drifts far afield of the title material, he has a knack for always finding his way back to the topic at hand. Which is a good thing because that topic, the largest explosion ever recorded by modern man and one that was responsible for the death of 36,000 people, is more than ample material for any book's purview.
What makes Winchester's writing appealing is that he uses the more conversational narrative style that has become the preferred approach in popular history and science today; one might call in the Stephen Ambrose Effect. Winchester largely paints his story with a broad brush (albeit across a host of topics), and as such, those who may be intimidated by science writing shouldn't avoid "Krakatoa". While the author does delve into a large variety of scientific disciplines, he is at heart a teacher, and the passion he has for the subject matter comes through as he strips down potentially complicated subjects to their basic elements.
That said, Winchester by no means "dumbs down" his material. His explanation of the geological pressures that created and ultimately lead to the demise of Krakatoa are comprehensive and detailed. Rather, he presents this material in a manner that is approachable for those without much of a scientific background, without detracting from it intellectually. As such, those (like myself) who are more disposed to a scientific bent should be no more discouraged from reading "Krakatoa" than those who are not. Winchester has basically laid out an intellectual smorgasbord and leaves it for the reader to determine how much they will consume. The beauty of the "Krakatoa" (much like Robert Zubrin's on space exploration) is that the reader can skim the heavier science without losing the narrative flow.
What makes the book most appealing, though, is how Winchester vividly describes the eruption and then most importantly places it within a historical context. This seems to be the area where some readers have felt he bogged down, but his descriptions of the region, its fauna and peoples, including a detailed consideration of Dutch colonial rule, provide critical information for understanding the scope and impact of the disaster. In particular, his descriptions of the impact of the eruption on the rise of a more militant brand of Islam in Indonesia were particularly engaging, and eminently logical in spite of the seeming stretch.
Moreover, this historical element accomplishes two things. The first is to put a human face on the tragedy: with 36,000 victims it is easy to lose one's frame of reference for the scale of the tragedy and suffering. By including individual stories, including background, Winchester is able to humanize what otherwise has the potential to be a statistic. The second is that it allows Winchester to explore the eruption not just as an event, but as a catalyst for the scientific community that had a host of long term impacts. Thus, the massive shockwaves and wave effects are again removed from scientific the realm of scientific arcana and grounded in what they meant to a community barely on the cusp of understanding the world around them.
"Krakatoa" is an eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable account of a well known but little understood place and time. Winchester wanders through a host of different scientific disciplines and historical periods, and to be fair, there are probably those who will find this off-putting. However, if the idea of a book that explores biology, geology, politics and history all while detailing one of the most spectacular natural events the world has ever seen appeals to you, "Krakatoa" is definitely right up your alley.
Enjoy!
Jake Mohlman

The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
by Jeff VanderMeer
Edition: Hardcover
15 used & new from CDN$ 2.70

5.0 out of 5 stars It just might save your life!, April 20 2004
Normally, when a person reviews a book, they aren't actually reviewing "the book" but the ideas contained therein. And normally, such a semantic quibble would be absurd, but in the case of "The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases" it holds some merit. Because not only does it contain a fascinating selection of the bizarre from a remarkably talented group of authors, but it compiles their writings in a visually stunning collection that beautifully mimics the style, and rather drolly the content, of a Victorian Era monograph.
The basic premise of the Guide is that it is the long running publication of the eponymous Dr. Lambshead, who specializes in bizarre diseases. Moreover, the esteemed Dr. Lambshead is 102 years old, and his guide focuses on diseases that are, shall we say, beyond the pale of modern medicine. From Bone Leprosy to Wife Blindness there isn't an eccentric or discredited disease uncovered by such medical luminaries as Jeff Vandermeer, Paul Di Fillipo, China Mieville and K. J. Bishop (to name a few).
The book begins with two introductions, one from Lambshead and one from the editors, both of which are hilarious. The book concludes with entries from past guides, as well as remembrances from Lambshead's associates, a history of the guide and biographies of each of the contributors (in doctor manifestation, of course). However, the obvious reason to read the Guide is the meat between these two pieces of bread: the diseases. Each author spends anywhere from two to four pages detailing the history, cause and treatment of their own particular disease.
It would be impossible to consider each contribution here, and would spoil the fun of the book for other readers, but there are a few highlights worth mentioning just to offer the flavor of the Guide. First up is Michael Barry's "Ballistic Organ Syndrome" which should be self-explanatory, and which nicely sets the tone for the rest of the Guide. China Mieville's "Buscard's Murrain" is the first (and best) of several literary, or word based, diseases; it's characterized by his dry wit and excellent use of language and tone. Michael Cisco's "Clear Rice Syndrome" has an almost Lovecraft-ian feel, and is one of several contributions that could easily be fleshed out into something longer. John Coulthart's "Printer's Evil" is cleverly placed within historical context and is superbly printed (more on this later). Finally, there is "Tian Shan-Gobi Assimilation" by Jeff Vandermeer; not only is it another disease that could easily turn into something bigger, but it echoes numerous themes in his Ambergris work (without explicitly tying back to them) and will thus be a particular treat for fans of his work. These are just a few of the many great contributions to the Guide, and my failure to mention others shouldn't be treated as an indictment, but rather as an acknowledgement of the consistently high standard of writing displayed throughout the guide.
As one can discern, the writing more than justifies the purchase price of the Guide, but what clinches it is the superb quality of the presentation. Liberal use is made of different fonts to denote different periods in the Guide's history, and occasionally (as in the case of the aforementioned "Printer's Evil") to lend a period effect to a given disease. However, the superb illustrations are what set the guide apart. First, each disease is provided with an illustration, in the style of an 18th century illustrated book or newspaper (or the Wall Street Journal today). Some are grotesque, some hilariously subtle, but they all nicely capture the disease in one snapshot. Secondly, there are photographs of "old" copies of the guide and various locations and personalities, all of which are beautifully presented such that they actually look like a sixty year old book or a team of doctors working to contain a vicious outbreak of venereal disease or what have you.
Finally, the editors brought a real sense of historical weight to the Guide by creating "characters" and texts that appear repeatedly throughout the Guide. Not only does this link together what would otherwise be largely unrelated vignettes, but it also deepens the satire by creating a comprehensive sense of realism around an entirely absurd creation.
Clever in its conception and execution, contributed to by an astonishingly talented pool of authors, and beautifully produced, "The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases" is an absolute joy to read and a must have for anyone who appreciates books as works of art. Its mind-bending amalgam of genres and influences is all the more intriguing for their smooth integration into one truly original work; the Guide was an enormously ambitious project that the contributors, and especially the editors, pulled off in spades.
Enjoy!
(...)

The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East
The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East
by Abraham Rabinovich
Edition: Hardcover
14 used & new from CDN$ 9.67

5.0 out of 5 stars Definitive account of the Yom Kippur War, April 12 2004
In reading military history, one will often find that all human perspective is drowned in tactics and weapons systems or, conversely, that human elements have distracted the author and overwhelmed the war's place in history. This can be especially true in regard to the wars of Israel because there is such an intense emotion surrounding them. Happily, Abraham Rabinovich has avoided both of these problems with his masterful "The Yom Kippur War". Moreover, he succeeds admirably in placing the war with in the broader context of the region and the times.
What makes "The Yom Kippur War" so successful is that Rabinovich captures and dissects all of the elements necessary to look at the war not just as a series of battles, but as a subject worthy of historical study. These might be described as the prologue, the war itself (battles, casualties, personalities, etc.), battlefield innovation (tactics and weapons), geopolitics and historical perspective. Alone, each area is well researched and written, combined they form one of the most effective and impressive military histories one is likely to encounter.
By defining the Yom Kippur War as a product of numerous clashes dating back to Israel's founding, Rabinovich transcends a simple narrative of events and forces the reader to consider the root causes of the conflict, and how those causes dictated its course. One simple example is how Israel's stunning victory in The Six Day War lead to an institutional arrogance that meant they started the war poorly deployed and with limited ability to improvise in its early days. Moreover, Rabinovich does a nice job of capturing the Arab, and particularly the Egyptian, point of view. Unlike previous Arab military misadventures, The Yom Kippur War was based more upon the demands of realpolitik and less upon ideology than ever before. Egypt took a calculated roll of the dice, and in spite of taking a beating, over time accomplished all of their goals as a result.
Tactically, The Yom Kippur War set a new standard for ferocity and violence in a relatively compact area. Never before had so much firepower been deployed so quickly and to such great effect. In particular, the massive deployment of RPG's and precision anti-tank weapons marked a genuine revolution in military affairs that rocked Israel to its very core. However, Rabinovich indicates a deft grasp of the rapid vacillations between offense and defense as he revisits the roles and interactions of infantry and tank time and again. Moreover, his purview isn't limited to tactics alone as he lays out a litany of failures in Israel's grand strategy which included such basic errors as a failure to dictate the shape of the battlefield by trading land for time, the failure to exploit greater maneuverability in flanking attacks, and the failure to concentrate armor at the critical point. All of these lapses would be glaring in most any army, but in Israel, where the tank reigned supreme, they were unforgivable. Likewise, he considers similar interactions between the fighter-bomber and the SAM at both the tactical and strategic level.
However, as I said before, this isn't a dry recitation of tactics and plans. Rabinovich infused his narrative with anecdotes and primary sources that nicely capture the tremendous pressure that Israel faced, and the enormous ingenuity that allowed it to eventually turn the tide. Arab perspective is likewise strong in the early sections and again at the book's conclusion, but is noticeably lacking during the actual fighting. Given the even-handedness and professionalism with which Rabinovich writes, it is my opinion that this is probably due to a regrettable lack of source material. This conclusion is supported by the fact that it is a problem that spans most Mid-Eastern military history as largely autocratic societies have little incentive to release information about their military's consistently mediocre performance. Also, Ariel Sharon is a central figure in the Yom Kippur War, and any student of current events will gain tremendous insight into his actions today from Rabinovich's portrait of him thirty years ago.
In terms of geopolitics, Rabinovich pays little head to the UN (appropriate given their total irrelevance in the war, which was in turn a function of their total ineptitude in the months before, during and after the Six Day War) but does a superb job of a detailing Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy and a surprisingly good job capturing the Kremlin's machinations. What is perhaps most shocking about these details is how completely out of the loop Nixon was as Watergate came crashing down around him. Had Kissinger not taken the initiative, it is entirely likely that a radically different, and most likely much worse scenario would have unfolded.
Finally, in a brief, but excellent conclusion, Rabinovich revisits the root causes of the war and considers how they changed because of the conflict. Of course, the most obvious outcome is the détente between Israel and Egypt that developed over the following six years, but the author also eloquently captures the wrenching national introspection that Israel underwent. The Yom Kippur War was a watershed that led to a complete rethinking of not just Israel's military, but it's entire world view.
To conclude, "The Yom Kippur War" has all of the characteristics of the best military history. Evenhanded and unflinching in criticism, offering astute insight and a superb portrait of men at war, Rabinovich has written what may prove to be the definitive history of the war.
Jake Mohlman

Camp Concentration: A Novel
Camp Concentration: A Novel
by Thomas M. Disch
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.99
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4.0 out of 5 stars A pardox beset with paradoxes, Feb. 28 2004
"Camp Concentration" plays on some familiar themes: government subverting the will of the people, technology as mechanism of human downfall, to name two. As such, one might be tempted to pass it by, which would be a terrible mistake. Thomas Disch has produced a novel that is perhaps unique in Cold War fiction, for even as it decries the folly of military adventurism (in the form of a war in Malaysia which has presumably spread from Vietnam) it also considers the individual's culpability in national mistakes. Ultimately, he questions whether principled, but passive, opposition is just that, or if it is a form of ego not far removed from the motivations of those who are being protested.
Set in a secret government installation, "Camp Concentration" consists of the journal of Louis Sacchetti, a conscientious objector and prisoner, not to mention poet, who has been brought in to document the installation with a critical, but unscientific eye. The reason for this is that the population of this installation (except for administrators and staff) have been injected with Pallidine, a substance derived from syphilis that grants vastly expanded mental capabilities even as it ultimately kills the recipient.. Needless to say, those who receive it are being used to develop super-weapons, although they have other ideas.
To offer any more than this brief sketch would surely spoil the plot, but it is the subtext that makes this a superb novel. First is the fascinating, and entirely unexpected, consideration of religion. Sacchetti, who is something of a born again Catholic, suffuses his journal with religious references. Moreover, the Pallidine is clearly and allegory for the Forbidden Fruit, the source of both enlightenment and death. However, the consideration of religion is far more free-ranging than simple metaphor, as Disch lays out a compelling, if oblique argument, that if God is dead or absent, it is because we offer no opportunity for Him to act through us. Hence, it isn't enough to decry injustice, one must actively subvert it.
At the same time, there is a countervailing theme of the question of motivation: do the ends justify the means? Normally, this is an intriguing, if somewhat shopworn, focal point for a novel, but when set as a dichotomy with religion, it makes for fascinating reading.
Finally, several reviewers question the ending of the book. While I empathize with their reaction, I think there is a point, a denouement in the literal sense of the word, which is being missed. This is because Sacchetti's fate (with out giving anything away) joins the two threads of the book, morality and expediency, as it were, in a conclusion that is satisfying, but also open to discussion or even rebuttal.
I frequently struggle with fiction from the Cold War era (that deals with it explicitly) because it is almost always black and white: one is in favor of nuking Russia or totally against the "illegal" war in Vietnam. There is never any middle ground, any room for debate, and intelligent conversation is stifled as a result. Fortunately, in "Camp Concentration" Disch followed his own path and created a novel that revels in the gray. Entertaining on the surface, nuanced and subtle underneath, this is a novel that is not to be missed.
Jake Mohlman

Tonguecat
Tonguecat
by Peter Verhelst
Edition: Hardcover
16 used & new from CDN$ 16.54

4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and original; a new direction in fiction, Feb. 22 2004
This review is from: Tonguecat (Hardcover)
There are some novels that take such a different path from what a reader is used to that they are absorbed more than read. In other words, they cannot be truly appreciated until they are completed, because their ultimate purpose is hidden from the reader by original forms and language. "Tonguecat" is undeniably one of those novels. Peter Verhelst has created a world that is disturbingly familiar to our own, and yet populated by constructs that for all their apparent normalcy are vastly different from anything in our experience.
Set in what I would assume to be the relatively near future, Tonguecat occurs in an unnamed kingdom where the world has frozen over in a rapid ice age. As such, all life begins to revolve around warmth, as a practical matter, but also as an ideology or philosophy. Crime revolves around seeking warmth, and as the cold bleaches the world of hope, dreams become the preferred currency.
Thus, the setting is relatively simply described, but the plot is far more difficult. First, Verhelst has chosen to tell his story from multiple points of view. Much like Mitchell's "Ghostwritten", each section stands on its own, but the ultimate purpose, or overarching narrative thread, isn't revealed until the final chapters. Verhelst plays with themes of free will, truth and desire, and comments on our own world where perception is frequently treated as reality, even when it stands starkly at odds with the truth.
Beyond this unusual narrative arrangement, Verhelst toys with mythology and religion, to the point where I would argue that he has invented a new creation myth, or perhaps more accurately, a re-creation myth. There are literal references to Greek mythology in the form of Prometheus and the Titans, which is interesting in and of itself because unlike the relatively ordered life of the Greek gods, the titans were primeval beings, existing in a maelstrom of chaos and violence. This essence is revisited countless times as the kingdom comes unhinged in ever greater and less justifiable acts of violence which rather explicitly echo places like Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia. On top of this mythological element, there are references to the Judeo-Christian tradition of varying levels of obliqueness. From rather explicit references to the lives of the saints to strong echoes to the story of Noah, there is an element of religiosity which infuses "Tonguecat".
The characters are a fascinating blend of the high and the low; from the young king to a peasant boy who has lost his family, each has a part to play in this odd tapestry, but only one has even a rough appreciation of what is actually happening, and even then his grasp is tenuous. As such, this is a novel that will have as many interpretations as readings. To a degree, this is something of a problem as the sometimes random motivations of the characters can bog down the reader's progress as one struggles to keep up with the rather jarring shifts in narrative flow. However, this problem is ultimately surpassed by Verhelst's adventurous style and commitment to his concept, which I found myself admiring even as I was sometimes frustrated by it.
While not an easy read, "Tonguecat" has the potential to become an "important" book in the evolution of 21st century fiction. A compelling fusion of Swanwick and Bradbury, it contains all of the former's deliberate, challenging weirdness while remaining steeped in the latter's disturbing familiarity. When combined with an original narrative form and an almost psychedelic use of language, Verhelst has produced a novel that is both fascinating and original.
Jake Mohlman

The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead
The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead
by Max Brooks
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.99
83 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Being safe means being prepared!, Jan. 19 2004
Let's face it: at one time or another we've all faced a zombie scare we aren't prepared for. And yes, the local constabulary usually cleans things up with a minimum of fuss, but what happens when things go wrong and the cavalry doesn't arrive? That, my friends, is the day that Max Brooks' "The Zombie Survival Guide" saves your life. With several millennia worth of field experience distilled into a manageable 254 pages, everything you need to know to survive the coming war with the undead can be found in these pages. Your life and the lives of those you love are at stake, act now and be prepared!
OK, so that paragraph was obviously tongue in cheek, but hopefully in conveys some sense of what Brooks' remarkable "The Zombie Survival Guide" is like. While obviously a parody of both the horror genre and civil defense/survivalist manuals, it maintains an "all-business" demeanor, never once cracking the façade to reveal the underlying humoristic intent. The result is a book that is, when taken as a whole, a funny, incredibly thorough work of satire. However, at the same time, page-by-page, it is a rather accomplished addition to zombie horror.
Starting with zombie physiology and then moving on to weapons, tactics, long-term strategy and history Brooks has produced a manual which has a thoroughness that belies the absurdity of its subject. Point by point he discusses the pros and cons of rifles, machetes and flamethrowers, then considers the optimal defensive positions for various types of outbreaks. After an extensive discussion of survival in a zombie doomsday scenario, he lays out zombie outbreaks through history, and what their implications are. Throughout, entries are extensively cross-referenced and alternative courses of action are always weighed for potential risks and benefits.
The remarkable thing about all this is that Brooks has managed to infuse a tension, and urgency into his manual that makes for great reading. Part post-apocalyptic fiction, part "Night of the Living Dead" and part "Saturday Night Live" sketch, this is a book that should hold appeal across a broad range of genres. Thorough without being dry, creepy without being clichéd, and funny without relying on cheap laughs, "The Zombie Survival Guide" is undoubtedly one of the most original books I have ever read, and one that I enjoyed reading immensely. If you appreciate any or all of these genres, or if you just enjoy a well executed, original idea, this is definitely a book you'll want to check out.
And remember...Tomorrow may be too late, read this book today!
Jake Mohlman

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