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14th October 2015

5:04pm: Read: Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat (2015-61)
Another one selected for the at-work book club, this is something that I would never have found and read on my own and am quite grateful to have had it brought to my attention.

The book begins and ends on the seventh birthday of Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin, daughter of the fisherman Nozias Faustin, in the town of Ville Rose, a fictional town on Port-au-Prince bay, Haiti. In the stories in between, we are told enough about various inhabitants of Ville Rose to understand what happens on that birthday.

Claire's mother died giving birth to her, and her birthday has always been the bittersweet visit to her grave. Others, many of higher class, are entangled with her destiny, and their stories all come together on this fateful evening.

This is one of those books -- like Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY, Kim Stanley Robinson's ICEHENGE, and Le Guin's FOUR WAYS TO FORGIVENESS -- that are more than a collection of stories, but not a novel or a fix-up. (We badly need a word for such books, but I digress.) The order of the stories is important, not because of chronology, but because of the way Danticat chooses to disburse the information that will allow us to understand the choices Claire makes, and what they will mean, when we are finally told _her_ story.

The environment of the stories is vividly, beautifully described, and the characters come to life in that environment. Danticat's style is lucid and her ear for dialog accurate. The dialog actually presents some difficulties, in that the characters often use terms of Haitian creole; my youthful study of French helped in some ways, but misled in others. It seems to be a lovely, complex language.

Oh, and: this book was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, for what that's worth to anyone.

12th October 2015

11:27am: You can't trust anybody these days...
Ferrari plays the race card.
6:34am: Birthdays
Today is the 50th birthday of British SF and comix author Dan Abnett. Happy birthday, sir!

Among the dead:

Aleister "The Beast 666" Crowley, the self-described evillest man alive (when he was), is 140 today.

Lester "Kenneth Robeson" Dent, creator of Doc Savage, is eleventy-one.

Arthur "Art" Clokey, creator of Gumby, is 94.

And Luciano Pavarotti is 80.


10th October 2015

2:15pm: Read: After Alice, by Gregory Maguire (2015-60)
Not coming out till the 27th of this month, but your Kindly Reviewer has gotten his hooks onto an ARC, so here's the scoop...

Since the only Maguire books I've read are his "Wicked Years" OZ quartet, but I knew he'd taken dark looks at other fantastic classics like Cinderella, Snow White, and A CHRISTMAS CAROL. So this is another one of those, and I picked it up wondering if Maguire was a one-trick pony.

He isn't. His take on Alice is _very_ different from that on OZ. Yes, it's an adult and somewhat-darker look at what is generally perceived as a lighthearted children's book: but then, the Alice stories were never that light to begin with, containing, as they do, significant concerns about death and identity (among other things).


Those concerns certainly _do_ appear in AFTER ALICE, but in decidedly different ways. Alice here is not the Liddell daughter she was in real life, but the second daughter of a recently-widowed Mr. Clowd. Her older sister (Lydia) is reading a book of essays about A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM when Alice goes missing ...

...but Alice isn't a major character in _this_ book. The _main_ characters are Lydia, Ada Boyce, daughter of the neighboring Reverend Boyce, and Ada's governess, Miss Armstrong, all of whom are, in their different ways, pursuing Alice.

The story of Alice-in-Wonderland is going on in the background, but we see very little of it. Instead, we have the adventures of Ada, who falls down the rabbit hole and, once at the bottom, goes looking for Alice, who is her only friend. Though she meets some of the same characters, she meets some whom Alice never met, and her adventures are quite different.

We also have the adventures of Lydia, who was supposed to be watching Alice. Along the way she also loses the ward of a guest (we'll get to the guests presently), a young American ex-slave named (sort of) Siam. There is a _little_ of the book from Siam's point of view, as he also winds up in the underground realm and hooks up with Ada - though neither of them has seen the other before.

And we have, to a lesser extent, those of Miss Armstrong, who is very uncertain of her position at the Boyce's and is quite certain that if she doesn't find Ada, she'll be sacked without a reference. Since Ada is most likely pursuing Alice, she reasons, she must find both to find either: so _she_ hooks up with Lydia as they search Oxford together.

Unlike the OZ books, this pays complete respect to the adventures of Alice. Ada meets a few "Looking-Glass" creatures, but there's no sign they've ever met Alice before, so that's okay; and if Alice's "real" life has been a bit transmogrified, well, that's not really covered in the original books, is it?

You might wonder why Reverend Boyce and Mr. Clowd don't involve themselves in the search; the answer is simply that they don't know about it. The Reverend is kept very busy by his sick(ish) wife and their newborn son who is, at least, colicky. And Mr. Clowd has Guests: an American named Josiah Winter ... and the man he is tending to, one Charles Darwin. While Darwin is a minor character, his spectre haunts the whole book.

In all, I think this better by far than Maguire's OZ books (which I quite enjoyed but enough is enough) and recommend it highly.

9th October 2015

7:08am: Makes me feel OLD...
John Lennon would have been 75 today.

Incidentally, Sean Lennon is 40 today.

8th October 2015

7:27am: Birthdays!
Frank "Dune" Herbert would have been 95 today.

Harvey "American Spendor" Pekar would have been 76.

And R.L. "Goosebumps" Stine is 72.

6th October 2015

7:53pm: Read: The Green Mile, by Stephen King (2015-59)
There is no supernatural horror in this book. There is supernatural stuff, but it is not horrible; and there is horrible stuff, but it is not supernatural.

Mainly, it is the story of what happened on the Death Row of Cold Mountain Penitentiary in 1932. Paul Edgecombe is the Green Mile's head screw, and he keeps things running pretty smoothly, and as well as he can for his prisoners.

Then comes onto the block one John Coffey, a huge black man with the mind of a slow child, convicted on pretty convincing evidence of a terrible crime. Over the course of the book, Edgecombe comes to believe that Coffey not only didn't commit the crimes, but _couldn't_ have committed them, due in part to Coffey's good and childlike nature, but more to the supernatural element of the book, which I shan't spoil.

There are evil people in this book, and crazy people, and, most of all, decent people trying to make the best of a bad situation. Oh: and a mouse is an important character.

It's structurally a little weird, because it was originally published in six parts as a "serial novel." Each part ends with a cliffhanger, and each successive part has to somehow bring an incoming reader up to speed without offputting a continuing reader. Actually, it's really well done.

I enjoyed it more than I expected to; more than I have enjoyed most of King's books that I have read; and recommend it highly to anyone who hasn't read it.

4th October 2015

8:39am: Seen: The Martian (2015)
First, I want to say that if Matt Damon isn't at least nominated for the Best Actor Oscar as a result of this movie, then there ain't no justice in the Academy. He brings Mark Watney to life sooooo well, that at times my suspension of disbelief was total.

Similarly, someone should be nominated for something for the beautiful, bleak Martian vistas. I'm not sure if they count as set design or special effects or what, but whatever they count as, they contribute hugely to the feel of the movie.

But the question that some of you are doubtless asking is, "How faithful is it to the book?" And the answer is: this is quite possibly the most faithful-to-the-book of any SF adaptation I have ever seen. Of course, they could not fit everything in that book into a movie, even a two-and-a-half hour movie ("...boy, your bladder better be strong..."); but the cuts they made were reasonable and didn't affect the overall flow of the story. And the only significant add - a short sequence right before the credits roll - is not only not offensive but completely reasonable. So kudos to Hollywood in general and Ridley Scott in particular; they Got It Right.

And for those who weren't asking, who are wondering what it's about: An astronaut is accidentally left behind on Mars and presumed dead. With no way to communicate with Earth, he has to survive on limited supplies and find a way to get rescued. His solutions are logical and scientifically plausible, and often a solution is the direct cause of the next problem (one thing that isn't as explicit in the movie as it could be). In short, it's a story about survival due to human ingenuity, grit, and spirit. It is a superb movie.
8:25am: Read: Outlines of Romantic Theology, by Charles Williams (2015-58)
I don't have a lot to say about this, or at least, not a lot that's coherent. Written early in his career, when he was about 30, it is an early attempt to explicate the beliefs that would underpin all his poetry and fiction. (The clearest and best statement is in THE FIGURE OF BEATRICE. At least, of those books of his I've read.)

But what are those beliefs? Stated baldly, they seem a bit muzzy. Essentially, they're a justification of the _amour_ of the troubadours: the idea that romantic love is in fact a legitimate path to Christ, as much so as the contemplative life. The vision of the Beloved, says Williams, gives the Lover a picture of the Other, which he (the Lover, for Williams is male and the Beloved female: this was in the nineteen-teens), by serving, begins the process of living to others rather than to self. Certainly it is a fraught path, as all are; the ever-present danger, for example, of Love becoming mere Lust, the demand for one's own satisfaction of the fulfillment of one's desires.

I can at best intellectually understand Williams' theology. I can't _feel_ it the way I can, say, Lewis's. It is a more intellectualized and (to use a word Williams seems to have loved) schematized theology. Yet it clearly is about the heart and not the head. But when shown, rather than told, as in (say) the Arthurian poems, I _do_ feel it; and I feel certain that turning back to those poems (as I inevitably do), they will have more depth for me as a result of reading _this_ book.

2nd October 2015

6:27am: Why a duck?
Today is the 125th birthday of Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx.

(Also the 104th birthday of Jack Finney and the 71st birthday of Vernor Vinge.)

30th September 2015

6:10pm: Read: The Shepherd's Crown, by Terry Pratchett (2015-57)
And here the journey comes to an end. I have a few more Pratchett books to read, including one Discworld, but this is Pratchett's last book and the end of an era.

I believe Pratchett must have known it would be his last book, or at least his last Discworld book, for it ties a number of things together and ends some. I don't want to say too much about the plot; even to mention events in the third chapter would be a major spoiler.

But let's say this: Tiffany Aching, witch of the Chalk, must rise above her doubts and take on the greatest of responsibilities - and the whole while the Elves are plotting to come back. (You remember the elves, perhaps, from THE WEE FREE MEN or LORDS AND LADIES.)

Characters from all over the Disc's main continent have at least bit parts to play in this one (though, in the end perhaps not surprisingly, Rincewind is absent).

And things are resolved most satisfyingly.

It is not Pratchett's funniest book by a long shot, but that was never the heart of the Tiffany Aching books; they are more novels of character. And Tiffany has been from the beginning, and remains to the end, an engaging and endearing character with (as she says at the end) iron in her soul.

I am glad that Pratchett's family have decided not to continue his work without him. I'm sad that there will be no more of the Disc, nor of his standalone or limited creations, but not sad enough to want commercially convenient imitations.

Pratchett's last novel is not, after all, his best; it was written under very challenging circumstances and we are lucky to have it at all. But it is far from his worst; and the worst Pratchett is something many a lesser writer would kill to have written.


27th September 2015

5:23pm: Read: Fool's Quest, by Robin Hobb (2015-56)
It's the second book of a trilogy, with all that implies: things started in the first book move along but do not come to completion.

Hobb's greatest strength is the creation of engaging characters, and FitzChivalry Farseer is the best of the bunch, as she must know since she's come back to him for a third trilogy. The things going on here actually grow organically from the first two, so that's to the good.

Fitz is noticeably older than in the previous trilogies, and in this book he feels his age repeatedly. He isn't as fit or as quick as he used to be and it causes him trouble repeatedly. Due to the Skill and a massive healing in his past, he isn't as old as his age (if you follow), but he's still not young anymore.

Toward the end of the previous book, Fitz's old friend, the Fool, showed up unexpectedly, in terrible shape, and blind, and was further injured (by Fitz by mistake). Fitz took him to Buckkeep Castle for healing. And while he was away, his home was raided by a mysterious party, who, after some serous marauding, took his young daughter Bee and left.

Fitz doesn't learn about this until well into this book. Hobb plays fair with the speed of communications in a medieval world, unless magic is involved, which it can't be here for good reasons. The first part of the book is mostly about his relationship with the Fool, and how the Fool wants Fitz to do one last task for him - go to the school where the Fool was raised and kill the people there. They are misusing prophecy and torturing people, and undoubtedly deserve to die, but Fitz wants to put his daughter first -- and more so when he learns she's been kidnapped.

The rest of the book consists to a great deal of moving physical and emotional pieces into place, and Fitz only sets out on the titular Quest near the book's end. The book ends, as one must expect, on hanging cliffs.

Well. As I said, it's the second book of a trilogy, with all that implies. Things can't be truly resolved or there's no purpose in a third book. But Hobb does well with the model, revealing a great deal of what's happening and what's at stake, so that we feel certain that, in the end, there _will_ be resolution, at least to the trilogy, and perhaps to Fitz's messed-up life.

25th September 2015

7:32am: Today is the 85th birthday...
...of Shel Silverstein, who wrote some good books and songs.

24th September 2015

7:54am: It isn't often...
...that I get to announce a 2000th birthday. Today is the 2000th birthday of the Roman Emperor Vitellus.

To add some SFF content, it is also the 81st birthday of the late John Brunner and the 79th birthday of the late Jim Henson.

20th September 2015

9:34am: Birthdays of Dead People
Jay (Rocky & Bullwinkle) Ward would have been 95 today.

Keith (Pavane) Roberts would have been 80.

17th September 2015

6:42am: Today
Edgar Mitchell, astronaut and conspiracy theorist, turns 85.

Ken Kesey would have turned 80.

And Kim Davis, whose fifteen minutes should have been up by now, turns 50.

15th September 2015

1:03pm: Read: Saving the Appearances, by Owen Barfield (2015-55)
Owen Barfield was, for C.S. Lewis, the "Second Friend" - "the man who disagrees with you about everything. He is not so much the alter ego as the antiself. Of course he shares your interests; otherwise he would not become your friend at all. But he has approached them all at a different angle. He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it. How can he be so nearly right and yet, invariably, just not right?"

In _Saving the Appearances_, one can see clearly how Lewis must have felt about Barfield's opinions. To call the book heterodox would be to miss the point; certainly the influence of Steiner's anthroposophy is that, but there is so much in it that (I think) Lewis could have agreed with, were it not that he would disagree with the premises that led to the conclusions in question.

Barfield's book is a dense one, perhaps even more so than the theological works of his fellow-Inkling Charles Williams. But (like Williams) it is readable, though some passages take serious rumination to even begin to understand. And, like Williams, he is an orthodox Christian but takes his orthodoxy to unusual conclusions, as if he were seeing it from another angle than most of us do.

It is a history and philosophy of the nature of human consciousness, among other things. "This book is a study in idolatry, and especially that last and greatest step in idolatry which we call the scientific revolution." At the end of the Middle Ages, Barfield says, we lost the last dregs of something he calls "original participation," the unity of the perceiving subject with -- not the object, which is "the unrepresented" -- but the _phenomena_, our perceptions of the unrepresented. (Thus far, he is in agreement with Korzybski's General Semantics.) Barfield suggests that what we call "reality" is in fact our _collective_ representations of, not the unrepresented (to which we have only this mediated access) but the phenomena. If you and I can agree that my shirt is blue, then that blueness is a collective representation for us.

Barfield begins by asking, of the phenomenon called the rainbow -- is it really there? Certainly there are raindrops refracting light and causing it to come to our eyes in a peculiar way: but there is no "there" there, if we try to chase the rainbow to its end, we come a cropper; there is no end and in a very real sense no bow. With this as his first cracker, he proceeds to attack the nut of phenomenology.

"Original perception," Barfield suggests, was done away with in parallel by two movements in the West.

The Graeco-Roman movement, which studied the phenomena as independent of ourselves (think of Plato's cave), ultimately gave rise to the scientific revolution, so breaking once and for all our unity with the phenomena. The philosophers of this movement sought (and seek) to "save the appearances" by explaining why the phenomena are as they are, in terms of the unrepresented.

At roughly the same time as the Graeco-Roman movement, however, there was the Israelite movement, which sought to break our unity with the phenomena by declaring any unity with them, any numinous quality felt in them, idolatry, worship of images. This movement, of course, led ultimately to Christianity (and later to Islam). Starting from the idea that there was but one God, and not the gods worshipped by neighboring peoples, the priests and prophets of Judaism sought to separate the numinous from the phenomena completely, so that the phenomena "declare" the greatness of God, but God is not to be found _in_ them; indeed, he says, the Jews were not interested in the phenomena but in _morality_.

It is in Christianity that Barfield sees the greatest possibility of our achieving "final participation." It is not surprising, he says, that we have not yet achieved the Kingdom proclaimed by Christ: after all, the two thousand years since He lived and died and was resurrected are piddling compared to the aeons that preceeded Him. (Barfield also suggests that we are radically misunderstanding when we think about the world before humans. There was no human consciousness in those days, so no phenomena, and so the world, which we build from phenomena, was something radically _other_.)

Along the way I find Barfield saying things that I have struggled to say over the years; interpreting things, and especially things in Scripture, that have always been somewhat opaque to me ... and sometimes coming up with some wild ideas that strike me as utterly ridiculous. But there is more than sufficient wheat in _Saving the Appearances_ to justify sorting out the chaff.
6:42am: A very happy 75th birthday to ...
...Norman Spinrad!

For those keeping score, it is also the 125th birthday of Agatha Christie.

And the 100th birthday of Fawn Brodie, who wrote fascinating psycho-biographies of such figures as Nixon, Jefferson, Joseph Smith, and Richard Burton (the actor, not the explorer).

14th September 2015

7:34am: Oy
It just suddenly hit me, off the corner of my brain, how much Hebrew sounds like ...

... well ...

... Doesn't "l'shana tovah tikatevu" sound like something a crazy Lovecraftian cultist might chant?

I mean. Not that I'm drawing any comparisons other than phonemics, you understand.

11th September 2015

7:14am: Birthdays
D.H. (not to be confused with T.E.) Lawrence is 130 today.

Arvo Part is 80.
7:00am: Where the Intertoobz Come From
Everybody and their sister know how the Web came from the Internet came from ARPANet.

But the deep history of the Internet has a significant anniversary today:

75 years ago today, George Stibitz (who had first[?] conceived of the electrical digital* computer three years earlier), using a teletype and telegraph lines, became the first person to use a computer remotely. From Darthmouth College in New Hampshire, he sent commands to the Complex Number Computer**, which was in New York and performed calculations using (duh!) complex numbers, and received responses over the same lines.

In 1990, Stibitz was still pioneering: he was creating computer "art" using a Commodore-Amiga. He died in 1995 at the age of nearly-81.

* The original term was "pulse computing." In 1942 Stibitz recommended replacing this term with "digital computing."

** Which he had invented, using the electro-mechanical relays then used in telephone switches.

10th September 2015

8:14am: Read: The End of All Things, by John Scalzi (2015-54)
The latest installment in the "Old Man's War" series answers, in spades, the question left dangling at the end of its predecessor: who attacked the Earth orbital station? In the standoff between Earth, the Colonial Union, and the Conclave (an alliance of 400 alien species), who would be most motivated to do such a thing?

And the answer is: someone else. Someone with motives to see all three parties fall, and sufficient power to accomplish its goal by stealthily applying that power to key points, forcing a spasmic war between the Conclave and the Colonial Union.

Told in four novellas, each with a different first-person viewpoint character, this book could easily be the end of the series, if not of All Things.

7th September 2015

8:35am: A very happy 60th birthday to ...
Mira "Delenn" Furlan.

5th September 2015

2:00pm: Saddish
In the past few weeks, two people dear to me have been diagnosed with cancer.

One, a close friend, will probably recover, but requires chemo and radiation therapies.

The other, my father-in-law, has four to six months to live without chemo. Chemo might help. It also might kill him: he's 86.

Fuck cancer!

3rd September 2015

5:23pm: Read: The more-or-less complete works of James Tiptree, Jr... (2015-43 to 53)
I'm not going to go into too much detail here, yet even a little is a lot. I've just finished reading (or rereading for about a quarter of it) the complete works of Alice "James Tiptree, Jr." Sheldon, in chronological order - basically, as determined by the list at the end of the Phillips biography, with some consultation of the one at the end of Meet Me at Infinity (mainly to slot in the novels).

In the process, I made short, impressionistic notes on each story (but not the non-fiction), to help me in the article I intend to write on Tiptree's styles and themes. These are to be found behind the clickything at the otherwise-apparent end of this post. I warn you once, twice, three times: it's long.

The one thing I would like to remark here is that the two novels (Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air) are far better than their reputations. Up the Walls is a fairly ordinary SF novel, but a good one; Brightness Falls is very good by any standard.

If you're not familiar with Tiptree's work, it revolutionized SF in a number of ways that we now, perhaps, take for granted. Her men, women, children, and aliens are all people, except in a few trivial early stories: people with depth and individuality. Her themes (women's place in the world/feminism; biology and especially sex; loving the alien; many others) are serious and powerfully and subtly handled. Her style (again, excepting those few early stories) is clean and lucid. There has not been another writer like her, and I doubt there ever will.

For those new to Tiptree, a number of her better stories can be found in the in-print "best of" collection titled Her Smoke Rose up Forever. After that, almost everything can be had used for a relative pittance; even the small (well, relatively: Arkham House) press book Tales of the Quintana Roo isn't exorbitant if you're willing to do a little hunting.

Notes behind this clicky-thing.Collapse )
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