First Monday Book Day: Beowolf in the skies

Hey, what what! I'm back with a book post, and on time for a change.

This month's selection was a page-turner from those icons of hard-core, oft-times military-glorifying sci fi, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, along with that odd duck of sci fi, an African American male, Stephen Barnes, a frequent Niven collaborator, also well-published in his own right. Published in 1987, The Legacy of Heorot is very much and very self-consciously a retelling and retooling of Beowulf, set on a far-away world where a small cadre of human colonists are trying desperately to establish a foothold. (indeed, Heorot is the name of King Hroðgar's mead-hall and palace).

Like I said, a page-turner. The pacing is taut with tension, both sexual tension between the Beowulf-protagonist and another character, and dramatic tension as the story's perspective shifts between protagonist and alien antagonist(s). As is typical with Niven/Pournelle stories, the science is pretty solid and used to good, dramatic effect. The action is frenetic and compelling, but well-interspersed with dialog, descriptive exposition, and character development. This book would make a tremendous foundation for a summer blockbuster horror flick. I wonder why no one has tried to film it yet?

What are you reading?

44 thoughts on “First Monday Book Day: Beowolf in the skies”

  1. I am working through Asimov's Robot series. Finished The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, and am halfway through The Robots of Dawn.

  2. I finished Ignition!. If you're at all inclined towards science-y stuff, I would recommend it. [Previous discussion]

    I've put a decent dent in Third Reich. Hitler has all but invaded Poland at this point.

    I got the Finca Vigia edition of Hemingway's short stories on Kindle sale for $2, so I'm pretty stoked to get started on those.

    1. That's right about the point where it started to get good. I think the second-half of the book was much, much, much better than the elaborate (though, obviously needed) placing of all the chess pieces.

  3. I finished The Gathering Storm (amazing what international travel can do for reading a large book). I'm glad we're finally appearing to be building some momentum towards the final battle.

    Up next is Towers of Midnight.

    1. Towers spends quite a bit of time on Mat, IIRC. I think I liked that character best among the three guys.

      1. I expect that since the cover (I know, I know) shows Mat and Thom at the Tower. I'm with you on Mat being the best character of the three, although Rand was getting pretty interesting at the end of Storm, I thought.

  4. After an incredibly long stretch of reading nothing, I started The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonatahan Evison, primarily because it was a free offering my wife brought home from a Starbucks card with a code on it. It's an extremely quick read throughout the first...sixth?...of the book that I've gotten through. The casual tone occasionally seems insincere, but I'm still digging it enough to get used to the voice (after years of reading Spookymilk Survivor entries, I admit that everything seems insincere if it isn't gut-wrenchingly dark).

    I've resolved to make books more of a habit. For a long time they were my main form of entertainment; I'd like to at least reintroduce them to my rhythm.

    1. As the main judge for Survivor, my gaster was flabbered when you told me in IX that you hadn't read a book in the previous year.

      1. I do read a lot of scripts, but that's a much different discipline. The only reason I'm okay with my lack of book reading over the past few years is that I've read a ton of words. They're all short stories and very few are from professionals (though a few of them could be) but, still.

  5. I finished The Brothers Karamazov last month and was pretty underwhelmed. Philo, I'm ready to talk about it whenever you are.

    Right now, I'm a little more than halfway through Robert Massie's Peter the Great. In the last eight months, I have read more about pre-Soviet Russia than in my first 30 years combined. It is very fascinating stuff and I plan to continue dabbling in the subject from time to time.

    1. I think part of the reason I'm taking so long is precisely because I am whelmed. The theology in the book... wow. I've been having dreams about it.

      1. I completely agree. It's much more than just Peter. It's a enlightening snapshot of Europe at the dawn of the Eighteenth Century. I really didn't know much at all about the Sun King or William of Orange, and I knew absolutely nothing about Charles XII and Sweden's ascension as a major player.

        I have been ordered by a judge (ok fine, my boss) to read Rick Atkinson's The Guns at Last Light next. I thought the first two volumes of the "Liberation Trilogy" were excellent, so I will absolutely be complying with his order.

  6. This month, I reached my 2013 reading goal of 52 books. I think I might have underestimated my down time for these first 6 months.

    Novels Read In May:

    * Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

    This was really good. A group of soldiers (Bravo company) is on a tour of the US after an embedded reporter captures one of their battles on video and they become kind of famous. The book covers one day where they are guests of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game. It's gotten the obvious comparisons to Catch-22, and while it's not the same tone of book, it's similar in that the war is happening to the soldier who is the main character outside of his control.

    The boys in Bravo Company that are the main characters are great, especially Billy Lynn, the day that we follow them through is the perfect maelstrom of patriotism and casual disregard that all combines to paint an interesting picture of what society expects from soldiers, and how we force them to meet those expectations.

    Perhaps my only complaint is that occasionally the vocabulary didn't seem to match how I imagine a 19-year old infantryman would think, and it was a bit jarring, but that's a tiny thing. Overall, the book certainly lived up to the pretty big hype surrounding it.

    * Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector

    Musings on time, life, and death with very little forward direction as far as a plot is concerned. I had a couple of false starts with this one, not a book to be read in bed before sleep. I read some parts out loud and that really hooked me. Once I got into it, it grabbed me and really cast a spell. This book was almost like poetry.

    * Pow! by Mo Yan

    A Chinese man narrates the story of his childhood in a village famous for meat production to a monk in a temple that is slowly crumbling around them.

    There's a lot going on in this book, I could imagine this being a great choice for a literature study - to put all of this together, the unreliable narrator, the clearly symbolic passages (even though I'm sure I didn't catch most of them), it takes quite a bit of ability. I wasn't ever blown away by the writing itself, but the structure of the book was impressive.

    * 11/22/63 by Stephen King

    I didn't really like this one much. It was easy to read, and easy to get into the world that King created. It was harder to get past the sheer amount of that world that we are (sometimes unnecessarily?) introduced to. The last section of the book was really weak, and did a pretty good job of ruining what was a decent book up until then.

    Short Story Collections Read In May:

    * At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

    Very good. This collection had all the award-winners "Ponies", "The Man Who Bridged the Mist", and "Spar" plus a whole bunch of other good ones. Highly recommended.

    * I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro

    I really liked the stories in this one, well written and effective. You could perhaps tell that this was a debut outing in places, a couple of the overarching themes wore a little thin by the end, but I will read without hesitation whatever Quatro comes out with next.

    My favorites were "Better to Lose an Eye" and "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement".

    * Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

    Quick short stories. They don't seem like much on the page, but a lot of them strike something. I'm not sure I can capture that feeling, but I enjoyed these.

    * Two or Three Years Later by Ror Wolf

    When I think subversive, I think dark and difficult. This book is subversive, make no mistake, but everything is done with a wink and a playful smile. Ror Wolf has collected a bunch of very short stories that show remarkable versatility in subverting expectations, and one long final story that manages to build on everything that came before without losing that wink. It's a book that I enjoyed more when I was aware of how I reacted to each story, what frustrated me, what excited me, what made me laugh. A book about the reader more than about the writer.

    The blood will be frozen and my entire face will look like it's covered in powder, and you'll have seen nothing more beautiful in your entire life than blood in the snow, and through your presence alone this story will lead to an interesting ending, in the snow covering my face like powder–won't it?

    (emphasis mine)

    * Understories by Tim Horvath

    Clever stories that sometimes seemed to lose their way. Imbuing cities with personality and then stretching that personality to obsessive levels was a common motif. The settings felt very real, which occasionally made it jarring when a bit of unreality was dropped into the story without any wink or warning.

    Favorites were "Circulation" and "Runaroundandscreamalot!"

    Non-Fiction Read in May:

    * Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature by Daniel Levin Becker

    The story of OuLiPo, a French Literature Collective that is concerned with literature written under constraint. For example, a novel that doesn't use the letter 'E'. The whole movement is awesomely tongue-in-cheek, and you can tell that Becker (an Oulipian himself) loves the movement. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed this survey of some very difficult literature.

    * A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist

    The book is divided into 399 sections, ordered mostly by chronology, and at the end of most of those is an arrow pointing you to the next suggested section. The path jumps around a fair bit through the timeline, but the overarching layout is still chronological (WWI to WWII to Korea to Vietnam...), which made me wonder whether this narrative method was merely a gimmick.

    There were interesting ideas here about the way bombs have been used to divorce the actors from the action. Especially as the book was published in 2000, but has several sections that clearly point an arrow toward drone warfare, to my mind the biggest change in bombing since that time. There were a few sections that wandered and ended up being rants about the politics of war rather than tying into the general theme (the "chapter" concerning Korea in particular).

    1. Etgar Keret is one of my favorite writers. It's amazing how much pathos he can capture in just a few pages. And even if one of his stories is a clunker, the next 20 will be brilliant.

      1. He does it better than a lot of people who try to do the same thing.

        "One Step Beyond" probably not my favorite story in here, but it actually made me say "What the fuck?" out loud after I finished it. Not sure any other story has done that.

    2. I think I've read all of the Kij Johnson stories that are free online. I really should get a copy of her collection.
      Her stories, more than any of the others that I have read due to you linking to nominees, seem to grab and linger with me.
      The monkeys, the dogs, the ponies, the spar. The mist-bridger has actually left the lease impression.
      I didn't like the spar as much as it just keeps bouncing back to my head.

      So much variety there among the stories, too. Ponies is nothing like 26 monkeys is nothing like Trickster Tales of the Dogs is nothing like the Man who Bridged the Mist.

      I see she's written two novels, years ago.
      One about fox-wives of Japanese myth. I'm not sure what I'd think of 300 pages of her in one story.

      Oh, I have yet to read "The cat who walked 1000 miles."
      I should do that soon...

      1. I was underwhelmed by the descriptions of her novels. I don't have any plans to pick them up, but I'm certainly watching for anything new that she does.

        I didn’t like the spar as much as it just keeps bouncing back to my head.

        That one got me. As you said, I didn't *like* it, but it knocked me down in a way few stories have. It reminded of Harlan Ellison.

  7. I can't quite remember why I picked up The Art of Fielding by Chad Harback from the library other than a vague recollection of some good reviews when it came out in fall 2011. I read the first couple chapters, not sure if I'd continue as it's a 500-page beast. But then I read a little more and suddenly I could do nothing else. I read the bulk over this book in 3 days and, dudes, it has been a long time since a book absorbed me so completely.

    I can't say enough good things about it. The writing is outstanding and although it's a literary novel it also has a compelling plot and engaging characters. It's smart, funny, tender, and oh, there's also some baseball in there too.

    The baseball has to do with, basically, E-6, which is to say shortstop errors--not Bootsy (at least as far as I know). A quick search of the WGOM shows that CarterHayes picked up this book a while ago, but I don't see that anyone has talked more about it. There's much to admire (and many references to pick up on--many of which I'm sure I didn't get as I've never read Moby-Dick), and although I don't reread many books, I would definitely like to come back to this book at some point in the future. In short, I'm in love.

    1. I read that one last summer and really enjoyed it.

      It got me thinking a lot about the thin line between success and mental illness. I don't know if that was the goal but it was the thing that really stuck for me.

      1. It's had me thinking about parallels between baseball and writing in terms of the perils of overthinking and trying too hard, though one endeavor is obviously a lot more physical than the other.

  8. I had to double-check, but I have read The Legacy of Heorot, as well as the sequels, Beowulf's Children and Destiny's Road (just Niven wrote this one). I think the first one is the best, but they're definitely all Niven/Pournelle style, which I like in small doses.
    Since I finally bought the final book- First Lord's Fury, I went back and re-read the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher. I really like this series- it's complex enough that it was difficult to keep up with the characters and plot lines without re-reading the whole thing, but when I read it all in a row, it was pretty easy to keep up. Not The Brothers Karamazov by any means, but complex enough.

    1. I am a huge fan of Niven and Pournelle's collaborative work. The Mote in God's Eye is awesome. I enjoyed The Gripping Hand almost as much. Lucifer's Hammer and Footfall are both awesome too.

      Also, despite my being a commie-pinko-lefty-tree-hugging-doogooder, I very much enjoy Pournelle's CoDominium martial stuff (Falkenberg's Legion, etc.), as well as Gordon Dickson's Dorsai stuff.

      1. The first Niven/Pournelle piece I read was Fallen Angels (Ice Age coming!), and I also enjoyed Lucifer's Hammer (Ice Age coming!), but I think I liked Footfall the best.

        I don't think I've read The Mote in God's Eye or The Gripping Hand, though the titles are certainly familiar to me. I'll have to give them a try at some point when I run across them in a bookstore again.

        Falkenberg's Legion and Dorsai! are okay, but there's a lot of other military sci-fi that I enjoy more.

        1. Mote is in the pantheon of greatest scifi books of all time. IMO.

          there is a certain parallelism between Mote and Niven's Protector, however. (Protector was a prequel to Ringworld).

  9. May was not a great reading month for me, with the exception of Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad which I finally got around to. Good grief what a book. I could tell from the first few pages that it would be something special, but even with the big Pulitzer Prize emblem on the cover I didn't expect it to be that fantastic. I'm already looking forward to reading it again.

    1. That one has been on my mental to-read list for a while now, but you just bumped it up toward the top.

  10. In nonfiction baseball book news, there's a new book out called Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age, reviewed here in the Times. And Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, which is about a year following the LumberKings, a minor league affiliate of the Mariners located in Clinton, Iowa. I mentioned the author interview earlier but got in trouble with somebody for daring to mention a book on the wrong day.

  11. I am reading The Grapes of Wrath. There is one thing that I can't figure out. They talk about one of the characters being on parole and leaving the state. In the 1920s, how would that be caught? They mentioned finger prints. How would they match finger prints way back then?

    1. They also had photobooks with a parolees' picture, height, etc. and they could attempt to flip through and match him that way.

  12. Actually I think the Grapes of Wrath takes place in about 1937/38 or so. The FBI had started a fingerprint database in the mid-20s and Hoover was already touting its effectiveness in crime fighting by the early 1930s.

    1. from the Repository:

      In the United States, Dr. Henry P. DeForrest used fingerprinting in the New York Civil Service in 1902, and by 1906, New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Faurot, an expert in the Bertillon system and a finger print advocate at Police Headquarters, introduced the fingerprinting of criminals to the United States.

      The Scheffer case of 1902 is the first case of the identification, arrest and conviction of a murderer based upon fingerprint evidence. Alphonse Bertillon identified the thief and murderer Scheffer, who had previously been arrested and his fingerprints filed some months before, from the fingerprints found on a fractured glass showcase, after a theft in a dentist's apartment where the dentist's employee was found dead. It was able to be proved in court that the fingerprints had been made after the showcase was broken.[65] A year later, Alphonse Bertillon created a method of getting fingerprints off smooth surfaces and took a further step in the advance of dactyloscopy.


      Mark Twain's memoir Life on the Mississippi (1883), notable mainly for its account of the author's time on the river, also recounts parts of his later life, and includes tall tales and stories allegedly told to him. Among them is an involved, melodramatic account of a murder in which the killer is identified by a thumbprint.[103] Twain's novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, published in 1893, includes a courtroom drama that turns on fingerprint identification.

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