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20th August 2014

10:59am: Read: The Art of Raising a Puppy, by the Monks of New Skete
Well, so we got this puppy and we wanted to do it right. We're taking her to puppy class, and I decided to read this book ... the problem being that some of what they're teaching in the class is directly contradictory to what the book teaches.

The Monks of New Skete are moderately famous for their first book, "How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend," a noble goal. In this one (I haven't read the first), they go into a great deal of detail on the development of a puppy's personality, and especially how it is influenced by the wolven (is that a word?) ancestry of dogs. They suggest rewarding primarily with praise and petting and play. This is not a bad thing, but the puppy class requires rewarding with treats, so what are we to do?

Wolves definitely do not train their pups with treats. But we are not wolves. Plus, our pup is three pounds thirteen ounces -- their suggestion for disciplining with a neck shake could kill her. So I guess we're sticking with the puppy class rather than the book...

12th August 2014

5:22pm: Read: The Coming of the Quantum Cats, by Frederik Pohl (2014-48)
You can't say enough good about the late Fred Pohl to please me. I've never read a bad story by him. Yet, somehow, a number of his books have remained unread on my shelves. He was always a second-tier writer for me: not quite up there with Heinlein and Le Guin and Wolfe and Delany.

And he was a genuinely kind person whose company I was privileged to enjoy only a few times.

So I pulled this one off the shelf this week, partly in belated memorial to Fred.

It's a twisted story of the multiple-realities interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which multiple, very different and yet similar, versions of Dominic Sota exist in multiple timelines - which begin to collide because the America of one timeline wants to use paratime to make deadly surprise stealth war on its Soviet Union. But there are other timelines with their own agendas...

The story gets complicated quickly, and that Pohl can pull an ending out of his hat is a credit to his skill as a plotter. All the Dominic Sotas we meet really are versions of the same person, but distinct another amazing trick. And he makes us care about them.

Well, this is second-tier Pohl, but it's still a damn fine read. I may have to rethink my writer tiers.

8th August 2014

6:35pm: Read: Primitive Mythology, by Joseph Campbell (2014-47)

Campbell is famous as The Myth Guy, a public intellectual, the height of whose fame was a televised series of conversations on the subject of, well, myth, with Bill Moyers. He had complex, broad, nuanced, and extremely detailed knowledge of seemingly every culture's basic mythology, from the ancient Greeks to the Andaman Islanders to Siberian hunters to... well, you get the idea.

THE MASKS OF GOD is an attempt at a unified field theory of mythology, and Volume I sets the stage and states the basic premisses. (I say this without having read the other volumes and thus could be completely wrong!) Campbell proposes a two-pronged theory of myth: the Elementargetdanke or marga, the underlying "way" or "path to the discovery of the universal,"; and the Volkergedanke or desi, the "peculiar, sectarian, or historical aspect of any cult."

That's from his conclusion, the last twelve pages of a 472-page book. All the rest is building up the supporting evidence that allows him to draw this conclusion. It's a fascinating journey with lots of facts (and a fair peck of speculation concerning prehistoric myth-cults), and certainly supports his conclusions more than adequately. What I, not an expert in the field, cannot know is whether he cherry-picks the evidence that will support his conclusions, ignoring other evidence. What I can say is that there are times when his interpretations seem to me to be a little odd, so as to support his chosen structure.

Well, such is the nature of inexact sciences, and mythography is certainly inexact. But the book, long as it is, and part one of four, is exhausting and daunting (I tried and failed to read it once a decade or two ago), but very rich and life-giving.
6:31pm: Read: Digger, by Ursula Vernon (2014-46)
I have this insane urge to put a "K" after her first name...

but anyway...

This Hugo-winning graphic novel relates the adventures of a wombat, Digger-of-Convoluted-Tunnels, who gets lost while, well, digging a tunnel, and finds herself far from home. She comes up in a temple of Ganesh, whose statue is quite talkative, and becomes involved with:

- a shrew who's a professional troll
- a nameless hyena (his name was eaten) whom she names Ed
- Vo, a librarian
- and many others

...in a series of adventures that all lead up to Digger being sent to kill a dead god. There's a lot of meditation on mythology and meaning in this, but it's funny and exciting and well-drawn and, well, what's not to like?
7:37am: 40 years ago today...
Richard M. Nixon announced his resignation from the Presidency of the United States, supposedely ending our "long national nightmare," but actually allowing his hand-picked successor, Gerald Ford, to preemptively pardon him for anything he might have done while President.

The mere threat of impeachment seems to be enough to remove an actually guilty President...

3rd August 2014

9:06am: Just a note...
... to commemorate the 100th birthday of Clifford D. Simak. At the time of his death in 1988, shortly after that of Robert A. Heinlein, I noted that if Heinlein was the brain of the "golden age," Simak was its heart. He wrote characters with more genuine emotion than Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke put together.

1st August 2014

12:41pm: Epiphany
Libertarians, small-government conservatives, and "rugged individualists" who use public roads, schools, libraries, etc., are hypocrites and should be mocked.

In fact, I wouldn't be utterly opposed to issuing harvest licenses on the last group.

22nd July 2014

2:21pm: Read: Cauldron of Ghosts, by David Weber & Eric Flint (2014-45)
In which Victor Cachat and Anton Zilwicki, the two most-wanted spies on the planet Mesa, decide to go back there and do a bit more spying. Some biotechnology makes this somewhat short of suicidal, and they and several others set up shop - actually, three separate shops - in Mesa's capital city of Mendel.

H'mmm. For those not uptodate on the Honor Harrington universe: Mesa is the most despised planet in the human galaxy, because their major industry is "genetic slaves." Cachat is an agent for the star nation of Haven, and Zilwicki is an agent for the star empire of Manticore, which were at each others' throats until the revelations from their last expedition to Mesa, to wit: Mesa is the home of a centuries-old conspiracy to take over the human genome. Or something like that; it hasn't been made quite clear what the Mesan Alignment actually want, though some clues are given in this book.

Cachat, Zilwicki, and company quickly discover some Very Bad Things are about to happen. Zilwicki heads back to Manticore to get help while Cachat plays agent-provocateur with Mendel's criminal element. Things get bad, then they get worse, and a lot of action happens, and just at the last possible moment the cavalry arrives.

Well, I mean almost literally.

The good news is that it isn't Zilwicki who brings the cavalry; rather, this is something that was actually set up in a previous book.

At any rate, there's a reasonably-happy ending and it's looking like Mesa's genetic slaving days are going to be over, though the Alignment mostly escaped.

16th July 2014

8:28am: Oh, little dog...
The cuteness that is Kiara.

12th July 2014

8:16pm: Coughing less. And, a dog.
Yes, I'm coughing less.

And we adopted a dog today - a 15-week-old terrier/pug(?)gle(?) mix who is teeny tiny and cute and drilled into us all with her Hypno-Eyes and said "You will bring me home." So we did. She likes cats, but the cats have yet to take a shine to her.

Oh, and her name is Kiara. Apparently it's Irish for "small and dark" or something, both of which fit her.
7:42pm: Read: Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? by Jim Korkis (2014-44)
The first half of this book is an examination of how Disney's "Song of the South" got made, and how it came to have its reputation, and to what extent that reputation is or is not deserved.

(Personally, I think it is partly - not least because Uncle Remus is a "Magic Negro" - but not wholly deserved. Among other things, this was, if I'm not mistaken, the first film from a "white" studio to feature an African-American in a starring role? But anyway:)

This part ends with a reasoned plea, though one that will almost certainly not yield results, for Disney to let "SotS" out of its cage.

The rest of the book deals with a number of myths and legends that surround Disneyana. Some of them are more "forbidden" than others, and some (such as the disappearance of Little Black Sunflower from "Fantasia") are simply trite. But a few of them - notably, for me, the stories of a young Tim Burton's time at Disney and of an early, suicidal Mickey Mouse - are quite interesting.

The real problem with this book, for me, is a rather flat tone, which seems to assume its intended audience is, well, not very bright. This spoiled the feeling of the whole for me, rather, and limits my willingness to recommend it to others. Certainly any serious Disney aficionado will want to read it, but beyond that? Not so much.

10th July 2014

5:23pm: Read: Calculated in Death, by J.D. Robb (2014-43)
"J.D. Robb" (Nora Roberts) continues her series of science-fiction police procedurals (which started out as also romance novels, but that aspect has died back to the occasional sex scene) with, by my count, #36.

It's the year 2060, and Eve Dallas, homicide lieutenant in the NYPSD, catches another case. A young mother of two has apparently been the victim of a mugging-gone-wrong, but subtle clues suggest that this isn't the real story. As Dallas and her usual supporting cast unravel the case (and others die), a tale of greed and pride is exposed. In the end, more than one perp must be caught without tipping off the others; as so often in the past, Dallas uses herself as bait to draw out a deadly killer.

The sexual violence that was common in the early books has, thankfully, gone by the wayside and the crimes motivated by other things. Dallas's supporting cast continues to be fascinating, though there are times when it seems as if Robb spends too much effort trying to work as many of them as possible into the novels, as if they were some kind of "Oz party."

But the puzzles remain interesting, the writing spare and open, and the plotting reasonably taut. As long as Robb keeps writing the books, I'll keep reading them.

9th July 2014

9:40am: Still coughing.
Nearly two weeks after first entering Beijing, its smog is still irritating my lungs.

More accurately: that smog started my Perpetual Cough. Something irritates my lungs, which causes me to cough. But when I cough, I don't just "kaff kaff"; I get these heaving spasmodic coughing fits which, yes, irritate my lungs. Which makes me cough. These things can last weeks (the record is a little over two months), during which I am unpleasant to be around. I took off from work yesterday, but can't today or tomorrow - too many meetings. J. is coughing too, but he doesn't have the spasms I do, thank the FSM.

On a more pleasant note, we're just about ready to get a new dog, probably a dachshund or dachshund-mix. We're going to go look at some candidates this weekend.

6th July 2014

9:05pm: So, China
China: A RambleCollapse )
8:08pm: Read: The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross (2014-42)
(No, the number isn't an error. I can't talk about #41 yet.)

This is the fourth book (there's a fifth out, in h/c) in Stross's "Laundry Files" series of horror-comedy-spy novels starring bureaucrat-turned-spy Bob Howard.

In this novel, Bob is seconded to the External Affairs department of the Laundry, and sent to oversee two external agents who are trying to infiltrate a suspicious evangelical cult in Colorado. Why is a cult in Colorado the Laundry's business? Because its leader, charismatic preacher Ray Schiller, has shown undue interest in Britain's PM.

Well, the evangelical cult is, of course, a front for people trying to raise Unspeakable Horrors from Other Dimensions ... but even that turns out to be a front of sorts, and who it's a front for could get very very ugly. This is a turning point in Bob's career and fans won't want to miss it.

1st July 2014

9:30pm: Read: The Human Division, by John Scalzi (2014-40)
In previous "Old Man's War" books, Earth has been turned somewhat against the Colonial Union by the realization that the CU has been "farming" earth for soldiers and colonists while deliberately keeping its technological advances from the people of the mother planet.

In this not-exactly-a-novel-but-more-planned-and-organized-than-a-fixup, which was written in "installments" each of which was designed to stand alone, the CU, finding itself suddenly short of soldiers, has been forced to turn to diplomacy, with Earth, with the independent alien worlds and the four-hundred-species Conclave, which is in turn considering wooing Earth to its cause.

This book is _mostly_ the tales of one particular diplomatic team over the course of one year of time.

During this year, they keep drawing, or being drawn to, assignments that show that someone is conspiring to sabotage (violently) the CU's diplomatic efforts.

By the book's end, we still don't know who "someone" is, so there's a definite lack of the closure that would give the whole thing the feeling of a novel. But I say that it's more than a fix-up because the whole was clearly through-planned, with the stories interacting with each other both forward and backward, by the latter of which I mean "a-ha" moments in later stories where you realize what something in an earlier story meant.

The writing is Scalzi's usual breezy style, third person in this case, full of witty observations and smart dialogue. This is spoiled somewhat by what an editor should have fixed: frequent infodumps in later stories that retell (and retell and retell...) things the attentive reader has learned in the earlier stories. This gets dull after a while, especially if you read the book in essentially one sitting on a long airplane ride, as I did.

So: A for effort, but B for execution.
9:16pm: Read: Walden (and other essays) by Henry David Thoreau (2014-39)
KSR's "Science in Washington" trilogy quotes liberally from Emerson and Thoreau, which put me in the mood to check out some of the original stuff, so here I am. I read this mostly in China, which was something of a surreal experience in itself, because Thoreau is very much a Rugged Individualist American Writer, and that is almost exactly what China isn't about. But I digress.

Walden is pretty much what you expect it to be: a bunch of ruminations and reminiscences by a guy living in a cabin by a lake in the woods in the 1840s. It's gorgeously written, and I see where a lot of turns of phrase I've seen before come from, but ... it didn't thrill me. This may be one of those things like Hesse's _Siddhartha_ that would've changed my life if I'd read it in my twenties, but not in midlife.

The volume I have has a varied selection of "other writings." Of these I chose to read the classic "Civil Disobedience," "Slavery in Massachusetts," and "A Plea for Captain John Brown."

The first of these shows how deep the roots of the Tea Party movement do go in American history, but also how deeply the modern Tea Party movement has distorted and poisoned those roots. It also contains the story of Thoreau's one night in jail - though not the famous line about "What are you doing out there, Waldo?"

The second is a vituperative screed on the cowardice of his fellow Massachusetts citizens for knuckling under to the Fugitive Slave Law, and contains the subtle but interesting suggestion that the Southern threat of "nullification" could have been used here.

The third was written while Brown was in jail awaiting execution for his leadership of the attack at Harper's Ferry. While the famous song would not be written for a little while, the burden of Thoreau's passionate argument is that Brown's truth does, indeed, go marching on, that his deeds would in the end do more to bring about the end of slavery in America than all the pamphleteering societies who took no personal risk; indeed, Thoreau draws some very pointed and specific parallels between Brown and Christ which are hard to ignore.

15th June 2014

9:27pm: Read: Overweight Sensation, by Mark Cohen (2014-38)
Subtitled, "The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman," that's exactly what it's about.

As for the life, it's less upbeat than Sherman's (apparently ghost-written) autobiography, _A Gift of Laughter_. It tells the life of a self-destructive man who could never be happy with what he had, and whose ill self-care ultimately led to his early demise (before his 49th birthday). It's well written and full of insights into what made Sherman who he was.

As for the comedy, there's a great deal of interesting analysis of why it worked, and the historical moment in which it worked, and what (especially later stuff) didn't work and why.

As a bonus, there is an appendix of lyrics to Sherman's parodies, many of which are completely new to me.
8:06am: Seen: Maleficent (2014)
No, it is not the tale of Sleeping Beauty, as told from the evil fairy's point of view. That is what the ads would have you believe, but it isn't.

Rather, it's a riff on the story of Sleeping Beauty, with large liberties taken for a good purpose.

It's the story of the fairy Maleficent. That much is true. As the story begins, Maleficent is decidedly ill-named (and no explanation is given): she's the most powerful of the fairies, the guardian of "the moors" from the hostile kingdom of human King Henry. But she is betrayed by her human love, and seeks revenge.

Maleficent in this film is a surprisingly complex and nuanced character. I can't tell you much about that without giving away major plot surprises, but Angelina Jolie handles it really well. I wish as much could be said for Elle Fanning, who plays Princess Aurora. She's a little better than adequate, but not much.

The other surprisingly good bit of acting comes from Sam Riley as Maleficent's crow, Diaval. No, he doesn't play the crow; there's a lot of transforming going on.

The special effects are just spectacular. The Moors really looks like a fairyland, and is done with the kind of joyous and occasionally silly explosion of creativity I associate with Labyrinth.

The first fifteen or twenty minutes and the last fifteen or twenty minutes are stunningly good. The rest of the movie is pretty good at making the transition from the one to the other.

If you can't tell, yes, I liked it.

12th June 2014

8:09pm: Read: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher (2014-37)
Wizard Harry Dresden, under pressure of events, "volunteered" to be the Winter Knight, which puts him at the service of Queen Mab. She in turn owes a favor to Nicodemus, easily the most evil person Dresden has ever encountered, and orders Dresden to work with Nicodemus ... to steal the Holy Grail from the vault of Hades himself.

Much treachery ensues. Skins of teeth are escaped by. Good guys get hurt. So do bad guys. And there is witty repartee. (There's always witty repartee in these things.)

I'd like to think I was getting tired of this series but, by gosh, this may be the best one he's done yet.

8th June 2014

8:19pm: Seen: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Okay, so in a terrible near-future dystopia ruled by the Sentinels (mutant-hunting robots), a group of mutants are making their last stand. They send Wolverine(Hugh Jackman)'s mind back into his body of 1973, hoping he can change history and prevent the mutant-human war.

The key point is a scientist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) who has invented the original, primitive Sentinels. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) attempted to assassinate him, got caught, and her DNA made the Sentinels powerhouses that can adapt to any mutant power.

Wolverine must get young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to unite to stop Mystique. It's a crazy story he's telling, but Professor X can verify it by reading his mind ... only he doesn't have his powers. And Magneto is in a beyond-maximum-security prison.

It's a race through and against time, and the only thing Wolverine has going for him is hope...

7th June 2014

1:01pm: Read: Jorkens Remembers Africa, by Lord Dunsany (2014-36)
Sometime ago NightShade Press collected all six books of Dunsany's "Jorkens" stories into three lovely hardbound volumes. I am reading the stories in between full-length books, as I did with the "Father Brown" stories. This is the second part of Volume I.

Mr. Joseph Jorkens, for those who don't know him, is a slightly-mysterious character who belongs to the Billiards Club, as does the unnamed narrator. Whatever the topic, Jorkens has a tale to tell, usually of his travels; and he will tell it if someone keeps him supplied with whiskey. Some (particularly his nemesis Terbut) doubt his veracity at times, but he has never been caught in a proven whopper.

Some of these tales include ancient curses, the stars and planets, revenge, and cannibals in full dinner dress. Perhaps my favorite, though, is "How Ryan Got Out of Russia," which is not even narrated by Jorkens, but by Ryan himself, as Jorkens's proof that his own tales are not THAT outlandish.

Droll and witty, Jorkens is probably not for everyone, and certainly I wouldn't advise anyone to read all three volumes at a go: they would become cloying. But at the steady pace I'm following, they are a delight.

6th June 2014

7:48am: Anniversaries...
75 years ago today, Judge Joseph Force Crater was declared legally dead.

70 years ago today, Operation Overlord landed at Normandy Beach.

And today would have been Jay Lake's fiftieth birthday. RIP.

5th June 2014

7:41am: A happy...
75th birthday to Bill Moyers and 70th birthday to Margaret Drabble.

(Now I feel like I should try to stretch this post out to exactly 100 words. But I won't.)

4th June 2014

8:02pm: Read: Sparrow Hill Road, by Seanan McGuire (2014-35)
Seanan McGuire is a local favorite, author of two series of urban fantasy books that (apparently) sell like mad (as well as some horror novels under the name Mira Grant). This is not part of either of those series, though it is loosely related to one of them.

In 1952, Rose Marshall was run off Sparrow Hill Road by a demon (not quite literally) driver named Bobby Cross, who feeds his own eternal youth with the souls of those he kills on the road. Somehow she escaped, and became a "hitcher" - a road ghost who wanders the road, hitching rides and occasionally acting as psychopomp for those freshly dead on the road. This book tells of her adventures on the road, not all of which involve her quest to repay Bobby Cross for the "favor."

It's actually not quite a novel, but a linked series of stories - something a bit more than a fix-up. I kept thinking it was Stephen King and Bruce Springsteen's love child.

The writing is clear and transparent, though a bit flat at times. Some of Rose's wisecracks (the tales are told in the first person) don't quite work. But she's an engaging character, an eternal sixteen-year-old, always on her way to the prom. If Ms. McGuire writes more stand-alone books, I shall certainly be interested, but I'm not interested enough to make a commitment to a series based on this.
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