Powered by LiveJournal.com
You are viewing the most recent 25 entries.
14th October 2018
The Bestiary, edited by Ann VanderMeer (2018-69)
: (Reposting because some bozos decided to use the comment thread of the original for a private discussion in Chinese. So I deleted it.) What a peculiar little book.It is a series of 28 descriptions of various imaginary beasts, ranging from the silly to the chilling to the just plain out-there.Yes, 28. One for each letter of the alphabet, plus one for "&" and one for " ". Plus, bonus! brief beasts after each main beast, most of which are riffs on the name of the writer of the main beast.As one would expect, a few specific not-exactly-stories stand out for me. "Bartleby's Typewriter", by Corey Redekop, is a parable on the negative side of camouflage. "Orsinus Liborum", by Catherine M. Valente, is about, well, a type of bear that eats books. And " " by China Miéville, is about absence and presence in a rather postmodern mode.A few stories - I'll not name names, as others would undoubtedly enjoy them more than I did - were a bit of a slog for me. But most were enjoyable, in the same way one enjoyed the old Analog column (or whatever it was) "Probability Zero:" realistic speculations on ideas that are, on the face of it, ridiculous.
11th October 2018
Pacific Rim (2013)
Now I have to say up front that I saw this in pretty much the opposite of ideal circumstances. It's a visual-effects extravaganza, and I saw it on the monitor of the seat in front of me on an airplane, with headphone sound and occasional interruptions. :
I enjoyed it anyway, and suspect I would have loved it in a theater with a huge screen and proper sound. (Has Guillermo del Toro ever made a bad movie?)
The story is as dumb as they come, and doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't. In the near future, a "breach" opens up on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, letting in giant monsters - kaiju
, to be precise - that rampage across major cities. They come at a frequency of months, then weeks. Humanity has managed to stave them off using tanks and massive firepower, but something more is needed, something that can handle the kaiju
before they wreak much destruction.
Enter the Jaegers, giant not-exactly-robots, humanoid battlemachines piloted by not one but two human pilots each. (Technobabble: the pilots enter a neurological unity with the Jaeger, but if just one pilot takes on the Jaeger, their nervous system is destroyed. So two pilots join forces, and minds [meaning that each gets a full view of each other's memories <big plot point>].) These are basically mecha
, and so we have the ultimate live-action version of an anime
The nominal hero is Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnan), who, with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff), pilots one of the early Jaegers, until Yancy is killed. Raleigh feels his death, and manages to finish off the relevant kaiju
in one final move, but refuses to pilot Jaegers again. He leaves the program and goes to work on one of the giant walls (political relevance alert here) that are being built to keep the kaiju
out of our cities. The walls are the "permanent" solution, and the Jaegers are being defunded.
But of course, the kaiju
quickly smash down one of the walls. Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), himself an ex Jaeger pilot, comes to convince Raleigh to return to the program. In the end, he succeeds, and the search is on for a compatible copilot. The underdog, cadet Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) of course
gets the job against Pentecost's will, and the fight is on. The plan is to use the few remaining Jaegers to drop an atomic bomb into the breach and close it for good.
Lots of plot ensues, but never gets in the way of the many scenes of big things pounding at each other, which are uniformly delightful.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention a subplot featuring Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day, in a part that twenty years ago would have been made-to-fit for Rick Moranis), who has the brilliant idea of using the mind-meld technology to interface with a bit of kaiju
brain. This sends him up against Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman, who chews the scenery with the best of them here), an illicit dealer in kaiju
Much fun of the "I won't be needing my brain this evening" variety.
Loving Vincent (2017)
This movie is, literally, a work of art. Every frame of it is a hand-made oil painting. :
The cast, as such things go, is irrelevant. There are some very good voice actors (notably Douglas Booth, Chris O'Dowd, Saorirse Ronan, and Jerome Flynn) here, but to go into them would distract from the main point, which is the visuals.
Every painting can legitimately said to be "after" Vincent van Gogh. Some frames borrow directly from his paintings; others vary on them; still others simply use his styles in various ways. All are beautiful. (Well, okay; there could be an ugly frame in there somewhere, like the infamous "no panties on Jessica Rabbit" frame in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
(1988), but how would I know?)
The story is simple but deep. A year after van Gogh's death, an old postman is in possession (for reasons not clear to me) of his last letter to his brother Theo. He entrusts the letter to his son Armand, to be delivered to Theo van Gogh.
Armand is something of a wastrel, but he takes the commission seriously. He soon discovers that Theo is dead, but becomes somewhat obsessed first, with delivering the letter to someone
; he determines to give it to Doctor Gachet, who had ministered to Vincent in his last days. But he has trouble getting to see Dr. Gachet, and along the way meets Doctor Mazery, who gives significant evidence that Vincent's fatal gunshot wound was not self-administered.
The story becomes something of a mystery, as Armand's obsession turns to learning what actually happened to Vincent. Did he shoot himself, and if so, why? His last letters were cheerful and positive. Was he shot? And if so, by whom, and why?
I don't actually find the "solution" given quite convincing, as it doesn't account for all the evidence Armand gathers; but it is probably as satisfying a solution as we will get this late in the day.
But the visuals. They shimmer and vibrate, bringing van Gogh's vision to life in a way that his paintings - wonderful as they are - had never quite
done for me, but which will inform all my future viewings. The shimmer is partially a side effect of the method; oil paintings simply don't go from one to another as "neatly" as computer animation, or even drawings on cels. The result has a feel a little like that of Winsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914) - or in Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly
(2006), for that matter.
The stars, which have always looked a little weird to me in van Gogh's paintings, twinkle; plants shiver in the breeze; and crows have an odd sense of menace. And the people! The people are alive in a way that even living actors don't quite manage. The actual visual characters are a weird synthesis between characters actually painted by van Gogh, and people who actually look a bit like them: the final credits show the actors in juxtaposition with the paintings that inspired the characters, and the resemblance is, at times, more than a little uncanny.
This is a movie with real heart and should be better known than it is.
10th October 2018
The Helliconia Trilogy, by Brian W. Aldiss (2018-71, 72, & 73)
Brian Aldiss was one of the finest writers of SF/F to arise in the 1960s. His work of those days was based in a deep knowledge of the field (and literature in general), and took pains at times to subvert its tropes to excellent effect. :
In the early '80s, Aldiss published three volumes of "planetary romanceabout the planet Helliconia, which has a number of interesting characteristics. About 1000 light-years from Earth, Helliconia is the only planet humanity has discovered that supports sentient life: in fact, several sapient species, one of which is for all practical purposes human. The other main race, phagors, are descended from the local equivalent of cattle, but are ferocious meat-eaters. Phagors have a very different sense of time from humans, and a different - perhaps more limited - sense of self.
Humans and phagors do not get along very well.
But Helliconia itself, the backdrop for these and other races, is the real star of the show. Helliconia, prehistorically speaking, was the most Earthlike planet of the dim star Batalix. In its cold environment, the phagors evolved.
Then, millions of years ago, Batalix was captured by the giant star Freyr, in the process losing Helliconia's moon. The phagors still refer to this as "the catastrophe." Batalix developed a very eccentric orbit of about 2500 terrestrial years around Freyr. Since Helliconia still orbits Batalix, this means that Helliconia has a "short year" - the 480 of their (25-hour) days it takes to orbit Batalix - and a "long year" determined by Batalix's drawing near to, then far from, Freyr. Near Batalix's perihelion, the weather is hot to the point where life barely survives; during its aphelion, the weather is glacial. Obviously, the long-year winter is longer than its summer.
The overall energy budget of Helliconia is, nonetheless, greater than it was when Batalix was alone. This greater energy budget allows the local equivalent of apes to develop into several more advanced species, culminating in humans. Humans are susceptible to a virus, borne by the ticks that infest phagors, which strikes twice during the long year. During the spring, it is the Bone Sickness, which alters the genome and makes people taller and thinner; in the autumn, the Fat Death has the reverse effect and prepares them for the long winter.
The virus is inevitably fatal to Earth-humans, so Helliconia is off-limits to colonization, and can only be observed from an orbiting station.
The first volume, _Helliconia Spring_, takes place as Helliconia is beginning to emerge from the depths of winter. It has a long prelude, in which a young hunter named Yuli ultimately becomes the leader of a small settlement.
The main action of _Spring_ takes place several generations later, as Yuli's descendants fight for political power in a town built on ruins from the previous cycle. One faction sees the traditions that have let them survive the long winter as necessary for continued survival, while the other faction - led by women - seeks the increase of knowledge and freedom. There is no conclusive ending to this conflict.
But what is wonderful is to see life on Helliconia emerging from its long sleep. Great mammals emerge from various forms of hibernations, trees that spent the winter subsisting deep underground burst forth, and the human community struggles to cope with all the novelties.
Several hundred years later, _Helliconia Summer_ takes up in a neighboring kingdom. It has an interesting structure, slightly remniscent of Zelazny's _Lord of Light_. In the first few chapters, we see a King divorcing his Queen (whom he loves very much) for political reasons. Then the book flashes back to give us the story of how things came to this pass, as Church and State struggle for power. Finally, we see the outcome of all that has gone before, in an apocalyptic resolution of that struggle.
_Helliconia Winter_ takes place in late autumn and early winter, and moves the action significantly, to the northern continent of Sibornal. The Sibornalese found a way to carry some knowledge from one long year to the next, so they were more technologically advanced than the other continents throughout the warmer parts of the year (a fact which has major bearing in _Summer_). Here winter is beginning to advance. The continent is ruled by a Hierarch, whose identity is unknown and whose word is law.
When the Fat Death begins to spread in the equatorial regions, the Hierach decides, as a way of preventing it reaching Sibornal, to kill everyone coming from there - even a Sibornalese army returning in triumph from the last campaign of autumn - and enacts rules that gradually reduce the freedom of Sibornal's citizens, all in the name of avoiding plague. The cast of characters includes soldiers of Sibornal - both a soldier of that army and a soldier of the army sent to slaughter them; a woman taken slave during that campaign; and a merchant of foreign extraction who just wants to live his life quietly. They end up sharing a harrowing series of adventures that changes the fate of Sibornal in the coming winter.
By this description, the books are hard science fiction at its finest. But sprinkled in throughout the books are scenes in which both humans and phagors - by very different methods - commune with their dead ancestors, to real effect. Aldiss does not try to explain this away, or to give it a scientific basis; it's just something that seems to be true on Helliconia but not on Earth.
Another aspect of the story which may seem pseudoscientific to some is its heavy reliance on Lovelock's "Gaia" hypothesis, the idea that a planetary ecosystem is a whole similar to an organism, which regulates itself and attempts to correct imbalances. Aldiss goes so far as to suggest that this planetary organism may be conscious (in a very different way from human consciousness).
_Winter_ is a slow starter, but the trilogy builds momentum as it goes; by the middle of the first book, it's rapid enough, and the third rolls along at quite a pace.
This is a five-star wonder.
Natchez Burning, by Greg Iles (2018-70)
Penn Cage used to be a prosecutor in Texas, but after some unspecified events that took place in previous books, he returned to Natchez and eventually became mayor. Penn's father, Tom Cage, has been a doctor here for decades, and during the craziness of the '60s took care of white and black - even Klansmen and revolutionaries - alike. :
Now Tom stands accused of murdering a Viola Turner, a black woman who worked for Tom as a nurse during those times. The accusation is made by Viola's son, who claims that Tom is his father; it is to be prosecuted by a DA who hates Penn's guts.
And the descendants of an ultra-Klan group, the Double Eagles, is involved.
The results are gripping, visceral, at times quite bloody, and ... almost ... completely satisfying. I say "almost" because, at book's end, several plot points remain unresolved: this is the first book of a trilogy (and the fourth book about Penn Cage). I will definitely look up the sequels.
9th October 2018
Where we went, what we did (2018 edition)
: Not including any photos this year. Everything is on Google.
The plan was a few days in Rome, followed by a cruise around parts of the Mediterranean. My wife S and our daughter A were along for the whole ride. Other family members joined on the cruise.
<lj-cut text = "Long tripreport follows behind this clickythingy.">9/15/18
. Awake at oh-god-thirty to catch our ride to SFO. Along the ride, I noticed some billboards that p*ssed me off. The winner read: "That moment when the kisscam saves you from a lifetime in the friendzone." What amazing male-privilege.
Traffic at SFO, then traffic to check bags. But we got through security fast because TSA Pre-Chek rawks. Then a smooth, on-time flight to Detroit, where I left my cane in the plane. An attendant got it for me, so no foul.
DTW is a miserable airport. Everything costs about twice as much as at SFO, and that's saying a lot. The airconditioning doesn't work. And, joy of joys, there is no recycling program. Not my ideal place to wait for four hours. But wait we did, and were ensconced on a flight to FCO (Rome Fiucino). We paid extra for the enhanced economy seats, and they were almost worth it. I've never been able to sleep on planes; this time I brought a battery for my cpap and thought I would try one last time. No go.9/16.
Down safe and sound. An hour wait for our train to downtown (Roma Termini via the Da Vinci Express), because I was pessimistic in estimating how long it would take to get through passport-baggage-customs. In fact, there was no customs at all. Anyway, arrived downtown about 11.
A two block walk with luggage (worse than it sounds; everything is cobbled) took us to the Palazzo Naiadi, a Marriott property and our "home" for the next four nights. Too early to check in, but they took care of our bags and we had a first look around and lunch. This was at a place called, if I recall correctly (my notebook fails me) "La Cucina Nazionale", where I had pasta amatriciana, which is served in a sort of creamy tomato sauce with pork cheek, which was quite good. Then hung around the hotel bar a bit drinking variously tea, pear juice, and a Shirley Temple, and were finally allowed to check in. Our room had a vaguely damp carpet, doubtless because of the combination of air conditioning and humidity.
After a break we walked to the Trevi Fountain, arriving just before dark. It's big and it's beautiful and it has cool lighting. It's a huge Baroque pile of marble with squirty things and Neptune and naiads and such. If you don't know what it looks like, Google it. Dinner near there, a pizza with five cheeses and cubes of potato: my first Roman pizza, and it was actually very good.
Walking back to the hotel, my FitBit announced 10k steps, a nominal goal.9/16.
In the capital of one of the world's great coffee cultures, there were packets of Nescafe in the room.
Fortunately, the rooms included a buffet breakfast, which was good and included much better coffee.
We had bought a 3-day bus-and-attractions pass, and took the bus to the Colosseum. This was an amphitheatre commissioned by the Flavian emperors, and could hold something like 50-80K spectators for bloody combats, mass crucifixions, inland sea battles, and other fun things. It was crowded, and I frankly found it depressing. Some wonderful architecture, some fine archaeology going on, and frickin' graffiti - and I do not
mean ancient graffiti - scratched in the rocks everywhere, as in "very little space to add any if I wanted to" (which of course I didn't).
Then we walked over to the nearby Palatine Hill, where the Forum and the Flavian Palace are. This was hot and humid and I was not (alas) fully attentive. One detail that sticks in my mind: an indoor "waterfall," which cooled a dark room.
We rode the bus about a quarter of the way around, including a brief pass through the outskirts of the Vatican, and got off at Trajan's Column. About 100 feet tall, the Column was erected to commemorate Emperor Trajan's victories against the Dacians, and has the whole story on it in a sort of spiral scrolling bas-relief heading from the bottom to the top. Near it was a very long, steep set of steps, which were not Spanish but led to a church up in the sky somewhere.
Lunch nearby was notable because they had Granitas, which are kind of like Slurpees that have died and gone to heaven. One of my goals for this trip was to get as many mint granitas as possible, because I love them with a passion surpassing even my passion for chocolate (perhaps, though, this is because they're so hard to come by - my last one had been in 1998). I ordered one, and, trying to pass something between A and S, managed to knock it over, breaking the glass and getting minty gunk everywhere, after only one sip. (I did not order a replacement; embarrassed.)
We walked back to the Column, and then rode the bus all the way around its circuit. There is actually a lot of information in the narration they give you through crappy headphones. The English voice was clearly synthetic.
Dinner was at the quite lovely Ristorante de giglio, where I had an excellent buccatini amatriciana and a superb chocolate tartuffo.9/18
. The bus we were riding was run by Opera Roma Peligrinaggi, if I'm spelling that right, an organization that kind of helps people get the most out of Rome. It was also through them that we had a reservation to tour the Vatican this morning, so we took said bus to the Vatican and paid for an upgrade to a guided tour. (The Vatican was the first new-to-me country on this trip.)
Which proved to be something of a deathmarch. The tourguide spent a long time showing us some placards describing what we would see, then rushed us past those things so fast that even S, doughty photographer that she is, hardly got to take any pictures. But WOW. Amazing art, architecture, and so on. Plus, the Sistine Chapel - where (a) you can't take pictures anyway, and (b) it is so mobbed you can hardly breathe - and Michelangelo's (restored) Pieta (of which I was unable to get a decent picture, go look it up, I'll wait...).
Didn't do much else that day. Had dinner at a place called Target, which didn't open till (I think) 6, so we stopped nearby and had frozen drinks. At last; a granita menta
! At Target, I had an excellent pizza salciccia. Roman pizza is really good. (My parents had told me that the best pizza in the world, though, was in Naples. We'll get to that.)9/19
. Up early, and a public bus to the Galleria Borghese, which is the former home of Cardinal Scipione Borghese from the early 1600s. It's full of, you know, paintings and sculptures and suchlike. Highly recommended. The plan was to walk from there to the real and actual Spanish Steps, but my blood glucose tanked down to 65 as we were walking, and I had forgotten to pack my glucose tablets, so we had to stop for pastries and drinks (awwww, poor us.....). A nearby farmacia had never heard of glucose tablets.
So we walked to the Steps, and down them, and quite a walk down it is: 135 steps all told. Confusingly, it was built due to a bequest from a French
diplomat, connecting the Spanish Embassy (then) at the bottom to the Trinita dei Monti church at the top. But it was an Embassy of Bourbon Spain, in the 1720s, so it makes a bit more sense then.
From there A took off back to the hotel, while S and I continued on to the Pantheon, which, confusingly, is a Catholic church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs (which would make a good name for a band...). It was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa and finished by Hadrian around 126 CE.
S and I then took a bus and got off two stops too soon, eventually arriving at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, a papal basilica and a huge, beautiful building. I prayed a little, we went around looking at the various side chapels, and went back to the hotel. We ate at a silly little place called Johnny Gallo which had good burgers/sandwiches and some of the best fries I've ever had.9/20
. Up early again, to catch our train to Venice. Much greenery out the train windows. A fascinating contrast, traditional things like villas and huts and fields stand side-by-side with industrial smokestacks and apartment blocks and pits. The train stops in Florence, Bologna, and Padua, and finally drops you off right at the shore looking across at the canal-bound city of Venice, where we found our way to our hotel, Hotel del Sole. It's an older and more traditional building, but the rugs were dry and the personnel fabulously helpful.
Venice is not a good city for the physically challenged; every time you cross a canal you cross a steep bridge with steep steps (occasionally someone installs a ramp, but they are few and far between). We took the water bus around to St. Mark's Square, where many pictures were taken, pigeons were disturbed, and granitas were had - my second (or third) and last for this trip.
Then we walked back the width (or length?) of Venice to the hotel. On the way, we looked for an ATM, because our supply of Euros was running low. Eventually, we found one.
Dinner was near the hotel, at a seafoody place called OsottoOsopia, which was good but not my real choice (not a seafood fan). We planned to stop at a patisserie for dessert, but they were closed; so went in search of gelato, which was not as good as that in Rome.9/21
. Breakfast at the hotel, which was good but very pigeony. We hit up the patisserie for something to take for midmorning.
The manager of the Hotel del Sole arranged a water taxi for us to go to to the cruise terminal. The water taxi was bigger and more comfortable than I had expected, and cost 80 Euros for the trip.
Then, the cruise terminal. A longish walk, luggage-laden (at least they'd taken our biggest bags), in the sun, and we arrived at the embarkation building for the Holland America Oosterdam
The embarkation process was surprisingly inefficient and confusing - even though my cane got me (& S) special treatment a couple of times. We had to sit and wait for a group number to be called. While we did, my sister V joined us; she was rooming with A for the cruise. My parents were aboard also.
Eventually we got to our stateroom, which was nice enough, comfortable, with a balcony. When a bit settled in we went up to the Lido deck for food.
(For non-cruisers: The Lido deck on a cruise ship is the all-day food place. It's usually on the same deck with at least one pool and bar. The food used to be self-serve; now much of it is served by begloved stewards, because norovirus. The food on the Lido deck is usually unexceptionable and unexceptional.)
I had a hot dog with sauerkraut, cheese, bacon, and too darned much German-style mustard. It was actually pretty good. And drank lots of iced tea. While chatting, we learned that V had, the morning before the flight, choked on a piece of food and had to give herself a Heimlich, which fortunately worked, but cracked a rib.
The first afternoon - the first afternoon on any oceangoing cruise ship - is taken up by Lifeboat Drill. When this is called, you must
report to your lifeboat station, where roll is taken: anyone who refuses to participate is politely escorted off the ship. My parents (M and P) were at the same lifeboat station, and turned out to have the stateroom directly above ours.
Dinner in the main dining room: bay shrimp tater tots, chicken crepenade (wrapped in zucchini which I had been told would be cucumber), and a banana crisp.
I'm not going to review every meal we had on the ship. Meals in the main dining room, which is to say almost every dinner plus one breakfast, were all excellent, and made even more so by our diningroom steward, Syarrifuddin, who quickly figured out everyone's preferences and food intolerances. V and I both have fairly serious food intolerances, so he gave us each day's menu the night before to make sure that, if necessary, the kitchen was prepared to make versions of the various foods without things that would make us sick.9/22
. Boat docked in Split, Croatia (new country #2). Sent in an emergency round of laundry - it turns out that this boat no longer has a self-serve laundry. You can use their service, wash your own stuff in the sink, or bring enough to last you.
The four of us, sans M & P, went walking into town. V had a minor health crisis, and the lady at the restroom wouldn't let her in without a Euro (which we provided). V also latched onto a beggar, who was clearly in need, and went about trying to organize food for him. I spotted a Popeye tshirt I wanted, but they didn't have it in a size large enough for me.
We eventually found ourselves to the Diocletian Palace, which is now the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, a Roman Catholic Cathedral. I met a monk who was friendly and told me more than I wanted to know about the place, but it was pleasant. He'd been to college in Pittsburgh.
The ship provides for free a daily newspaper - actually a choice of papers, all in 8-page editions, including Espana Hoy, Deutsche Zeitung, a London paper, Australia Today, and ... the New York Times
. You might not think much of an 8-page Times
, but it has the crossword, and that's what really matters. I managed to solve today's (the Saturday puzzle) with almost no help.9/23
. We had breakfast in our stateroom. It really didn't work; the tiny table was much too crowded. Then we wwwwwaited for that special load of laundry to come back, because Certain People had underpacked on the pants. Eventually it came around noon.
And so we trekked into Dubrovnik, Croatia. This is a beautiful town, which took huge damage from Serbian and Montenegrin shelling during the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. It is fully restored, and is such a popular tourist destination that they have had to take measures from keeping the Old Town from becoming too crowded - mainly, by staggering cruise ship arrivals and departures.
Some shopping later, I had a Popeye tshirt, and we had bathing suits (only S had remembered to pack one), and we had several gifts for folks back home.
During the night's cruise, we passed Tchernogorje (Montenegro (black mountain)), but it was on the wrong side of the boat so I didn't see it.9/24
. Sarandë, Albania (new country #3). V termed this city a "shithole," which, in the age of Trump, was to my mind an unfortunate choice of words, but it isn't entirely inappropriate. We did stop at a cafe, where I had a Turkish coffee: amazingly strong, and sweet. The cafe was populated by locals, who argued loudly about whatever they were arguing about in the local language. The cafe keeper was very surprised when we gave her a tip.
We also stopped at a pharmacy, where we bought some heating therapy pads for V. and some carbon pills for me. I've always had a bit of a gas problem; these things (Karbofil is the name) cut it by like 70%. The pharmacy lady confessed that her secret dream was to move to Toronto.
In the afternoon, I played bridge with M. I didn't play very well...9/25
. Katakolon, Greece (new country #4). The area near the cruise terminal is basically shop-till-you-drop-ville. S & A shopped until I dropped, basically, and we stopped at a cafe where I had a rather startling dish: halvah made from semolina rather than sesame seeds. Very good!
This evening we were told that our port stop at Mykonos had been cancelled due to inclement weather (as in 60-knot winds, high seas, etc.) This was to be replaced with a stop at a port in Sicily I'd never heard of and which, as it turned out, I didn't visit.
Dinner was the best channa masala I have ever had: spicy but not excessively burny, and very tasty indeed.9/26
. Woke with a toothache. Making matters worse, the night's sleep had been bebothered by a howling from the veranda door: it was apparently not sufficiently windstripped, and high winds made it, well, howl.
600 mg of ibuprofen later, into the port of Souda, Greece. Souda itself isn't much but there is a bus provided from Souda to Chania,
If I had thought Katakolon was a shopping city, it didn't have nothin' on Chania. But they have a lovely archaeological museum with Linear A and B inscriptions, bronze-age, iron-age, Minoan, and Neolithic artifacts, beautiful stuff. And there's a Venetian lighthouse, because this used to be a Venetian port, which stands proud against seas which were in fact very high this day.9/27
. This was the at-sea day during which we were, originally, supposed to visit Mykonos. The toothache was much worse, and I was having serious chills, so I went to the ship's doctor. She found that my ears and throat were inflamed cherry-red, and I had a fever just a smidge short of 102 degrees Fahrenheit. So she gave me antibiotics, a special mouthwash, and some oxycontin to help me sleep. All this wound up costing $400.
S & I went to a live version of "America's Test Kitchen" in one of the ship's theaters. We were presented with recipe cards for the day's dishes (one of which we have already tried), and a complementary of Cook's
Magazine, plus a Guide To Tofu which was actually pretty interesting. The show itself was much better than most cooking shows I've seen, with very specific instructions on how to do things so they come out right, from a personable chef.
Soft food for dinner, because swallowing was painful; basically, white bread, mashed potatoes, and vanilla ice cream.9/28
. Woke up feeling (if possible) worse. Skipped today's shore visit in favor of napping. S&A went in, took the hop-on-hop-off (HoHo) bus around the town and had a pretty good time. Most importantly, they found a wifi cafe and emailed our son to book me a dentist's appointment.
Did get a lovely view (and some pixes) of Mt. Aetna.
By noon I was feeling much, much better (except that I was sweating like the proverbial hawg). By dinner, much better indeed, which was a good thing, because this was the night P had planned for us to visit the ship's expensive restaurant, the Pinnacle Grill. I had a filet mignon which was, actually, not as good as the steak I'd had in the main diningroom a few days earlier.9/29
. Valetta, Malta (new country #5). We took a HoHo bus up to the town of Mdina. Lots of photos. Then, back down to Valleta, where I started feeling week - first day out of bed, so to speak - and so we stopped for lunch. I had a hamburger. It may not have been the worst burger I've ever had, but I've had better ones in college dormitory refectories.
There was another archaeological museum, with some fairly famous pieces in it (notably the Sleeping Lady, which please look up: it's an amazing piece of Neolithic art). 9/30
. Gozo, Malta. A smaller island of the nation of Malta, notable for an ancient burial site (where, in fact, the Sleeping Lady had been found). A wasn't feeling well so S & I took the HoHo around the island, getting back around noon.
I played bridge with M again, doing much better. While I was doing that, S & A started the pre-packing for our departure homewards.
We went to change the credit card that our shipboard expenses would be charged to, which was easy enough.10/1
. Palermo, Sicily, Italy. A beautiful city with much ugly stuff, or maybe vice versa. Twisty little streets all different plus the occasional broad, straight avenue. Some of the streets are decorated with fascinating lacy structures reaching across the street overhead, bearing many lights.
We saw a neat looking little church, which turned out to be Presbyterian, something unusual in Italy. The highlight here was the ceiling, which was done in a "heavenly" pattern of yellow stars on dark blue. The pastor didn't speak much English, but we were able to ask him how a Presbyterian church came to be there. "French" was his answer.
We took HoHo buses around, and came back in mid-afternoon.
Looking at our billing, we found that a lot of stuff had suddenly been added to my account. With the help of a not-very-helpful customer service person, we eventually figured out that, when we changed the card, all of A's account had been transferred to mine. No harm, no foul, but very annoying that we had so much trouble figuring it out.
At night we looked at the shore we were passing, and saw something that might well cause one to believe in gods: there was a thunderstorm of epic violence taking place on the slopes of Stromboli, and that volcano was responding with occasional red flashes. Awesome.10/2
. Naples, Sicily, Italy. We took a tour of Pompeii, the only shore excursion we bought from the Holland America line on this trip. Pompeii is really all that. We walked around for two hours, viewing homes, stores, a forum, a whorehouse (complete with pornographic illustrations), and much more. And it was sunny and fine the entire time.
Then, when we were done the tour, we went to an open-air area for a rest ... and the sky opened up like BOOM. No thunder, just incredibly dense rain. We had samples of limoncello and meloncello, which were good. Plus, a 1/3 mile walk to the bus in the storm.
Then we went to the shop that always seems mandatory on these things, where there were many cameos and similar on display. This was "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" land.
Back at the ship, V and I met M and P for lunch. Remember they told me the best pizza was in Naples? Well, we found an exception. The pizza wasn't bad, it was just ... eh.
And so back to the ship for final packing. S & A had decided to check us in and ... were able to check in A and me. After some panicked calling, we found out that S had to present her documents for inspection at the airport, but her seat would not be given away.10/3
. We got up at 6 AM Rome time, got on a bus which took us to Fiucino Roma for our flight home. Loooong flight to Atlanta, short stopover, flight to SFO, ride home, arriving around 11 - which would be about 8 AM the next day Rome time, so 26 hours on the go. (Didn't even try to sleep on these flights.) J and cats were happy to see us; dog was ecstatic.
On 10/5, I had a root canal. Since the tooth is the anchor for a bridge, there's more work to come.
But it was a wonderful trip, despite some problems here and there.
14th September 2018
Leaving, on a jet plane
...but I do know when I'll be back again. :
I'm going to be AFK from tonight until at least 4 Oct. So if I don't respond to something, I apologize.
The Family Tree, by Sherri S. Tepper (2018-68)
What a delight! :
I have been meaning for _years_ to try Tepper, and this book, thanks to a co-worker, just fell into my hands. Though it isn't one of the books that made her rep - indeed, I'd not even heard of it before - it's definitely good enough that I intend to read more.
Three things start the book:
- Police officer Dora Henry spots a weed in her husband's meticulously-neat garden. It resists all his attempts to destroy it. And it seems to respond when she talks to it. And then trees start sprouting up everywhere, overnight...
- Dora also is called to the scene of a murder. A geneticist, murdered on the grounds of the company where he works. And, it turns out, two other geneticists in the area have been murdered recently in exactly the same way...
- In some other place and time, a young slave named Nassif is selected to accompany her Sultan's son Shahir on a quest...
There's a _lot_ going on here. There are themes of religion, ecology, animal rights, destiny, and much more. There are numerous likeable characters (and a despicable villain or two), unexpected adventures that make sense when the whole thing comes together (as, inevitably, it does), huge twists and surprises, and much more than that. And it's all written cleanly and economically.
12th September 2018
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz (2018-67)
Another book which, but for my office's book club, I'd never have even heard of, let alone read: and which I'm terribly glad I did. (I'm also terribly glad I bought a used copy, but that's another issue.) :
What we have here, is the story of a nerd - a fat (incredibly
fat), ugly, intellectual, verbose nerd whose parents (Dad left when Oscar was but a wee thing) came from the Dominican Republic but who grows up in Paterson, New Jersey, and who dreams of just two things: love (ideally including the physical sort) and becoming the Dominican Tolkien.
He is, as you might expect, a rather frustrated young man.
Whole sections of the book, though, are not directly about Oscar, but about his family: his mama, Belicia De Leon (nee Cabral), the child of a cursed family; his sister Lola; Beli's father Abelard, who fell afoul of Trujillo and met the end that tended to meet such afoul-fallers. Perhaps a third of the book is directly about Oscar de Leon (who acquires the nickname Wao when some Domincan homies apparently have never heard of, and cannot correctly pronounce, Wilde).
It's written, mostly, in a brilliant English, but with large quantities of Spanish, Dominican Spanish slang, and I don't know what-all else. (I learned a number of Spanish words during the course of the book, some of which are not for use in polite company. Also the N-word pops up far more often than a gringo blanco
like myself is comfortable with.)
Most of the story is narrated by Díaz's stand-in, a Dominico called Yunior, which raises questions of how he knows some of the things he seems to know. Indeed, the final chapter reads to me as something tacked on by Yunior to give Oscar a bit of a happy ending. Your take on this may vary.
Anyway, a lot
of the book takes place in the Dominican Republic of Trujillo and his successors; the climax occurs during the unacknowledged occupation of the DR by America in the '80s; and it would be incredibly grim if it were not also incredibly funny
. I can't decide whether it's a funny book that happens to be sad, or a sad book that happens to be funny. It's funny that way.
What propels the story more than Yunior's voice is the characters. They sparkle with life even when terrible things are happening to them, and they change, both as time passes, and as we get to know them better. (Mama Beli, as we first see her through Oscar's then Lola's eyes, seems like a terrible person; then we learn her story and everything just shifts
It is a terrible, a tragic story with the inevitability that makes a tragedy tragic and not merely bathetic. You won't go far wrong picking it up - from a library, or a used book emporium, or some such, please.
6th September 2018
In a little over a week...
...three of the four of us (one chose not to go) will be heading for Rome, then a cruise around the Adriatic. :
Anyone have any <i>specific</i> suggestions about Rome?
31st August 2018
The Mystical City of God, by Mary of Agreda (2018 63-66)
(Side note: this gave me a problem about counting. It's three Parts, eight Books, in four volumes and one massive Kindle file. How to count it for my annual count? I wasn't going to make it one, when it took me over a year and a half to read it.Obviously, I chose the four volumes as a reasonable compromise.) :
This massive tome is more-or-less a life of the Virgin Mary.
Venerable Mother Maria de Jesus de Agreda was a nun, later an Abbess, of the Poor Clares. She seems to have bilocated - she had visions, beginning around 1620, in which she visited some "primitive" people and did missionary work with them. In 1629, a party of Jumano "Indians" came to the Friary of San Antonio, south of present-day Albuquerque, and spoke of a "woman in blue" who would appear in their midst and teach them things, especially the Christian faith. She told them to seek out the Franciscans - for those who don't know, the Poor Clares are the sisterhood associated with the Franciscans - for further instruction in the faith. In 1631, a friar from San Antonio returned to Spain, and, interviewing the Abbess, found that she knew the Jumanos' and could describe them individually.
Anyway, the Abbess (I'll just call her that because it will save confusion) had visions of the BVM in which the latter gave her a detailed account of her own life, as well as a great deal of instruction on the way of perfection. She wrote this down, burned it out of modesty, and was told by her confessor to write it again. The book met with approval from the Spanish Inquisition (after fourteen years of debate) and was published. Interestingly, it was banned for a century or so by the Roman Inquisition and placed on the Index, largely due to a poorly-done French translation, but also due to referring to Mary as the Immaculate Conception, a term which was not yet official Church doctrine.
Also, her incorruptible body is on display in Agreda.
Make of all that what you will. I'm here to talk about the book and that was all background.
The first Part deals with the life of Mary up to about the birth of Jesus. The first several chapters actually deal with materials from the Apocalypse of John, which the Abbess interprets as God creating the world largely so that Mary could be born and give birth to Jesus. Then comes the Immaculate Conception, and something strange happens here - from this point on, every chapter (except the very last) has as a pendant a passage called "The Virgin Mary speaks to Sister Mary of Agreda", told in the proper voice of Mary, who gives the Abbess oodles of advice, interpretations of key events in her life, advice on the Way of Perfection and much else.
The second Part, now, covers the period from Jesus' Incarnation to His Ascension, always from the point of view of Mary, who mystically participates in everything that Jesus does or that happens to Him.
The third and final Part covers Mary's life for the seventeen or so years (the Abbess is a bit compulsive about dates) between Jesus' Ascension to Mary's own Assumption and Coronation as Queen of the Universe.
I have, as you might expect, some quibbles.
One of them is simply repetition. Both Marys spend so much time abasing themselves and calling themselves the least worms in all creation, etc., that one begins to feel like God in _Monty Python and the Holy Grail_. And, yes, they grovel and sing hymns of praise left and right.
Another is that there are a few things that seem like anachronisms. I'm not going to list any because (a) I'm not _sure_ - history can be suspect in these things - and (b) I didn't keep notes.
But my biggest quibble, indeed an actual complaint, is the demonization of the Jews. This is perfectly normal for a book written by a Spanish religious in the early 17th Century, but it's very unpleasant.
I'm glad I read it. I will never read it again.
29th August 2018
A Baroque Fable, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (2018-62)
This book is a delightful romp through the land Once Upon a Time. There's a witch, and a dragon, and a prince and a princess, a king and queen, a sorcerer and an astrologer, an evil ruler and his Chumley, a spy and a crumpet baker; and not a one of them is anything like what you might expect. Their stories intertwine in a plot more than a little remniscent of one of Shakespeare's early comedies, complete with slapstick (well, a little) and mistaken identities (a few, anyway). :
The characters lack the dreary realism too many writers of fairy-stories try to impart these days, and instead are (slightly wonky) caricatures of something other, as I said than what you might expect.
Oh. And they sing occasionally. There's even music to the songs in the back of the book. Indeed, it apparently started life as a musical, and Yarbro made a book of it, for which I am truly pleased.
It's out of print, but available, and there's a Kindle edition; so you can get it one way or another.
25th August 2018
The Martian Child, by David Gerrold (2018-61)
So there's this guy named David Gerrold who wanted a kid. And there's this kid named Dennis who wanted a dad. Both of them are damaged goods. :
This is their story.
It's published as a novel, and the copyright page says it's a work of fiction. But it's by a real guy named David Gerrold who really did adopt a kid - I don't know whether his name was Dennis then, but it's Sean now, and that's explained in the Afterword.
So I suspect this of being a "faction" book, one basically true but in which some, ah, _liberties_ have been taken to make a story work better, or whatever. But I really don't know; what I do know is that Gerrold poured his heart and soul into this, and it's one of the best things he's ever written. (No, I haven't read it _all_.) It's simply and clearly and well-written, with just the right amount of humor and just the right amount of - I won't call it _pathos_, because it isn't "pathetic" in the modern sense of the word (which has come to mean something more like bathos); but deeply-felt emotion that I, at least, found very easy to feel with the semi-fictitious pair.
At the beginning of the book, Dennis's caseworker explains to David that Dennis is hyperactive, emotionally damaged, has been abused, and thinks he's a Martian. David decides that this is, nonetheless, the boy he wants to adopt, and tells the worker:
"Listen. After everything this poor little guy has been through, if he wants to think he's a Martian, I'm not going to argue with him. ... This kid is alone in the world; he's got to be feeling it. At least, this gives him some kind of a handle on it - the only one he's got. It would be stupid to try to take it away from him."
And that, to a large extent, is what the book is about: David and Dennis working through Dennis's hurt, his belief that nobody could really love him, from his mother who abandoned him to the foster homes where he's been abused and, even in the better ones, never got to stay long. David realizes that he has to put his own baggage aside to get through to this little boy.
And he does, and that's pretty much the story.
It has a happy ending, more or less.
24th August 2018
Encores, by Russel Róbe (2018-60)
This was a book that I wanted to like, and had a lot going for it from the beginning; but, in the end, I could not quite like it. :
In the afterlife, there is music. The Devil does _not_ have all the good songs; indeed, it's not clear that there _is_ a Devil in this fantasy. But there is a God, and the Christian God at that: a never-quite-on-stage character called Eljay is, from context, clearly "Lord Jesus," and Saul who became Paul (and who in this book is mostly known as "Smalls") is a major character. So are Greg Kihn and Farookh, who just kills a man and becomes Freddie Mercury. It's all part of Róbe's rock'n'roll fantasy.
In the Afterlife, Led Zeppelin and the Little River Band and who knows who-all else have reunions.
The world associated with this afterlife - or, it is hinted, _one_ world associated with it - is not quite our world. In this world, Neal Peart lost an arm and never became Rush's drummer, so Rush never quite made it; and Keith Moon survived and founded a band called Quorum with Geddy Lee and (probably the least believable thing in the book) Robert Fripp.
OK, enough namedropping.
The problem is, no plot ever develops. There are a series of wonderful (well, some; some are merely OK) vignettes featuring a variety of characters, human and other, and lots of fun things happen. But it never - quite - gels. The vignettes are related, there is a bit of continuity between them, but no plot, no beginning, middle, or end. It starts with an incident, and ends with what is effectively an Oz Party (where all the characters get together and celebrate), but, well, Róbe's Heaven really _is_ a place where nothing ever happens. The band plays your favorite song, and it's hard to believe that anything could be this much fun, but that just doesn't make for a story.
23rd August 2018
Witchcraft, by Charles Williams (2018-59)
This is a scholarly-yet-readable study of witchcraft, divination, and sorcery in the Christian era, in Europe, from a specifically-Christian point of view. It is most emphatically _not_ about the newage religion calling itself Wicca. Indeed, as it was published in 1941, it must have been well under way before Gerald Gardner's claims to have been initiated by an old school of Wiccans - in 1939 - was common knowledge; it certainly makes no comment on the "Old Religion." :
It begins in Roman times, when the rising power known as Christianity found itself of necessity opposed to all magic and divination. The nature of the Christian faith required the denial of all supernatural powers except for God and the angels, and the forces of Evil. It was certainly aware that such things occurred; Balaam and the Witch of Endor in the Old Testament come to mind, as do several other cases. Before the time of Jesus the great Israelite prophets declared all "gods" but God not-gods, a term originally used for idols made by human hands. Witches, necromancers, diviners, and sorcerers would claim that they derived their powers from some combination of effects that bound invisible powers to their will. That was one of the problems right there; to use the supernatural to attain one's will was to put one's will ahead of God's.
The interesting thing is that there does not appear, in early Christianity, to have been a clear conception of "the Devil"; rather, the concept evolved over the course of the first few centuries, and was clearly in place by the rise of the Middle Ages. Thus also grew up the concept of the Pact with the Devil.
After spending a few chapters on the concept of witchcraft, divination, sorcery, etc., as seen by the Church, Williams turns more to the reaction of the Church to this concept. At least one early writer claimed that since Christ, there was no magic, because He had broken all the power of evil - other, of course, than human evil. Alas, he was not much listened to in his time or after.
Several chapters are spent on the various Inquisitions and their ilk. Williams clearly does not approve of the use of torture, or of burning people alive; nor of the idea that an accusation was tantamount to guilt. One of the more horrible details of the Catholic Inquisition was that a confession must be made without torture to prove the crime. Thus, while a suspected witch might be tortured to get her to confess, that confession was not valid in the court; if she recanted in court, the whole terrible process would begin again, starting with "showing the instruments," in the hope that the confession might come from just the sight of them.
(Interestingly, the two parties that first turned away from this approach, and from torture and baseless accusations in general, were King James and ... the Spanish Inquisition.)
His tone is studiedly neutral but it is clear that he regards the "Burning Times" (as Wiccans call them) as, _at best_, a terrible mistake and an awful evil committed by people attempting to do good by their own lights.
Accusations ranged from hysteria to attention-getting (as the children of Salem) to malice. The term "witch hunt" has its proper source here, concept of looking for enemies for every reason _except_ for any credible evidence that such enemies might actually exist. This is what happened at Salem, what happened with the Commie Scare in the 1940s and '50s, and it is what a certain schmuck _claims_ is happening to him right now (despite the careful piling up of credible evidence that has taken so long, without the prosecutor having yet made any accusations against said schmuck).
_Witchcraft_ is not a book for everyone, but for those interested in the topic from a historical perspective, it is just short of essential. Williams clearly did his research carefully and thoroughly, and the book is full of feetnote and in-text citations. He fills the book with example after example to give the flavor of the attitudes towards witches (and "witches") during each of the times he describes. I am no historian, nor a historiographer, but his conclusions seem reasonably sound to me.
21st August 2018
Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin (2018-58)
There's this thing where writers take characters from some other writer's work and tell _their_ story. GRENDEL and WICKED come to mind most readily, though they aren't all about the villains. :
This is what Le Guin chose to do with what she may well have known was going to be her last novel. She took an important-but-minor character from Virgil's AENEID (query: as opposed to some other AENEID?) and told her story. Specifically, the woman fated to be Aeneas's wife and the ancestress of Romulus and Remus.
Told in her own voice, the story begins with Lavinia sighting the arrival at Latium of the ships bearing Aeneas and the remnants of his Trojan survivors. It moves backwards to her childhood; tells the final episodes of the AENEID from her point of view, then describes her life with Aeneas and after. I won't summarize beyond that.
Wolves, as if to foreshadow Romulus and Remus, play a recurring role in Lavinia's life. So do gods, shades, and oracles. (She knows from one such that she will have Aeneas only three years before he dies.)
Lavinia is a fascinating character, very much the daughter of her wise father and her mad mother. Her voice is vivid and clear, and explains just enough to make the story vivid and clear without bogging down in exposition.
I want to write more, but I can't. The book is too powerful, too emotionally powerful, for me to speak rationally of.
10th August 2018
The Joker: Death of the Family by lots of people (2018-57)
So apparently at some point the Joker cut his own face off, to make some kind of a point, then escaped from Arkham Asylum. He disappeared for a year or so. This set of reprinted comics tells what happens when he comes back. :
It's a series of "movements," as it were, each taking up one to three issues of nine different comics, all of the "New 52" set of series DC (re-)launched six or seven years ago, where they restarted most of their major characters: the Bat-books being a mostly-exception.
What this is, is a deliberate attempt to one-up Allan Moore/Brian Bolland's _The Killing Joke_, arguably the best Joker story ever told: and it would have worked, had the writers been better. The idea is brilliant and apalling; the Joker has realized that he truly loves Batman, and wants his full attention. But that attention is sapped by Batgirl, Nightwing, various Robins, and others; the goal is to free Bats from all those emotional entanglements, and make him the grim, powerful crimefighter the Joker needs him to be.
While the Joker was away, though, Gotham City has gone to a whole new kind of Hell: gangs who emulate the Joker are roaming the streets, committing crimes that try to be senseless (though they rarely are). The first sub-arc shows Batman fighting some of those gangs, and finding out where the worst one comes from: a criminal mastermind who calls himself the Merrymaker (and who, no, is _not_ the Joker).
In the second sub-arc, the Joker comes to town with his face stapled, or tied, or sewed, or _something_, onto the front of his head. (It gradually decays as the story proceeds. Ew.) He tries to manipulate Catwoman (Selina Kyle) into giving up on her on-again, off-again love affair with Batman, hiring her (through a frontman) to play a deadly chessgame with a horrific ending.
Next, in the pages of Suicide Squad, he goes after his personal groupie, Harley Quinn, forcing her to take on his old role as the Red Hood (a criminal, not to be confused with the hero of the same name who appears later in this story...)_and lead Batman into a trap. At the same time he is trying to determine whether Harley can be the Harley he really wants, and things get quite ugly between them.
The most difficult part for me is the segment featuring Batgirl (Commisioner Gordon's daughter Barbara). In _The Killing Joke_ the Joker shot her through the spine and paralyzed her, creating the wheelchair-bound heroine known as Oracle; somehow, in this comic, she's come back from that and is Batgirl again. I guess I missed a lot. Anyway, her "reunion" with the Joker should have been fraught with emotion - and it is, but the emotion is not really captured by the layouts and dialogue. Failure, alas.
Anyway, you get the idea. One by one, he goes after the various people Batman cares about, once using Batman himself, poisoned with a Joker-serum, to attack Nightwing (Dick Grayson, the first Robin).
The whole thing builds up to a ghastly and, potentially, deadly practical joke of a dinner, attended by Batman, all the Robins and Reds, Batgirl, and served by a Jokerized Alfred Pennyworth. More I will not say.
I'm incredibly frustrated by this book. I should have loved it, but I only liked it. Grumble, grumble.
One doesn't normally associate "pretty" with the music of King Crimson, but some tracks in fact are; and "Matte Kudasai" (from the 1981 : Discipline
longplayer) is one of those. And Petra Haden has made it even prettier.
Haden is a vocalist who covers all sorts of music, including instrumental tracks (which "Matte Kudasai" largely is, but not completely), overdubbing herself many times to achieve a sound not the same as, but comparable to, the originals. She first came to my notice when she covered the entire album The Who Sell Out
; it was only partly successful, but that was still quite an accomplishment.
And now this:
Haden has done a few other Krimson tracks, as well, plus many other things. Plus, she performs with her two sisters as The Haden Triplets, a sort of country version of the Roches:
9th August 2018
The Science of Discworld II: The Globe by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, & Jack Cohen (2018-56)
Having done a bang-up job on cosmology in the first volume, Messrs. PS&C decide, in this volume, to talk about the evolution of the human mind as we sort-of know it. :
One of their most basic tools in this discussion is what they call "extelligence," the information and such _outside_ our brains that is accessible _to_ the brains. This includes social knowledge, knowledge stored in books and other such formats, knowledge available on the Intartoobz, and much more.
Their other primary tool is the concept of _story_. On Discworld, of course, things happen because narrative impulse says they must; but there is no narrativium on Roundworld (i.e., Earth). But our brains need contexts for random facts, and that context (say PS&C) is a story. We tell ourselves stories that help us imagine the consequences of our actions, what's going on in other minds, and so on. We also deliver a great deal of socializing information (what PS&C call a "Build-a-Human Kit") to children in the form of stories.
And most of these stories, they point out, are lies. We tell children that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit/100 degrees Celsius, but we don't tell them, because they don't need to know and they couldn't understand it if they did, that this boiling point depends a great deal on things like air pressure; in a vacuum, liquid water just boils, and even ice sublimates into vapor.
Newton's Laws of Motion and Gravity are tremendously _useful_ stories, but (as we have known since Einstein) they are also lies. Or, if you will, useful and sufficient approximations for most purposes, but still not fundamentally _true_.
The same thing with most of the other things we teach in school. History is grotesquely oversimplified, as it must be, for grammar-school children; and even the moral lessons we teach them are sort of conditional at best. (Never tell a deliberate untruth, we say. What if a Nazi is asking you whether you have any Jews hiding under your house, and you do? I would fib in a hot second... and I'm not even a very good liar, so I might be dooming myself as well.)
Oh, and, yes, there's a Discworld story in the odd-numbered chapters. The Wizards of Unseen University find out that elves - and Discworld elves are _nasty_ creatures - have infested the Roundworld they created in Book 1. So they enter and determine to foil the elves at the dawn of prehistory ... but this turns out to prevent much in the way of cultural evolution for humans, so they go back and stop themselves ... but the elves still must be stopped _somehow_.
The story part is not quite as enjoyable as I should like from a Discworld book, but the science chapters are fascinating, so overall, yeah, I liked it.
29th July 2018
The Incredibles 2 (2018)
To my surprise, I think they surpassed the first one. This one is even more character-driven than the first, and gave the characters some real development. :
It starts exactly where the first movie ended, with the attack of the Underminer (voice of John Ratzenberger). This is quickly taken care of, ending in the arrest of the Incredible family and a stern warning never to let it happen again. (As you may recall, Supers are illegal in this world.) Their government agent, Dicker (Jonathan Banks) tells them that "the program" is being shut down and the best he can do for them is two weeks in a motel. (As you may recall, their house was destroyed in the first movie.)
Cue depression. Cue moping. Then, a Very Rich Guy, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) contact them. They run a Very Big Corporation, inherited from Daddy; Winston is the sales genius, Evelyn is the designer. They say they want to bring back supers, and they have a plan to do it ... using Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). Which means that Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) must learn to take care of the kids: Dash (Huck Milner), who is having trouble with his math homework; Violet (Sarah Vowell), who has boy trouble; and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), who is developing powers. _Lots_ of powers. The kind that keep a father awake at night.
Meanwhile, Helen is saving people. She stops a runaway maglev, finding out that the driver was in some kind of strange trance - which turns out to be from a screen on his dashboard, produced by someone calling themself "The Screenslaver".
Lots of amusing things happen, and of course Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and Edna "E" Mode (Brad Bird) have their parts to play. Lots of action, of which only one scene is of the "hard to figure out what's going on" variety - that's the infamous scene with all the strobing. It _does_ make sense in context.
Several plot threads come together and even, to some extent, resolve each other, and the ending is reasonably happy.
28th July 2018
Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman (2018-55)
As a kid, I was fascinated by myths. The Greek and Roman myths were the most accessible, the Finnish stuff was just _weird_, but there was something really special about the Norse myths. Lewis later (or earlier, but I read it later) verbalized it nicely for me: due to the prophecies, the Gods know they're going to lose, but they fight anyway; and we know they're going to lose, but we side with them anyway - because they're on the side of right. :
More or less. The Norse gods are sly and occasionally downright nasty, but they're more-or-less on the right side, the side that thinks humans and trees and squirrels and so on have some right to exist.
Gaiman here retells those stories, from the creation of the Nine Worlds (and a bit before) to the Ragnarok (and a bit after). That "bit after" is critical, because it meant that the whole thing wasn't utterly hopeless, that there would be another, and hopefully better, creation after ours. The Ǣsir and Vanir will, indeed must, die, but they take the monsters with them, and there are just a few survivors to carry on in the new world.
And there's this: the Norse gods have more _personality_ (to my mind) than the Classical gods. Most of the Greek gods are pretty much one-note characters, but Odin, Thor, Frey, Freya, and so on - and especially Loki - have some complexity to them. (Can you imagine old Zeus sacrificing himself to himself, or giving up an eye for wisdom? Nah, he'd just find some nymph and get laid.) They remind me less of some archetype, and more of some order of chivalry, but without Christianity. They go out, have adventures, come back and squabble among themselves, and so on. (In fact, I can see a certain parallelism between the Edda-tales and the Arthur-tales, with Loki in the role of Mordred and the Ragnarok similar in sketch to the final battle of the Morte.)
So, um. Where was I? Oh, yeah, the retelling. Gaiman tells it in a "here we are at the fireside, let me tell you a story" kind of voice that I find quite compelling. The 281 pages of this volume go _fast_.
There are stories here I've loved since childhood, retold brilliantly. And there are tales I've never heard before, like "The Mead of Poets," or "Gerd and Frey."
This is, in short, a damn good book, and one I wish I had had to read to my children when they were small.
27th July 2018
How to Read a Modern Painting, by Jon Thompson (2018-54)
Some years ago I read Patrick De Rynck's _How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters_. I found the volume informative on the techniques, symbols, tropes, genres, and so on used by artists over the centuries. It has a format of two-page spreads, each dominated by a largish reproduction of a single painting and text about the painting and the artist, generally with one or two smaller reproductions of other paintings somehow related to the main painting, or, occasionally, details of the main painting. I came away from it feeling that I was more able to enjoy the old masters' paintings generally. :
This volume, subtitled "Lessons from the Modern Masters," unsurprisingly follows the same format. Alas, I did not find it as fascinating.
Part of it is the inchoate nature of modern painting. There are, I think, more movements in a given decade than there were in a century of the Renaissance and prior, each with its manifesto rejecting much of what has gone before and its radical new techniques. Some of these movements I rather like. (Mainly Impressionism and Surrealism, with a fond spot for Dada and Pop art.) Most I don't, even after reading Thompson's volume.
But the burgeoning of movements and techniques makes it hard to tell a coherent story about modern painting, especially when you are limited to a format of two-page spreads (admittedly broken twice in this volume to go into more detail about something particularly important and special in the author's eye).
Thompson often manages to make me more sympathetic to what an artist/movement is trying to accomplish, and some of it is accomplished with consummate skill and, well, artistry.
But some of them give "My three-year-old could draw that" a bad name.
I mean: I can see covering a canvas evenly with black paint to make a point. But having done it once, doing a whole series of them, identical except perhaps for the size, is just gilding a turd. Likewise, whole series of paintings each containing one stripe, against a contrasting or complementary background, down the length or height of the canvas - oh, what design; what artistry; what BS!
Then there is (not named as such in this book but plenty of examples) primitivism, in which millenia of developed technique in figurative drawing are deliberately thrown away in favor of, well, something a three year old or other person uneducated in painting might do. I won't say "could do," as these paintings are clearly designed rather than rapidly thrown together, some of them with great skill and care. But to see someone who is clearly capable of more, doing something less, makes me crazy.
I donno; perhaps that's the reaction they want.
More complex are the works of people like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. They get accused of being frauds, but they aren't; they are pursuing their own muses. I happen to believe that their muses have been taking bad drugs.
But most of the works included I respect without liking. Picasso heads the list; he clearly knows exactly what he's doing and why, and he does it damn well, but it is, to me, cold and affectless (with the odd exception, notably "Guernica"). Then there are the opticalists like Frank Stella, Bridget Riley,and so on: work I even like, but wouldn't want to look at more than twice.
In the end, I'm glad I read this, and will keep it for occasional reference, but I still prefer figuration (not "realism") to abstraction. (Similarly in sculpture; love Rodin, hate things made of girders welded together in some strange Lovecraftian geometry.)
20th July 2018
Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 2, by divers hands (2018-53)
Well, this just came out this week. :
The thing about the Legion, is that - like the Fantastic Four - they are a family. They have their squabbles, and occasionally one of them goes mad and tries to kill the rest, or blow up the universe in one case, but they love and stand by each other.
Their special abilities range from the ridiculously powerful (Mon-El, stronger than Superboy and immune to Kryptonite...) to the, well, ridiculous (Matter-Eater Lad. Bouncing Boy.) The plotting ranges from the melodramatic to the inane, as is par for most super-hero comics, though there are occasional side-trips to something decently plotted. The villains are bombastic and, well, they have to be powerful enough, or crazy enough, to challenge 20-something superpowered 20-somethings.
And yet, somehow, it works. Or at least, it worked, for someone like me who grew up with them. But I drifted away from comics for many years, and when I came back, I'd missed huge swathes of Legion history.
Some of these stories I've heard about for years the Earthwar, the desperate battle against Omega, the coming of the Super-Assassins - and this issue takes us to the end of the "Superboy and the Legion" magazine; the next issue after the last one in this volume features the beginning of the first regular monthly "Legion of Super-Heroes" title.
The art, too, ranges, from the competent to the pretty darn good, but is limited by the subject matter to tones of bold and brash and colorful. The later stories in this volume are all written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Joe Staton, who would later be famous for the delightfully silly E-Man.
All of which is, I guess, an attempt to justify to myself why I keep buying these volumes. And I will, too, until they catch up with where my collection of the magazines begins... Because the truth is, I love them with the heart of a nine-year-old boy picking up his first Legion story ("The Super-Stalag of Space!") and seeing the wondrous Thirtieth (now Thirty-First; the Legion always stays 1000 years ahead) Century.
Sadly, around the time I stopped buying comics regularly - indeed, it's one of the _reasons_ I stopped buying comics regularly - DC wiped out the entire history of the Legion and started over again. And, yes, some of the names were better ("Triad" instead of "Triplicate Girl," [later the even sillier "Duo Damsel" ...] for example), and some of the stories were better-written ... but I frankly don't care. The Legion was built on the growth and maturing of characters originally created as a tossed-off one-shot story, basically to give Superboy something to _do_ for an issue. They did indeed grow and mature, with characters leaving, dying (for real, no backsies), marrying, and generally having lives. Taking all that and tossing it in the shitcan meant that _my_ Legion was dead and gone for good.
So, no, I can't get excited about Mon-El and Saturn Girl showing up in the _Supergirl_ tv series. I just can't care about revamps. When they rebooted the Legion, they booted me.
As Pansy Yokum would say: Ah has spoke!
18th July 2018
The Atheist in the Attic, by Samuel R. Delany (2018-52)
In Delany's most recent novel, _Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders_, one of the two protagonists has a life-long fascination with Spinoza's _Ethics_. In this novella, Benedict, né Baruch, Spinoza is a character. :
It consists of a (long) journal entry by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, visiting Amsterdam at the behest of his patron, an unnamed Duke. On his own time, he visits Spinoza. (I know very little about the life of either Leibniz or Spinoza; I presume Delany does and that this is possible.) They converse for a while, and agree with each other well enough that a second visit is planned -- though not narrated. Leibniz mentions a number of his own peculiarities, of which the most interesting to a science fictional audient will be his invention of a brass calculating machine. Spinoza mentions that he grinds lenses for van Leeuwenhoek, which which he has discovered his famous "animalcules."
It _was_ an interesting moment in history. One of the things discussed, almost in passing, is the Netherlands' "_rampjaar_" of 1672, a year in which they were attacked by the forces of France, England, and some German states, and things became very dark indeed. (Some friends of Spinoza's were, apparently, killed and eaten.)
Yet their discussion is only the middle of the novella. The opening and closing take place in and around the home of Leibniz's host, named only Gunther in the book. Gunther's visit to a Jewish moneylender at the beginning of the book casts dark reflections on the visit with Spinoza, a Jew whose people have cast him out for blasphemy. (Spinoza mentions being 40 years old; a little calculation puts this meeting about 1672 or 3, and makes Leibniz about 26 years of age; the _rampjaar_ would thus be fresh in the Dutch peoples' minds.)
The writing is - as always with Delany - beautiful, clear, and self-intensifying. Delany has a way of mentioning things at carefully spaced intervals that increases their significance. (Outdoor toilets. Smallclothes. Servants. Wigs. Jews.) The story is slight on the surface, but deep in its implications.
Delany still rocks.
16th July 2018
Read: The Beginning Place, by Ursula K. Le Guin (2018-51)
Another book that took me longer than I expected to read: in this case, because I found myself luxuriating in the language. Le Guin - at least since _Left Hand_ and _Wizard of Earthsea_ - was always an acute writer, but here she may have reached, at least, a local peak. Beautiful, beautiful sentences and paragraphs building meaning leisurely but purposefully. :
Oh, and there's a story. Hugh Rogers finds a gateway to an "evening country," a place where it is always twilight and time goes more slowly than in our world - eight hours there are about an hour here.
But Irena (Irene Pannis) has been coming to this place for years, and is not pleased to find a stranger camped beside _her_ special place. It only gets worse when Hugh is welcomed by the people of the place as the hero they have awaited. Their roads are filled with fear, and only "Hiuradgaz" can save them. And, the cherry on this sundae of insult, they expect _Irene_ to act as his guide and interpreter as he seeks the source of the fear and deals with it.
That's actually more than half the book, right there. It starts slowly, building to a rather astonishing crescendo, and ending with a long coda that brings peace to Hugh and Irene.
Only one Le Guin novel left. ...sigh...