On Saturday, I went down to Hyde Park, and had lunch at Caffe Florian. They've simplified their menu, so there's no more Hawaiian pizza; I just had to order it as a pineapple and ham pizza. But no matter; I still had one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten. A stunning work of art. From there, I headed over to the Seminary Coop Bookstore, still one of the finest bookstores in the country. Unfortunately (and fortunately for my Visa), my luggage for the weekend consisted of a single backpack, so there was no room for new books.
Then I headed across campus and up Ellis, passing by the monstrosity of a new athletic center (I'm not clear what was wrong with the Field House and Bartlett), and to Court Theatre for their production of Philip Glass's The Sound of a Voice. The Sound of a Voice actually consists of two entirely separate one-act operas, both for one male and one female voice, accompanied by a quartet of flute, pipa, cello, and percussion. The first act, "The Sound of a Voice", is the story of a samurai warrior and the witch he has come to kill, but instead falls in love with. This act was good, but not great; it seemed as though Glass was simply experimenting with the exotic instrumentation and hadn't yet fully integrated it into his style. That was not a problem with the second act, "House of Dreams", which was absolutely stunning.
From there, I headed back downtown on the Metra Electric, grabbed a quick bite at Panda Express (not the greatest Chinese food in the world by any means, but it's quick and on the way between the Metra station and the Civic Opera House), and then it was time for The Marriage of Figaro. The entire cast was fantastic, especially Wayne Tiggs, a last minute sub for Ildebrando D'Arcangelo in the role of Figaro. Tiggs obviously knew this was his big chance to impress the world, and he gave a fabulous performance.
Happily, this year, I'm going back to Chicago again after Thanksgiving, for a weekend of Siegfried and Faust. One of these days, I really need to move back there permanently.
On the reading front, first up is Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (Canongate, 2003). This is the winner of this year's Booker Prize over in the UK, but quite frankly, it's a pile of shit. I can think of no more apropos description for a book in which the narrator's embarrassing bowel movement in a cave that serves as a clubhouse for him and his friend is the exculpating evidence that frees him from death row, where he has been sent as the apparent accomplice in his friend's murder of their high school class. The plot, in other words, is absolutely ridiculous. An even bigger problem than the plot is the voice. The novel is in the first-person, supposedly narrated by Vernon Little, a 15-year old white trash small-town Texan. Except that the dialect rings completely false, which just makes it horribly annoying. Which could be forgiven, I suppose, if the book were at least a decent satire, but its targets are all too easy and have been satirized far too often before, and much better than this.
Detouring to non-fiction, next is Al Franken's Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (Dutton, 2003). Franken, of course, targets the right-wing commentators such as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh, and the lies and distortions that they promulgate. It's sort of like shooting fish in a barrel, but Franken is at least quite entertaining about it, so I enjoyed it.
Back to SF, next I read Light by M. John Harrison (Gollancz, 2002). There are three apparently-disconnected plot threads running through the book. First is the present-day story of Michael Kearney, an entrepreneur studying quantum computing (while on the side he attempts to pacify "The Shrander", an apparition he sees only in shadows, by killing random victims across Europe). In the far future, there's the story of Seria Mau, who has become the pilot of a strange alien vessel exploring the Beach, a mysterious stretch of space adjacent to the Kefahuchi Tract in which the detritus of countless alien civilizations has been found. And in New Venusport, Chinese Ed has given up a life of adventure and become addicted to the virtual reality tanks. While the three plot threads develop similarities in theme and structure, it is only at the very end of the novel that they come together in a somewhat unsatisfying way. However, until that point, all three threads are absolutely fascinating. This is a book that I need to re-read; all three strands are so densely packed with information that it's impossible to absorb on one reading.
The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse Comics, 1995) is a shortish graphic novel about a girl, Helen, who has run away from home and is living on the streets of London. The drawing is beautiful, especially the scenes once she leaves London and heads out to the Lake District. The story itself, in which Helen comes to terms with the sexual abuse she suffered as a child and finally confronts her father about it, is quite touching.
Jumping back in time to 1960's SF, Beginning Operations is an omnibus of the first three of James White's "Sector General" fix-up novels, Hospital Station, Star Surgeon, and Major Operation. Sector General is a hospital, built by the Federation to accommodate any of the 70 or so known intelligent races in the universe. The Military Corps maintains peace throughout the Federation and explores beyond its boundaries to find new forms of life. It also provides logistics support to Sector General. All of the various known species can communicate thanks to their Universal Translators, radios which link them to the 3-story computer in the hospital which provides real-time speech translation. Yes, these novels pre-date Star Trek, but the background is remarkably similar. Dr. Conway joins Sector General's staff in Hospital Station, and by the end of Major Operation, he's one its star Senior Physicians. The stories themselves are mostly medical mysteries. Given patients with whom the doctors often can't communicate and who are often of entirely unknown races, the doctors must figure out what's wrong with the patient and how to heal it. These are compulsively readable books; I started this on a Friday night, and finished all 500 pages by the time I went to bed on Saturday. I just couldn't put it down.
Finally, Up Through an Empty House of Stars by David Langford is a collection of reviews and essays Langford published in various venues between 1980 and 2002. Langford's writing is consistently witty and wonderful as he analyzes the works of Gene Wolfe, G.K. Chesterton, and many more. Langford's knowledge of the SF field is encyclopedic, and his essays are unfailingly fascinating.