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26th January 2018
Clay's Ark, by Octavia Butler (2018-5)
(Patternist : #3
...though it isn't obvious how this book fits in with the Patternist series. One offstage character _may_ be a minor character from _Mind of My Mind_, but there is nothing of the Pattern created in that book visible here.
The story takes place in the fabulous future of 2019 or so and 2021 or so, alternating chapters called "past" and "present". A spacecraft _Clay's Ark_, has been to Proxima Centauri and back; but it crashed and burned on its return.
Deliberately. One of our two main characters, the one in the "past," is Eli, who somehow survived; and rather wishes he hadn't. He is the sole remaining carrier of the dominant species of Proxima Centauri 2, a parasitic bacter-sized organism that has several effects on its human hosts. First, it kills, or nearly kills, them. Then it strengthens them, speeds their reaction times, and improves their senses. But it also controls their bodies to the extent of forcing them to spread it.
Coming upon an isolated farm, Eli infects the inhabitants. Three women survive.
Meanwhile, in the "present," Dr. Blake Maslin and his two daughters are traveling the dangerous roads of Southwestern America when they are set on by not-exactly-bandits. One reading the alternating chapters quickly realizes that the captors are, or include, Eli and his fellow survivors. They have developed a mode of living that involves remaining isolated and capturing occasional "victims" to infect, thus satisfying the compulsion of their bodies while protecting humanity at large from the organism. The added problem is that one of Blake's daughters, Keira, has an aggressive leukemia which weakens her, and she needs her meds.
The two "halves" of the story are expertly interwoven - this is the last-written of the "Patternist" books - and combine to tell a chilling story. Butler was always at her best dealing with biological weirdnesses, as in "Bloodchild" and the "Xenogenesis" trilogy, and the Centauri organism is a prime example.
...one volume to go...
25th January 2018
Read: Mind of My Mind, by Octavia Butler (2018-4)
(Patternist : #2
Okay, so. Here's where the whole "pattern" thing comes in. It's the twentieth century, and Doro has (with implicit support from Anwanyu, now calling herself "Emma") continued his breeding program.
Suddenly, it succeeds. Beyond his wildest dreams. Mary, one of Emma's descendants, manifests the ability to bind other "specials" to herself. She begins by gathering in the six other "active" psis Doro has out there in the wilds of America. Then she discovers that she can bring "latents" to fruition, and her Pattern begins to grow exponentially.
They still think independently, but she can bend them to her will. They begin to gather in Los Angeles...
This is like the dark side of Sturgeon's _Homo gestalt_. The Patternists value very little the people they call "mutes," those who can't hear or speak with their minds, but who can be "programmed" to serve the Patternists. There seems to be very little doubt that in time they will rule the world.
Doro is beginning to have his doubts about this whole thing...
The writing (as always with Butler) is taut and fraught. This is a short book, by modern standards, but packed full of character and incident. And (as always with Butler) it is deeply (but, in this case, subtly) disturbing.
Bring on the next one...
24th January 2018
Eulogy: For One Who Went Gentle
I shall not pray for Ursula Le Guin. :
She held no faith in any gods. But still,
Her stories always got beneath my skin.
She wrote more of imbalance, less of sin;
And how rejecting truth will make us ill.
I shall not pray for Ursula Le Guin.
She could have writ of pickles in a bin,
And kept us all entranced: such was her skill.
Her stories always got beneath my skin.
Her words were always neater than a pin,
One crafted fine on Hermes' own anvil:
I shall not pray for Ursula Le Guin.
She never wrote of spacecraft made of tin,
She sought to make us think, and not to thrill.
Her stories always got beneath my skin.
Her voice grew thin, but steady, stern, and still
Reminding us art's not for pimps and shills.
Her stories always got beneath my skin:
I shall no pray for Ursula Le Guin.
(Alameda, January 2018)
21st January 2018
Read: Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler (2018-3)
First, though not first written, of Butler's "Patternist" tetralogy, which I'm reading through for the first time. :
Doro is old. Thousands of years old. But his body isn't; he lives on by possessing one body after another, killing its proper inhabitant in the process. These bodies only last him a few years, then he must move on. One might argue that the proper thing for him to do would be to die, but he can't; when a body dies, he, will he nil he, moves into another.
For most of these years, Doro has been breeding "special" people, people with what we would call psionic abilities, partially because they "taste" better when he "feeds" upon them, but also because he hopes to take over the (bwahhahha) world.
In (I believe) southern Nigeria, in 1690, Doro comes across an Igbo named Anyanwu. While 300 or so years is young compared to him, she's the first person he's met who has the potential to live along with him. She can heal nearly any damage to her body, and change shape at will. Doubtless, she'll be a great addition to his breeding program.
So he lures her to the New World - partly by threatening her children - and marries her to his "son" Isaac, who can move things with his mind.
That's part 1 of three, and I won't summarize beyond that - and, indeed, that summary is so bald as to wipe away the _feel_ of the thing. Doro's "sophistication" and Anyanwu's ignorance of the world beyond her villages combine to create a complexly emotional story in this first part. Their reactions to each other and to what each other can do, and Anyanwu's responses to Doro's demands, are deeply satisfying, and drive not only Part One but the whole book.
Butler's writing is always clear and sharp, as is her eye for character. Both Doro and Anyanwu are drawn as realistically as such characters can be; their acceptance of their difference from the vast majority of people stands in stark contrast with the anguish positive mutants usually face in fiction. (And, while I'm certainly looking very hard at Marvel's X-philes here, the fictional phenomenon of mutant angst is older and broader than that. [Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer, anyone?])
And the book is very much about the relationship between the two, Doro's need to control Anyanwu, Anyanwu's need to be free (which is in conflict with her need to protect her children), how it evolves over one hundred fifty years, and how both of them are changed _by_ it.
On to Volume II, _Mind of My Mind_, and I recommend you not pass this first volume up.
Seen: The Last Jedi (2017)
As Bill Murray done sung: "Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars..." :
This is, in theory, the eighth movie of a nonology.
George Lucas, who said that this is at heart a family saga, would probably be spinning in his grave, were he dead: for with the death of Carrie Fisher and SPOILER ALERT
the ending of this movie, the Skywalker family is down to a single member.
Unless (of course) Ben (Kylo [Darth Emo] Ren)
Solo (Adam Driver), the last scion of the Skywalkers, lied about where Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes from.
In some ways, this is the best film since Chapter V. With all the armies of anonymous soldiers, and all the things-going-fast-and-blowing-up going on, there is still a human struggle between a very few people at its heart: it's Luke's (Mark Hammill) and Kylo's battle for Rey's soul, and Rey and Luke trying to save Kylo's.
Oh. The plot? It's mostly about how the recently-widowed Leia (Carrie Fisher) tries to save the last of her Resistance from a bunch of big bad First Order ships out to wipe out the "spark of hope." Rey is trying to convince Luke to come back and be the hero they need. There are complications in all of this, but that's pretty much the starting point and pretty much where the story goes, with lots of side trips and loops, and MORE SPOILERS
the deaths of two of the three major villains established in Chapter VII. (Well, one of them might
have survived. But I doubt it.)
At the end, we're left with a situation that could make for an interesting final chapter.
But with J.J. Abrams heading Chapter IX...I doubt it.
18th January 2018
Read: All the Stars Are Suns, by Seaby Brown (2018-2)
To begin with a confession: I have known the author for many years, on and off. :
The discovery that she had written a novel made me very happy; the discovery that it was self-published caused me some concern. In the end, both feelings were correct.
You see, it's actually quite a good book; but it desperately wants copyediting.
In a twenty-third century where many of the problems of our time have been solved, there are (of course) new problems. Millions, perhaps billions, of people live on the Universal Minimum Income because there simply are no jobs for them. Intelligent machines do most of the unskilled and skilled but non-creative work more cheaply and "better" than a human worker could do.
In this world we meet Quan Yin, who, in the first chapter, easily disables three men who attempt to rape her. This is probably just as well for them, because it quickly turns out that Quan has no sexual organs of any type. She is man-made.
But she isn't an android, or a robot. She's something new, an entire prosthetic body linked to an optoelectronic analogue of a human brain. She has emotions, thoughts, desires, and as much free will as any human being.
Quan has been purpose-built as the first of a kind that will pilot and crew interstellar "seedships," which will, over thousands of years, terraform the planets of a new sun and plant an entire ecosystem, suitable for human habitation. Then, they will raise human infants to inhabit them -- which is why crew who could feel human emotions were necessary in the first place.
The rape attempt brings Quan, previously a secret, to the public attention, and much of the book is about the business and political maneuvering that results from the discovery. Brown has created a lovely set of factions for her 23d century, including "neo-Luddites" who want jobs returned to humans and religious - or perhaps religiose - "Dominionists" who believe humans have no business off the Earth. (There are thriving colonies on Luna and Venus, and one starting on Mars, as the story takes place.) Each has its part to play in a complex and potentially deadly game whose prize is the fate of the Diaspora Foundation, the century-old nonprofit organization behind the seedships.
Not only the factions, but the characters are plausible and full of life. Particularly intriguing are Dr. M'Beke, who designed Quan's brain, and the Honorable Rufus Quinn, who seems at first to be a villain but is actually much more complex than that.
Unfortunately for all this goodness, the book is riddled with typoes, grammar errors, and infelicitous word choices which any good copy editor would have flagged for Brown to fix. It is a truth universally accepted that nobody can proofread their own manuscript.
15th January 2018
Read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig (2018-1)
This is the other bookend, and I was quite surprised by how long it took me to read it. It's only 373 pages long, but it took me 14 days - 26 or 27 pages a day, on the average. :
I could write about it at great length, but I don't really have the energy; so let me capsulize. Robert Pirsig underwent electroconvulsive therapy - what he calls "Annihilation ECT," which (he claims) destroys one's personality. He refers to his "old personality" as Phaedrus, for reasons that are only explained late in the book; Phaedrus was a Seeker For Truth who eventually found what he believed to be the true -- not meaning, for he defines it as undefinable - but the identification, the _location_ of Quality in the world, and it turned him into a near-vegetable.
Robert, his son Chris, and two friends set out on motorcycle (the ten-year-old Chris riding pillion with his father) from Minnesota to Bozeman, Montana, where Phaedrus once lived. Chris is an interesting character in himself, but the heart of the book is not so much about the trip as about Pirsig's thoughts - what he calls a Chautauqua - about Phaedrus and what he went through and how he came to his conclusions. Pirsig claims to have sporadic memories, which become clearer as he proceeds in the Chautauqua, of Phaedrus's life.
The other heart of the book, though, is Robert's difficult relationship with Chris. Chris remembers Phaedrus as his "real" father and is disturbed by Robert. What passes between them is moving and in places _quite_ unexpected.
To summarize: I am quite glad I read this. In some ways, I wish I'd read it twenty years ago; but I don't know if I would have been equipped to understand it then.
31st December 2017
Read: Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel (2017-68)
Endcapping the year with the first of a pair of bookends around the Janus-moment. :
I liked this, but wanted to like it more. It might be partly the translation, by R.C.F. Hull, but I suspect that it is the essential German-ness of the writing: heavy and a bit plodding, a disease that affects most of the translated German writers I've read, even Hesse. (Or maybe even _especially_ Hesse?)
Anyway, it's either a memoir with embedded Zen musings, or a Zen tract with embedded autobiographical musings. Six of one; I suspect that the need to pick one over the other would be un-Zennish. (It would most certainly be un-Taoish.)
Herrigel was a professor of philosophy in Germany when he was invited to teach Western philosophy at the Imperial University at Sendai. Here, he took up instruction in kyūdō from master archer Awa Kenzô, and this book is a brief discussion of that experience and of what he learned about Zen from it.
I frankly learned little about Zen from this little book, that I did not already know - not that I'm an expert on Zen! My understanding of it is mostly intellectual (and "speculative"), so I essentially know nothing of Zen, if I understand correctly what I _do_ understand.
There are bits that might have been humorous if they were not so heavily narrated, but they were.
All in all, I'm kind of glad I read it, but not very.
Read: Brimstone, by Cherie Priest (2017-67)
Florida, 1920. Miss Alice Dartle comes to the Casadaga Spiritualist Camp (a real place), to learn to use her gifts for good: she can make winning bets on horses, or the stock market, but does not want to become rich (at least, not that way), and she can "read" people and objects. :
Of late, she has dreamt of fire, and a man in fireman's clothes.
In Ybor City, Florida, Tomás Cordero returned from fighting for the US in the Great War, to find his wife dead of the 'flu. More recently, mysterious fires have been happening around him...fires that seem to bear messages from his lost Evelyn. After consulting his priest, he decides to consult Casadaga and, in particular, Alice Dartle.
Spoiler: It isn't Evelyn setting the fires. It's something much, much worse.
Told in alternating first-person PoV between Alice and Tomás, _Brimstone_ moves at a gentle pace that quickly moves to rollercoastery speeds and twists and turns. Both PoV charcters are likeable, human people, vulnerable without being weak, good without being syrupy.
My only complaint is with some of Priest's diction. I have complained about this in some of her previous works set in the past; she sometimes slips up and uses terms that fit fine in our mouths but stick out like sore thumbs when put in, say, Alice Dartle's (the one that particularly grated on me was "take it down a notch," but there were others). I blame her editors as much as her for this (in this case Anne Sowards of ACE books); it's hard to catch one's own verbal hiccups, but that's what editors are _for_.
Despite these infelicities, _Brimstone_ is a tense, delicious tale. As always, I wait to see what Ms. Priest does next.
The Year in Questions
Gacked from : wild_irises
, who didn't originate it either.
1. What did you do in 2017 that you'd never done before?
For the first time in my career I got a promotion within a company (i.e., without changing companies).
2. Did you keep your New Year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I haven't made any since the '70s.
3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
4. Did anyone close to you die?
One of three people who have (had) the claim to "best friend" status died in February.
5. What countries did you visit?
H'mmm. Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Germany.
6. What would you like to have in 2018 that you lacked in 2017?
Democratic wave in Congress, followed (in 2019) by impeachment.
7. What date from 2017 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
July 1. Nearly died.
8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
9. What was your biggest failure?
Not getting my home office cleaned up.
10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Developed arthritis in my right hip.
11. What was the best thing you bought?
Quick check ID for airports.
12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?
13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?
The entire Gang Of Plutocrats.
14. Where did most of your money go?
15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
The trip to Northern Europe.
16. What song will always remind you of 2017?
The "Horst Wessel" song.
17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
i. happier or sadder? Happier.
ii. thinner or fatter? A little thinner.
iii. richer or poorer? Richer, but just a little.
18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Exercise and writing.
19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Playing trivial computer games. (Gacked from wild_irises
20. How will you be spending Christmas?
Spent it home with immediate family. Did not leave house at all.
21. How will you be spending New Year’s Eve?
Going to bed early. "Nothing changes/on New Year's Day"
22. Did you fall in love in 2017?
23. How many one-night stands?
24. What was your favourite TV program?
Didn't watch any TV this year.
25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?
I try not to hate anyone. Sometimes it's hard.
26. What was the best book you read?
Probably Lincoln in the Bardo
, though a few others come to mind.
27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
None, really. Mostly lack of money.
28. What did you want and get?
29. What did you want and not get?
Impeachment, or at least "unindicted coconspirator."
30. What was your favourite film that you saw for the first time this year?
Can't pick one.
31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
Turned 59. Don't recall what I did on the day.
32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Jobs for my kids.
33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2017?
Slightly better than "slovenly."
34. What kept you sane?
Pills and goddamitude.
35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
If by "fancy," this means "have a crush on," none. If it means admiration, I'll go with Bernie Sanders, who has the guts to call Trump a liar in public.
36. What political issue stirred you the most?
The pro-Israel activity of an anti-Semetic administration.
37. Who did you miss?
A lot of people, but the one I didn't get to see at least once this year and miss is Dan.
38. Who was the best new person you met?
A person I met at the deathbed of a close friend.
39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2017.
Getting old isn't always fun.
40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.
I built my own cage, and the bars are the bones of my dreams.
I killed them myself, and my song is the sound of their screams.
Conclusion: Stay safe in 2018, my friends. There are fewer of us every year.
26th December 2017
Read: Revival, by Stephen King (2017-67)
My own revival of interest in King continues with this book, in which the word "revival" takes on many meanings. It uses the "now I am old and can tell..." frame that King has used at least once before (in _The Green Mile_), but to good effect. :
"Old" (in his early 60s, to be precise; doesn't seem so old to _me_) James Morton tells his story. When he was a young boy, a young preacher, Charles Jacobs, comes to the Mortons' Methodist church, befriends Jamie and his whole family, and performs a minor miracle. Jacobs shares with Jamie his hobby: Electricity.
Then a terrible and meaningless accident took Jacobs' wife and young child from him, and he had a crisis of faith - from which he emerged no longer believing in Christianity, bitter and cynical.
Years later, Jamie, now a rock guitarist, down and out and addicted to heroin, runs into Jacobs on a fairground, where he is peddling "Photographs by Lightning." These are truly wondrous - though they don't quite meet all the claims Jacobs makes for them - and one of them has notable, and bad, side effects.
But Jacobs takes Jamie in and cures his addiction in a single, brief treatment.
Jamie next runs into Jacobs a decade or more later. He is now working at a music studio in Colorado, when a tent revivalist-and-healer comes to town. The Rev Danny turns out to be Charlie Jacobs, now performing miraculous and unquestionable healings. And, yes, the money rooooolls in.
Then things turn scary. The side effects of his healing are even worse than the one we saw with the Photographs by Lightning; they are actually rare (about 6% of his patients have them), but in those cases they are _bad_. Jacobs reasons that a 94% unharmed cure rate is better than most doctors gets from deadly diseases, but satisfies Jamie that he has given up the preaching and curing business...
...that is, until he summons Jamie back to witness one final cure. Jamie's high-school sweetheart, Astrid, is dying of very advanced-stage cancer, and Jacobs can cure her ... if Jamie will help Jacobs with one, final electrical experiment.
And there the plot summary stoppeth, except to say that Lovecraftian hints throughout the book are not throwaways. We have no Cthulhu or anything that explicitly Lovecraftian here, but the denouement is the kind of "cosmic horror" Lovecraft strove for and, just occasionally, achieved, the sense that our lives are not only meaningless and purposeless, but just plain _beneath the notice_ of vaster beings.
But that is one strand. Perhaps the thickest strand of King's braid is the loss of people we love. Others include whether there is anything after death, and, if so, what, and how can we know... and, what is reality anyway? and what are _love_ and _trust_?
King's writing is what it always is: plain but not unornamented, folksy but not wide-eyed, explicit but not pornographic, the writing of a true master pulpateer, and terminally, inexorably, readable.
Based on this and the other few I've read recently, I have to conclude that King, in his own 60s and 70s, has become a far better writer than the man who wrote breakouts like _Salem's Lot_ and _The Shining._ His characters have more depth, for one thing; and for another, his stories are not just to horrify. They address things that matter.
And there the review stoppeth, except to say I shall investigate further.
22nd December 2017
Read: The True Flag, by Stephen Kinzer (2017-66)
Subtitle: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire :
--which is pretty much what it's about. Beginning in 1898, America became, yes, imperial, with the taking (detailed herein) of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spain, and Hawai'i into the bargain, almost as a side note. 119 years later, three of those places are still American "Territories," one a state, and one was our bitter enemy for most of the last 70 years. But it nearly didn't happen that way.
The "Expansionists" were faced with a powerful "Anti-Imperialist" movement. Kinzer somewhat personifies the two movements with the two prominent figures of the subtitle, though he is careful to detail the part played by many other Americans on both sides - indeed, Twain was not even in America when the annexations took place, though on his return he quickly took a leadership role in the Anti-Imperialist League; and Roosevelt was not so much the leader of the Expansionists as a tool in the hands of his very good friend Henry Cabot Lodge.
The conflict is summed up neatly on page 245:
"Early promoters of American intervention were zealous patriots. They loudly proclaimed their love for the United States, fidelity to its flag, and willingness to defend its sovereignty to the death. Yet they could not imagine that people in non-white countries might feel just as patriotic. To them, love of country was a mark of civilization, meaning that lesser peoples could not grasp it.
"Anti-imperialists felt a different kind of patriotism. They believed that all power, even American power, is inherently limited - and that this is a good thing because limits keep countries from launching self-defeating wars. Expansionists of 1898 were visionary radicals who wanted to pull the United States into a new age. Anti-imperialists were conservatives who looked back to old virtues, not forward to global power.
"Both sides in this debate saw their country as being in grave danger and wanted to rescue it. The threats they perceived, however, were quite different..."
Just how closely matched the two sides were is clear when you realize that one key vote in the Senate was won (by the expansionists) by a single vote; while another key battle was won in the Supreme Court on a 4-5 split.
The point of this book, however, is not just the events of 1898 and the subsequent years; it is that the two urges that showed forth in the Expansionists and Anti-Imperialists has remained, if not _the_, then certainly _a_ central issue in American politics and the American conscience ever since: on the one hand, there is the American feeling which says, "we must bring the blessings of democracy to other nations" (but never quite seems to do so); on the other, that which says "stick with Washington's Farewell Address, don't meddle in foreign affairs" (and which might well have let Japan take all of Asia, and Hitler have his way with Europe, if the Japnese hadn't bombed Pearl Harbor).
The final chapter skims over the history of American expansionism/interventionism/imperialism and anti-imperialism/isolationism from 1900 to the near-present (the book was published in 2014).
Kinzer writes with clarity and occasional wit, keeping his own feelings on the subject well in the background until the final pages. (Spoiler: He pretty clearly sides with the anti-imperialists.) Both sides are portrayed with humanity, as people who sought an ideal and not mere villains.
I come away with a changed, and hopefully better, sense of where my country is at, and how it got there, and what is going on today. And isn't that what a good history book should so?
14th December 2017
Music for Thursday
Experience Excentrique is a group of classical musicians that perform arrangements of progressive rock songs (among other things), which brings out both the strengths and the weaknesses of the compositions. It's interesting stuff. : https://youtu.be/cUeWKFWd0Bg
And here's Heilung, a band that attempts to "connect the listener to the time before Christianity and its political offsprings that raped and burned itself into the northern european mentality." I'm not sure I agree with their premise, but it's really strange and beautiful music, even the cookie-monster "metal" vocals that start about halfway through.https://youtu.be/QRg_8NNPTD8
(once again, the embedding isn't working the way it should...
The raw HTTP sites arehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUeWKFWd0Bg
12th December 2017
Read: The Annihilation Score, by Charles Stross (2017-65)
Charles Stross is a very entertaining writer, and nowhere is he more entertaining than when he dons the voice of Bob Howard and relates his (mis)adventures in the bureaucracy called The Laundry, the triple-top-secret branch of the British secret service that deals with things from the dungeon dimensions that want to eat our brains, enslave us, or simply destroy the world as we know it. :
Except now. This volume of the Laundry Files adopts the voice of Dr. Dominique "Mo" O'Brien, Bob's wife and keeper of the White Violin, the last of the violins made by Erich Zahn, which she uses (or does it use her?) to kill demons and suchlike.
England (and, indeed, the world) is undergoing a plague of superheroes. That is: people are through no fault of their own becoming capable of performing various feats of theurgy, which they generally interpret as superpowers, leading some of them to dress up in tights and fight (or commit) crime.
So O'Brien, whose identity is compromised to the world early in the story, is set by the Auditors that run the Laundry to start a new official branch of the British police, whose remit is to handle transhumans. To this end she is to recruit well-meaning transhumans and train them.
In other words, she is asked to put together a government-sponsored superhero team, something she really doesn't want to do. O'Brien has enough troubles already: her husband is possessed by (or of) the Eater of Souls; her violin is trying to kill people without her permission; and she's still recovering from the stress of her previous mission, which was _really_ bad.
Oh, and: the first two people Human Resources assigns her to help manage the team are women who both have "histories" with her husband. And there's a Mad Scientist calling himself Professor Freudstein who (a) thumbs his nose at the law and (b) has stolen from the British Library a rare musical score which, played on the Zahn violin, just might destroy the world.
Funny and exciting by turns (or both at the same time), _The Annihilation Score_ is a more than worthy entry into the Laundry Files, and actually not a bad place to start, in that it doesn't assume you've read O'Brien's previous adventures, because none have been published.
Seen: Coco (2017)
To get straight to the chase: yes, it's good. Really, really good. :
Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is a young boy who dreams of being a famous musician. His idol is Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), "the greatest musician in the world," who grew up in Miguel's village and achieved world-wide fame before his untimely death.
The problem is this. Miguel's family hates music. Passionately. Great-great-grandma Imelda was married to a musician who went off one day and never came back, leaving her to raise her daughter, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) alone. To survive, Imelda learned to make shoes; then taught Coco to make shoes; and, to keep it simple, five generations of her family have been shoemakers, and good ones. Miguel's destiny is to be a shoemaker like his fathers before him.
Somehow, Miguel has learned to play the guitar quite well.
Also, his best friend is a street dog, whom he has named Dante, a name that bears multiple meanings in the course of the film.
Then we get to the spooky stuff. It is the Dia de los Muertos
, and on this day a traditional family sets up an ofrenda
, a kind of shrine, containing the pictures of their ancestors (in Miguel's case, all the way back to Mamá Imelda). They have a ceremonial dinner and bring food to the graveyard, for the ancestors, who can only "cross over" if someone has put their picture upon an ofrenda
On the Dia de los Muertos
, the village holds a music competition; Miguel is determined to enter it. But his Abuelita
(Alanna Ubach) discovers his hidden shrine to Ernesto de la Cruz, and destroys it - including his guitar.
Determined to enter, Miguel breaks into de la Cruz's mausoleum and steals his guitar. But as soon as he strikes a chord upon it, he finds himself invisible to the people around him - and able to see the dead, who have come to visit their families and partake of the food offered at the graveyard. After a bit of shuffling back and forth between worlds, he is taken by his dead family to the Land of the Dead.
It turns out that Miguel is under a curse, and it can only be lifted by a blessing from his family. But Imelda won't give it unless Miguel gives up music; and none of her (dead) descendants will cross her. By looking at pictures of guitars, Miguel reaches the startling conclusion that Ernesto de la Cruz is his very own great-great-grandfather, the one who abandoned Imelda, and sets out to claim his
Which, by the way, must be done before sunrise, or Miguel will be in the Land of the Dead forever, or as long as he is remembered on Earth. You see, when one is forgotten completely, one "fades" and is never seen again in the Land of the Dead. This may be a true and final death, or it may be that the Land of the Dead is a liminal waiting place; the movie never decides about this, nor should it. Secrets, as Cain told Abel in another liminal place, are to be kept.
Mind you, this is all in the first twenty minutes or so. The main meat of the movie, which I won't spoil, runs another hour and change. There is a certain amount of crazed action, but even the most frenetic scenes avoid creating the kind of nauseating shift-shift-shift-twist camera action so common in action movies. You can follow it all without losing your popcorn.
(Not that I had any popcorn. But I digress.)
There are revelations galore, hope and despair, joy and sorrow, love and spite. There is generally good voice-acting. There are some surprisingly good songs and guitar playing. There is a villain and good guys and misled people and people who really want what's best for Miguel.
The Land of the Dead is one of the most beautifully imaged otherworlds I have ever seen in a movie, animated or other: Pixar has, once again, advanced their technique by another quantum leap.
Yes. It's good.
7th December 2017
Eleven years on...
I wrote this in 2006. Sadly, with very slight updating (and a few fixes to prosody), it's even more relevant today than it was then... :
the Seventh December,
the night on which everything changed!
Pummelled by Japanese
a nation might well be deranged.
But we stopped and we grieved,
and went on and relieved
a world groaning under the Axis –
and we focussed our will,
to disarm (but not kill)
the enemy who did attack us.
So we set out with care
for the foe was out there
but we knew that the right side was ours.
It took just four years
of iron and tears
to defeat the world’s mightiest powers.
when terrorists struck at our door.
We all felt the shocks,
but we pulled up our socks,
and refocussed our nation once more.
Sixteen years. We have made
quite a pretty parade:
invaded two minor-league nations,
one which terror hosted,
and one which we’d ghosted
through decades of violent predations.
But neither’s been beat,
and pathetic defeat
seems likelier now day by day.
Our soldiers are brave
but their leader, that knave,
throws their lives and our treasure away.
each year in November,
the neocon agitprop plot.
I see no reason
ever should be forgot.
6th December 2017
Geneviève Bergeron :
28 years later you are not forgotten.
4th December 2017
I got an email this morning from Amy, a close friend, whom I would always be happy to hear from. :
The problem is: Amy died in February. When I saw her name appear in my inbox, my heart seized up, and I choked a little.
I hope there is a special place in Hell for people who bot others' email accounts.
2nd December 2017
Read: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (2017-64)
If there were any justice, this book would be up for the World Fantasy or maybe the Hugo next year, for it is a novel of wonder and great creativity. But it won't, because it comes from outside the clubhouse. Oh, well; I suppose George Saunders will have to make do with his pitiful little Man Booker. :
( :) for the irony-impaired. )
What we have is a book narrated in multiple-first-person POV by dead people, except for several chapters (there are over a hundred in total) which consist of quotes from historical sources to set the stage. (Saunders clearly put a _lot_ of effort into researching this novel.)
The Bardo, in Tibetan and some other forms of Buddhism, is that liminal state through which souls pass between death in one life and rebirth in another. The Bardo of this book - never so called - is a sort of parallel space in an around the graveyard where the titular Lincoln lies in a tomb. But this isn't Abraham Lincoln; it's his son Willie, who died of typhoid at the age of 11, in February of 1862, ten months into the Civil War.
Willie's voice appears here and there, but its mostly through those of his neighbors that the story unfolds. There are a great variety of dead people in Oak Hill Cemetery, Georgetown. They note the arrival of their new neighbor, then wonder when, after the solemnities, the father (whom they do not generally know to be the President) returns and spends time with the body, holding it and weeping.
The dead in Oak Hill Cemetery, we come to realize, do not know -- or, rather, they _refuse_ to know -- that they are dead. They describe themselves as "sick," refer to the world of the living as "that other place" or "the previous place," to which they expect to return after healing in their "sick boxes." (Graves and mausolea and such are similarly referred to as "sick houses.") But the father's return to be with his "sick" child moves them to wonder: "We did not know" (I am quoting from memory and it may be slightly inaccurate) "that we could still be loved."
The interesting thing about Saunders's Bardo is how much it resembles the liminal zone between Hell and Heaven in C.S. Lewis's _The Great Divorce_. The dead are regularly visited by beings, often (seeming to be?) people they knew in life, trying to convince them to move on; it is clearly their own stubbornness that keeps them here. And an experience one of the dead has had suggests that this place/state has as much to do with the concept of Purgatory as it does with anything Buddhist.
But this is not a place for children. They generally move on quickly, or, if they don't, something bad happens to them - I won't be more specific, because this review is spoily enough already.
Oh, and: the entire novel (other than the scene-setting quotations) takes place in a single evening. But what a packed evening it is!
29th November 2017
Read: A Blink of the Screen, by Terry Pratchett (2017-64)
Ah; Sir Pterry. We hardly knew ye. In fact, I didn't know ye at all. :
But you've given me some of the most delightful moments of my reading life.
Some of them are in this book. Not many, but a few. I'm delighted to have all the Discworld short fiction in one place, from "Troll Bridge" (a late adventure of Cohen the Barbarian) to "Death and What Comes Next" (a philosopher attempts to confound Death) to "The Sea and Little Fishes" (in which Granny Weatherwax decides to be ... _nice_).
The early works here are decidedly trivial, decidedly juvenilia. None of them are actually _bad_, per se, but some of them (as Pratchett himself points out) could do with some serious pruning. But ... I mean ... the first story (a deal with the Devil, only it's the Devil who's doing the hiring) was published when he was _thirteen_. What do you expect?
By the time you get to the '80s, Pratchett is writing with the grace and economy that is the hallmark of his later work.
So: I'm glad to have it, and I'm glad to have read it, but I doubt I'll be rereading all of it in the future.
25th November 2017
Read: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss (2017-63)
When Ursula K. Le Guin praises a write for his use of language, that should catch your attention. And it did, and I bought this book, the first in the trilogy called the "Kingkiller Chronicle," and then it sat on my shelf for I don't know how long. :
Because I finally pulled it down last week and she is so right. The language sings; it dances; it occasionally juggles and tumbles...
This is an extraordinary book. The fantastic world has the sense of deep history all too often lacking in fantastic worlds, the kind of history that isn't just there to motivate the story but exists on its own terms, for itself. The writing is clear and precise and often beautiful. The characters are real; more, they are unpredictable yet choate, the way real people are. And did I mention the writing? I did? Oh, okay. I'll shut up about it then.
What's it all about then?
To begin with, this is no Tolklone, nor is it a wannabee Harry Potter or Earthsea - though much of the action _does_ take place in a University for "arcanists," it's much more like a real university than either Rowling's or Le Guin's schools. It is not about a Parlous Quest. It is very much a coming-of-age story; at the end of seven hundred odd pages, our hero (Kvothe, by the way, is his name) has barely gotten himself to the age of sixteen.
Oh, yes, "gotten himself" requires some explaining. Kvothe's story is a tale-told-in-an-inn. But it's a tale barely squeezed out of Kothe, the innkeeper who was once Kvothe. And the frame story is not trivial; it is fraught with current and immediate dangers. The roads are not safe. To this inn comes Chronicler, who wants to collect Kvothe's story. At his request, and with some urging from Kvothe's student, Bast, a fae, Kvothe tells his tale.
It is the tale of a boy raised by his parents, wandering showpeople, with the help of the arcanist Abenthy ("Ben"). Then, when he is twelve, the entire caravan is slaughtered and young Kvothe barely escapes alive. He spends the next few years barely surviving - first in the woods, then on the streets and rooftops of the city called Tarbean, itself a complex and lively place.
Finally he emerges from his isolation and applies to the University - where, amazingly, he is taken in, and uniquely so, with a negative tuition for his first term. He makes friends. He makes enemies. He breaks the rules and is quite severely punished. He meets "The Woman," Denna, a figure who becomes more mysterious the better Kvothe gets to know her.
And that's pretty much the story so far. Kvothe wins some competitions, becomes a hero a few times, survives attempts on his life, and so on.
But saying that is like saying that _Moby-Dick_ is eight hundred pages of sailing around looking for a whale, with three short chapters at the end where they actually catch up with it. It's true, but misleading. It's all the stuff, the small adventures, the characters, the incidents, the diversions and discursions, in short, the Stuff in it, that make _Moby-Dick_ a great book. And _The Name of the Wind_ is full of Stuff.
And did I mention the use of language?
23rd November 2017
Seen: Thor Ragnarok (2017)
This one has a bit twistier of a plot than the first two Thor films. :
It begins with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) a prisoner of the fire giant Surtur (voice of Clancy Brown), who brags about his destiny to destroy Asgard. Thor, of course, kills him in a pitched battle.
Returning to Asgard, Thor unmasks Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has been masquerading as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) since the end of the previous movie, far too easily for what should have been a complex plot. Then they go in search of Odin, who tells them for the first time that Hela (Cate Blanchett), goddess of Death, is in fact their older sister, foreshadowing a bunch of stuff, but mostly her return from exile, whereupon she humiliates Thor and Loki in battle, destroying Mjollnir and causing them to be pitched from the Bifrost.
Thor and Loki wind up on Sakaar, ruled by a being called the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) where Loki is doing just fine while Thor is sent to be a gladiator. His opponent is the Grandmaster's champion, the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who is actually quite happy on this world and hasn't been Bruce Banner for two years. They fight to what appears to be a draw.
Meanwhile, Hela has arrived at Asgard and begun massive slaughter of the populace, apparently because they won't bow down and do her bidding. She appoints Skurge (Karl Urban) as her executioner, a job he likes less than he expects to. She also resurrects Fenris, the wolf of Ragnarok, and a bunch of undead warriors.
And then it gets really complicated, but I won't go there. I _will_ say that Ragnarok really happens, but it turns out that this isn't an entirely bad thing. And I will say that the end credits clearly set up next years Avengers movie, Infinity War.
No, he doesn't get Mjollnir back. He _does_ discover his real power - "You aren't the god of hammers, you know" - and loses more than a hammer. Much more.
Hemsworth plays it sarcastically and wittily, in a manner somewhat remniscent of Ron Perlman's performance as Hellboy. Hiddleston's Loki develops depth of character not present in his previous appearances (though hinted at in _The Dark World_). Tessa Thompson has something of a breakout turn as the Valkyrie, and Ruffalo is as good at Hulking and Bannering as ever.
What the hell. I enjoyed it.