Sunday, July 2, 2017

Reaction to "A Tale of Two Cities."

A Tale of Two CitiesA Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was part of my self-selected, self-assigned summer reading--you know, to make me a better person. ;) Or, more genuinely, to satisfy a kind of curiosity, to see what critics approved of so highly. I didn't intend to like it; I approached it the way others might tour a famous site in a faraway land, finding it interesting more for the history it represents than for its own qualities. But I soon stopped reading like a tourist. I got engaged, and read without irony, with no space between me and the novel, just because I wanted to. I wasn't expecting that.

That last page was the most I've cared about fictional characters in a long time. So, well, done, Mr. Dickens of London. If this volume is any indication, you may have quite a career ahead of you...

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review of Snake Agent, by Liz Williams

Snake Agent (Detective Inspector Chen, #1)Snake Agent by Liz Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As an incredibly original work of imagination, I cannot recommend this novel more highly. The author creates a myth-based fantasy with an Asian vision of earth, heaven, and hell, daring to take the reader to all of these places, and yet it succeeds in doing so convincingly. The comic-book elements of the story--ghosts, magic, kidnapped souls, hell-made epidemics--make perfect sense in the context of the book. The author's imagination does not fail her readers; this book is great fun.

It is obvious that this is a sequel to an unpublished story or stories, but that gives this novel a rich back-story which jumpstarts it right from the first page. The characters--interesting, varied, each with their own motivations--arrive fully-formed in a pre-imagined world whose elaborate settings give color to the fantasy/science fiction/detective action.

Never has the improbable and the unlikely made so much sense. If the blurb seems intriguing--"...when the ghost of a murdered girl fails to arrive in Heaven as expected, it's up to Chen to investigate. the matter..." "Seneschal Zhu Irzh is a demon employed by Hell's own police force to promote and regulate Vice..."--if that sounds like it might be fun to read, you will probably find you're right.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Blood Song, by Anthony Ryan

Blood Song (Raven's Shadow, #1)Blood Song by Anthony Ryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a very satisfying, well-plotted book. It could use some editing (more on that later) but had a lot going for it: some well-drawn characters with their own arcs, an interesting world with a sufficiently complex group of societies, an engaging main character, and both major and minor conflicts that keep a reader turning the pages. I liked the framing technique, using a final plot point (a voyage to a probable execution, with him telling his story to a historian) to reveal his life story. As is so often the case, I could have used less of his training as a young boy, but it's pretty well integrated with the more exciting middle and end. There is mystery and romance and very entertaining action.

What I hated was the lack of editing--specifically, the run-on sentences. From a random page: "Nortah quickly abandoned attempts to teach the men the bow, none of them had the muscle or the skill for it..." There are examples on almost every page, and sometimes two or three close together. "He was always like this before a fight, for some reason the impending violence seemed to calm him." Once is a stylistic choice, but hundreds of times is beyond sloppy. It marred the novel for me, and forced me to re-read whole passages time and again. Here's the irony--it's dead simple to fix.

Good novel, though. I'll look for the next one--but I'll peek at it first to see if it's edited.

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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Elantris--quick review

Elantris (Elantris, #1)Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like Brandon Sanderson quite a bit. However, I like him as an author much more than I like this particular book. I'm glad this is the third book of his I picked up, and not the first.

The last 100 pages are pretty awesome--but at least half of the first 500 should be cut. (I'm speaking more as a fan than a fantasy critic.) I've never read so much dialogue with so little purpose. So many scenes that are almost completely irrelevant. So many characters that are entirely unused, or almost totally unnecessary. So many pages spent on the dull introspection of the antagonist. So much banter about painting and cooking and dating and precocious children in an otherwise fairly serious novel. I found myself skimming whole pages in the second half--filled with tedious and ultimately pointless dialogue that was mostly guessing what everybody else was doing, or guessing how magic worked--trying to locate action that moved the plot forward.

The world building was disappointing, too, and that is definitely one of the author's strong points, typically. I didn't mind the made up words and inelegant personal names and place names (Teod, a place, Reod, an event, Shaod, an event, Hoed, some people, etc.) because you expect that in a Big Fat Fantasy. The nations were not believable, though; the basis for their economic and political systems was flimsy, more suited to video game background than a BFF. The scale was never right--a nation with a long history that still has only one city and can be overthrown by a handful of men... And so on.

I see many others liked the book more than me. That's cool. But if it were up to me, I'd cut out entire chunks of the novel, until you were left with about 250 action-packed pages. Or skip this one, and read something he has written since "Elantris," because it's almost certainly going to be more satisfying.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tristram Shandy (My Goodreads review)

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, GentlemanThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

(Two stars is unfair of me. I should give it at least three just for all the new vocabulary I learned whilst reading it, quoth I.)

Really, I just wanted to watch the movie based on the book. I thought I should read it first, and I set myself the task.

In a way, I'm glad for it. I read it, first to last. From a musty, 80-year-old book (which I proudly place on my shelves with other books of the sort). I win. But why, Mr. Sterne? What in the world?

I thought the book would be difficult--odd--maybe a bit disappointing. Really, though, it was just page after page of "hmmm." Every time I understood what the narrator was saying, he changed topics. Every time I wanted to know the end of an anecdote, he lost the thread.

I understand that the digressions, and the mock seriousness of the foolish topics, and the belaboring of the inconsequential, make up the central conceit of the work. Just... did it have to be so dense? And so opaque? And so protracted? 180,000 words, and so few of them to the point. (You may as well count them as read them.)

So why did I? (Read them, I mean.) Sterne has anticipated me, and provided a reason. "Curiosity governs the first moment; and the second moment is all oeconomy to justify the expence of the first—and for the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth moments, and so on to the day of judgment—'tis a point of Honour." Just so. I was curious, which carried me well into the novel; after I read so much with so little return, I thought maybe I should go on, hoping there would be more later, rather than admitting to myself that I wasted all that time for nothing; and when I saw there would be very little compensation for all my effort, I kept on with grim determination because I would not be defeated!

Oh, I laughed a time or two. The much-interrupted and never-concluded story of the King of Bohemia reads rather like a dry bit of Monty Python. Sterne even returns to it in a way he does not with most of the stories within:

"Your honour was very well the day before yesterday, when I was telling your honour of the story of the King of Bohemia—

Bohemia! said my uncle Toby...musing a long time...What became of that story, Trim?

—We lost it, an' please your honour, somehow betwixt us..."

And I laughed at the end when the widow enquired where Uncle Toby, when he was a soldier, had been injured--in the groin is the answer, and how seriously was what she was getting at--and he happily sent for the map of the battle to show her WHERE he was injured....

Well, I laugh most at myself. Nobody made me do anything. But I bloody well earned my place in front of that movie. Better be funny...

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Tragic Link in My Playlists

I remember 9/11/2001 very well.

A school friend, horrified, called me early that morning, so Carolyn and I were watching live when the second plane struck the tower. It was the most alarming, most horrifying thing I had ever seen in my life.

That is, until the towers fell. There's been nothing like that in my life, before or since.

I have no personal connection to the tragedy, but I saw the faces of those fleeing the rubble and dust; I saw the expressions of those hoping to find their loved ones whole and well; I heard the shock and fear of those reporting on the events. No one could live through such a horror, even at a distance of 2000 miles, and not be affected. Millions of lives, my life included, took a new trajectory that day, changed in numberless ways, both large and small.

We had tickets to see the Phoenix Symphony on September 14th, 2001. Yoyo Ma would be performing, and almost on a whim--I was no particular fan of classical music, or the symphony--I had bought tickets. Then, because of the recent events, and the restrictions on flying, the concert was nearly cancelled. Fortunately, Ma was able at last to get a flight, the concert went ahead. I remember none of it except the first piece played, added at the last minute to commemorate the tragedy--Barber's Adagio.

Barber's Adagio

I feel like I can remember every note from that first hearing. For the only time ever in my memory, I wasn't listening to the music--I was feeling it. It was the perfect expression of our mutual experience, of our national grief. Sorrowful. Slow. Majestic. Heartbroken. It built gradually, with the imperfect resolutions that somehow echo the emotional ache of tragedy. Every note spoke of grief, and regret, and remembrance, and pain, but it was beautiful. Awesomely, touchingly, transcendently beautiful.

I didn't want it to end, though of course it had to. But from that moment on, I have loved that piece of music.

Some time later, searching for anything that made me feel like Barber's Adagio, I found modern Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Famous for writing sacred choral music as well as orchestral pieces, Pärt has a genius for emotional expression. Perhaps the best example is his "Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten," written on the passing of a fellow composer.

"Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten"

I fell in love not only with this piece, but his astonishing choral works, and for a time I played everything I could find composed by Arvo Pärt.


Eventually, I searched for music that was similar to his. This led me to older classical composers, and then to soundtracks, and then to ambient music, and then back to classical. Not everything appealed to me; I haven't learned to enjoy Mozart, or Tchaikovsky, or others that I perhaps should feel something for. But it led me in a widening search for music similar to this music or that music that I had already made my own. It led me to Juan Gutierrez de Padilla, and Francesco Durante, and Wassenaer, and Gorecki, and Weill, and Penderecki, and then most recently to Vivaldi and Telemann and Purcell.

Purcell's Ten Sonatas

Eleven years after the tragedy of 9/11, and the shockwaves it sent through society and culture and politics and private lives, it is easy to see that our country is profoundly different than it might have been. Much has been lost, and much has been suffered.

But separate from the tragedy, and apart from any present awareness of the incalculable suffering of my fellow humans, I have to look at this tiny ripple in my life--a ripple caused, initially, by ugliness and cruelty and unreasoning hate--to see what it might mean.

I look at it, and wonder.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Turning Gifts into Talents

I believed, as a child, in the inherent fairness of the universe. Because it seemed to me unfair that some people were so much better than others at baseball or dance or painting or comedy or sprinting or spelling, I concluded that everyone had to have one outstanding skill. I determined that everyone was the best in the world at something. Later, I scaled back my overly-optimistic view of universal fairness to decide that, although many people may lack an outstanding talent, they were at least better at something than anyone they might be compared to. She can run faster than him; he can beat her at chess. That seemed minimally fair to my 7- or 8-year-old mind.

I've since given up hope on such elaborate plans of fairness being orchestrated by the universe. By adulthood, we've all seen too many tragedies, too many lives cut short, too many awards given to the undeserving, too many of the good guys falling to the bad guys to still believe there's anyone watching out for fairness. But I've also given up on the idea that anything is handed to anybody. Even the most talented have developed their gifts. Singers take voice lessons; athletes train; scientists study.

Françoys Gagné, Ph. D., of the Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada, has developed a model to explain the development of talent (which he defines as the outward performance of a skill) from a gift (which he defines as an innate propensity for a skill, or aptitude).

His model explains how a natural ability--creative, academic, athletic--might be developed or ignored (and he acknowledges the role of chance in every aspect of skill development). The catalysts for development are interpersonal characteristics, such as interest, resilience, and motivation; and environmental characteristics, such as the cultural milieu, family support, teachers, coaches, mentors, and programs. These determine whether or not an individual will have a chance to develop, through practice and education, that gift. An aptitude for music might not develop into a talent unless the individual has an interest, and money for lessons, or programs available. (A gifted Austrian, for example, may develop into a talented skier while a similarly-gifted Hawaiian might not; the reverse would likely be true if the gift is surfing.) These catalysts also determine whether an individual even cares or tries to develop their skill, or whether they persevere in the face of set-backs, or have the income to afford coaching, etc.

Gagne's model is most relevant to school districts which want to ensure that gifted students are not prevented from reaching their potential. For many young people, their only hope for receiving the training they need lies in the neighborhood school. In fact, Gagne has recently argued that far too few minority and low SES students are identified and nurtured. If the schools don't support gifted students, many gifts will never be developed.

This may be true whether students are highly gifted or just normally gifted. In fact, his model would seem to hold true regardless of aptitude. This is demonstrated dramatically by Venezuela's program called El Sistema, or The System. On the face of it, it's a simple system: make instruments and training available across the country for all youngsters of any background, any ability; give them hours of instruction each day; require them to practice another hour on their own each day. But the results are extraordinary. Even at the local level, normal children in fourth and fifth and sixth grade, even from the poorest neighborhoods, achieve impressive results. At the national level, their highest achievers are both inspiring and humbling. Time + effort + support = an almost unimaginable musical flowering.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that it takes 10,000 hours, more or less, to develop and master a skill. That's about three hours a day, every day, for ten years--or half an hour every day for 60 years. You want to play guitar like a virtuoso? Practice, and take lessons, if possible. For years. You want to dance well? Years of practice. But anybody, theoretically, can do it, not just the gifted.

Similarly, some karate instruction obeys the 100,000 repetitions rule. To be able to properly execute a move, without thought, without error, you must practice it 100,000 times. More difficult moves require twice that. In theory, anyway.

Life doesn't offer us very many 10,000 hour chunks. We may only have time outside of work to master a single skill--one instrument, one foreign language, one sport, one academic discipline. But that's still good news. As long as our heart is still beating, we are not shut out. Arts and sciences are not only for the gifted; they're also for the persistent. Music, or dance, or poetry, or drama, or physics, or calculus, or painting, or fiction, or ultimate frisbee can still be learned, and mastered.

It's just as simple, and just as difficult, as taking the time to try, to practice, and to learn.