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18th November 2018
In Search of Wonder, by Jeffrey Allen Tucker (2018-80)
Subtitled "Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference," this is Tucker's doctoral thesis dressed up for semi-popular consumption. It mostly makes the case that Delany's fiction is written in a variety of African-American traditions, a case which, frankly, it would never have occurred to me needed making. :
Perhaps the strongest case is the chapter on _The Motion of Light in Water_, one of Delany's autobiographical books, which Tucker places firmly in the tradition of African-American autobiographies, all the way back to Frederick Douglass and other slave narratives.
The one place where I lose the argument is in the chapter on _The Mad Man_, which Tucker subtitles, "Paraliterature as AIDS Activism." Which _TMM_ certainly is, but that case is made so strongly that the thread of "African-American traditions" seems to be lost in the shuffle.
Clever, at times brilliant, Tucker certainly brings me a number of new insights to the Delany works he covers (a small sampling). The chapter on _Dhalgren_ was itself worth the price of the book to me.
But I am a member of a very limited audience here, a serious aficionado of Delany who has willingly followed wherever Delany's work has taken him because Delany is just that good of a writer. I can't see a very large number of people enjoying this book. It's dense and abstruse and heavily laden with feetnote and other such paraphernalia. (It is, after all, a doctoral thesis.)
So if you're that kind of reader, you'll like this book. If you are a causal fan of Delany -- move along, nothing to see here.
The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe, by Kij Johnson (2018-79)
This is, quite obviously, a response to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath". It is, more than that, a re-evaluation, even a reclaiming, of Lovecraft's "dream sequence" with its values revalued. :
The story begins with an awakening, but it is an awakening within the Dreamlands. Vellit Boe, a professor of mathematics in the women's college of Ulthar University, awakens.
Shortly, she learns that one of her students has vanished - gone off with a Dreamer, a man from the "Waking World". But Clarie Jurat is not just any student; she is the daughter of one of the University's directors. the Women's College is a recent experiment, and Clarie's father is just placed to shut it down.
Professor Boe was a far-traveller before she settled down to mathematics. She volunteers to follow Clarie and bring her back - hopefully, before she crosses into the Waking World.
So she sets off for the Gate, accompanied by one of the mysterious cats of Ulthar. She will have adventures with zoogs, priests, ghouls, ghasts, gugs, and other creatures of the Dreamlands before ...
... before what? Ah, that would be telling. But it can be said that the ending is completely unexpected, and completely satisfactory.
Johnson reclaims what is best in Lovecraft's, ah, _unique_ style of writing, bringing it new life and energy through a healthy infusion of a style fo her own. Except for Vellit Boe, there is very little in the way of "character" in the book; each other person has a role to play in Boe's adventure, and plays it. Zoogs are zoogs, priests are priests, old acquaintances are old acquaintances, and so on.
In short: I enjoyed it. It isn't the great work of literature of its year, but it's a good read.
10th November 2018
Interim Errantry, by Diane Duane (2018-78)
This is the first collection of stories in Duane's "Young Wizards" series, consisting of a short story, a longer story, and a short novel, centered around three holidays. :
"Not on My Turf" At Hallowe'en, Nita starts talking to the pumpkin she's carving. As they begin trick-or-treating, it reveals (through the somewhat limited perspective of a pumpkin) that the "Lone Power," i.e., this fictional universe's equivalent to the Devil, has a plot to wreak havoc through the pumpkin patch it came from. The company head over there and find a small army of zombie-creatures rising from the ground. As wizards on the spot, they have to handle it.
"How Lovely Are Thy Branches" is pretty much a Young Wizards Oz party. At Christmas, Kit's sister decides to hold a big shindig for all the group's friends near and far. Some come from distant star systems, including Filif, an alien from a race of pine-tree-like creatures. He volunteers to be "dressed up" with the ornaments. Remniscing (but not about previous stories) occurs. A small evil is averted.
"Lifeboats" is the real winner of the book, a short novel from Kit's point of view, in which pretty much every wizard on Earth, and several other planets, is "drafted" to help evacuate the people of a planet whose moon is becoming very, very unstable, before it goes boom. The biggest problem is not the logistics - that has been worked out in advance - but the fact that a small percentage of the population, though they know what is happening, refuse to go. Oh, and the holiday involved is Valentine's Day, which Kit is finding difficult.
The writing is sprightly and effective, the characters - at least to someone like me who was already familiar with them - comfortable to inhabit. If only "Lifeboats" is of any significance, the others are reasonable entertainments.
4th November 2018
The Bird's Nest, by Shirley Jackson (2018-77)
This is a delicate and disturbing book, the first I've read in years to nearly make me cry. The edition I read (the Popular Library edition, ca.1976) features a monster blurb - the kind that gives away too much while not telling you enough - and a mystifying but ultimately correct cover illustration. :
_The Bird's Nest_ is the story of Elizabeth Richmond. Heiress to an unspecified but large amount of money, Elizabeth spends her days as a clerical worker at a museum, and her evenings and weekends at home with her late mother's sister, Morgen Jones.
As the novel commences, Elizabeth starts receiving mysterious hand-written letters addressed to her as "lizzie" and vaguely threatening her, while calling her "dirty" and such. She tells no one of them but keeps them in a valentine-shaped box alongside a peculiar letter from her mother to "Robin."
Elizabeth also starts experiencing back- and headaches. Her aunt accuses her of sneaking out at midnight to unknown parts - something which Elizabeth denies, and seemingly means it. She has several other problems, and her aunt suggests she seek medical assistance. Her doctor, unable to help her, refers her to an older doctor named Victor Wright.
Wright tries hypnosis. Here a calmer, gentler, but very fragile, Miss Richmond emerges, and then a wild and not entirely canny one who calls him Dr. Wrong. Wright dubs them, respectively, Beth and Betsy. Eventually, Betsy, becoming dominant, steals money from Morgen and runs away to New York.
Then things get _really_ complicated, but never unclear to the reader (except in the sense that we do not immediately understand what each personality, and especially Betsy, wants).
The narration is divided into parts from the points of view of Elizabeth, Betsy, and Morgen; between these are notes of Dr. Wright, who takes the case to heart and works seriously for Elizabeth Richmond's cure; and there is an epilogue (of sorts) from one other point of view.
Jackson's writing is, as always, stupendously clean and accurate from the level of word choice all the way up to that of careful plotting. What she reveals, and when she reveals it, is designed to keep the reader curious and anxious, and succeeds in doing so all the way to the (inevitable) crisis.
I am lucky: I still have some Jackson books to seek out and read for the first time.
28th October 2018
A Slip of the Keyboard, by Terry Pratchett (2018-76)
A collection of the late Sir Terry's nonfiction: essays, articles, speeches, and whatnot, ranging from the 1963 to 2011, _A Slip of the Keyboard_ is a must for fans of the lamented one. There is very little cohesion here; many of the selections are occasional pieces. Subjects run from a schoolboy's letter to a science fiction magazine (about teaching sf in schools, no less) to angry meditations on the British system which did not allow a terminally ill patient to choose the time of their dying, rather than being imprisoned by their disease; from a typical day in the life of (one) writer, to the sad state of orangutans in the wild; from going to a porn store, as a child, to buy used sf magazines to hat-wearing. :
Most of the pieces are short or short-ish; the only longer pieces are speeches. "A Genuine Absent-Minded Professor" was his inaugural professorial lecture at Trinity College, and "The Richard Dimbleby Lecture: Shaking Hands with Death" is about, well, assisted dying (his preferred term, and I quite like it, rather than the cold "euthanasia" or the somewhat-misleading "assisted suicide").
Even when writing from anger, Pratchett's humor comes through. Neil Gaiman suggests, in his introduction, that Pratchett was a man filled with rage and it came out as comedy, which I find quite plausible.
And in all of it there is a sense of a person, a personality. It may be STP's real personality; it may be a writerly mask. But it is warm and consistent and very personable.
Mind how you go, Terry.
Speak his name.
24th October 2018
Uncompromising Honor, by David Weber (2018-75)
This is a very hard book to review, because there are so many plot twists that almost anything I can say about it will spoil _something_. :
Over the course of twenty-plus books, anthologies, and side series, David Weber has built up a hugely complex world of people, politics, and war. What started as "Hornblower in Space," with a side dose of rather cheap slams at socialism, grew into one of the most successful - both commercially and artistically - space operas in the history of SF.
This book begins, pretty much, minutes after the previous volume left off. The Mesan Alignment has fled the Manticoran invasion of Mesa, leaving behind a set of atomic bombs to (a) erase most of the evidence of the innermost Alignment ever having existed; and (b) getting Manticore blamed for an unwarranted attack on civilian populations.
In the meanwhile, the government of the Solarian League (the 800-pound gorilla of the star nations in this series) is suffering significant financial difficulties due to Manticore -- or rather, their Grand Alliance -- blockading their commerce. Star systems are beginning to secede from the League and seek friendship with the Alliance.
The Solarian Navy is sent to punish, not only those who do, but those who look like they might, secede, by destroying their industrial infrastructure...
This is the most visceral book in the entire "Honorverse" (how I hate that word), and I had to put it down several times to simply unwind myself from its complex of emotions and moral-political dilemmas.
It isn't all good. A set of villains in the League, who have always been painted as two-dimensionally evil, continue to be so. The writing is still what it has always been: unobtrusive. (Weber will never be a great stylist, but then, he doesn't _need_ to be one). And some things are, despite the book's hefty 773 pages, a bit rushed.
But, in the main, it accomplishes what it sets out to admirably well.
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.