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Friday, November 3, 2017

Upon reading H.P. Lovecraft

Great Tales of HorrorGreat Tales of Horror by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

H.P. Lovecraft has a particular way he likes to tell stories. A quaint way, I suppose. Rather than tell the story of an active hero who confronts his main conflict and either succeeds or fails in his efforts, he tells gives us second hand stories, with the action told out of order, and the conflict approached sideways.

The author puts most of the action offstage, seen by reflection rather than by natural light. The heart of the action either takes place long, long ago, or it takes place in a hidden way, behind closed doors, coming to light later. Most of the narration is rather like a police report, or a long diary entry explaining research that has taken years to collect. (Most of his stories are guilty of unnecessary detail and redundant action. I wondered again and again if it would have struck me in a different way 80 years ago, whether I would have relished what I often found dreary.) Rarely do his characters participate in the real story, with the major crisis occurring in real time; they usually are there to investigate what has already happened, to piece it together by hints and clues, more detective story than action story.

The result is that the truly horrific or amazing or terrifying actions are only partly seen, only partly revealed, and only a bit at a time. They are glimpsed, and guessed at, and hidden from or run from, but rarely experienced by the narrator directly. (Some stories, like "The Thing on the Doorstep," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," feel more cinematic and more modern by having moments of true action, but they are the exception.) Sometimes ancient objects or alien relics are catalogued completely, blandly, scientifically, as in "At the Mountains of Madness," or "The Shadow out of Time," but at the same time with much fainting and upset all around, with key portions left out by the narrator because they are too terrifying to reveal.

Lovecraft's strategy is to make the strange and exotic remain somewhat veiled, only partly seen, protecting it from the sanitizing light of first person experience. He feared making his cosmic or supernatural creatures too familiar, robbing them of their impact. For the same reason that movie monsters are not revealed for as long as possible, remaining more frightening the longer they are in the shadows, his horrors are usually kept away from our close scrutiny, with details hinted at but left unsaid.

80 and 90 years after they were written, after decades of science fiction and horror in books and movies dealing with similar themes, our reaction is doubtless much different from that of the original audience. For Lovecraft, the essence of horror is realizing the cold truth revealed by science, by Darwin and astronomers and archaeologists and physicists: that humans are not the only creatures in the universe, or even the original creatures of earth, and that our assumption that we were a special creation, one that is watched over by a loving creator, is nothing but a comforting myth. It is realizing that almost the entire history of life preceded our own, and we are not central to the story of the universe. We are, in fact, minor characters, or nearly invisible and inconsequential props, overshadowed by greater, wiser, more powerful, less comprehensible others.

Lovecraft's fiction uses scale to dethrone humanity, to reduce us to insignificance--galactic distances, deep time measured in eons, unfathomable intelligences without compassion or even sanity--awakening his reader to the notion that humans and human history are vanishingly small and unimportant and fragile and impermanent in a universe that doesn't need us and doesn't care whether we exist another instant. He takes us, thematically, into a terrifying, giant room off our house that we never knew existed. Then, as we are adjusting to this new reality, he shows us a door to a room off that one which dwarfs the first--and then hints at a terrifying door at the end of that room leading to something greater and more incomprehensible and soul-shattering than anything so far.

After that, disoriented, mind blown, we are brought back to small town America to emphasize how our secure and pleasant existence is an illusion. He feeds the fear that perhaps there are malevolent actors, titanic and remorseless, who would gladly squish us if we foolishly succeeded in getting their attention. Over and over in the stories, his characters are like Jack, too curious for their own good, tapping the giant on the shoulder, wondering what happens next.

Usually, the squishing comes next. Thematically speaking.

Lovecraft would very much like us to quit trying to wake the giant.

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Okay, yeah, I really loved this book :) (My review of River of Stars)

River of Stars (Under Heaven, #2)River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew I would like this book before I opened it, because I like virtually everything Guy Gavriel Kay writes, but there were other reasons to hope. I am intrigued by the setting, which is a pseudo-Song Dynasty China, and the plot promised by the blurb is the epic clash-of-cultures type of fantasy that almost always draws me in. But when you read it (if you read it), you soon realize that this is above all a character-driven book, and it is the characters that make this novel so special.

The prose is beautiful, light in a way that makes you believe that this author could write poetry just as easily, and is a pleasure to read, line by line, page by page. But it's still a fantasy, with all the action and fun and vitality that one hopes for in that genre. This is the story of an ancient, crumbling empire facing invading steppe riders, and Kay has constructed a tight plot with sharp, bright action. His scholarship, as always, is exceptional, which he uses to create a sense of time and place so complete that it feels natural, unobtrusive, rather than merely exotic or overwhelmed by details. The events placed in this setting fit logically together like well-crafted puzzle pieces, while still leaving room for heroic action and remarkable face-to-face conflict, with moments where you cheer for and celebrate the brilliant court maneuver as much as the inspired military action.

And all of this works because it's all about the characters; the unfolding plot makes sense because the characters behave according to their natures. They are far from types, or cutouts, though. The main characters and many of the secondary characters are unique individuals with complex but comprehensible objectives. The magic of it is that Kay makes you care about so many of them, living their joy and grief as deeply as if they were real people. The soldier Ren Daiyan; the female scholar Lin Shan; the poet Lu Chen; the brothers and fathers and daughters and ministers and assassins--they live and act and love and fight and die in a world as strange and real as our own, and you live with them and feel for them and experience the story with them in a way that isn't common anywhere, let alone in genre fiction.

River of Stars is a sequel, in a way, to Kay's earlier novel Under Heaven. That book was set in a pseudo-Tang Dynasty, several hundred years before the events of this one. Other than being set in the same fantasy version of China, there is no real connection between them. Under Heaven is a very good book; l enjoyed it in virtually every way, and I absolutely recommend it. Nevertheless, this novel, I feel, is superior. Based on a progression (IMO) from very good to amazing, one hopes the author has the chance to write many more such novels...

River of Stars is both as an exciting fantasy novel and a beautiful piece of literature. I hope, if that recommendation speaks to you, that you love it as much as I do.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Short review of "The Throne of the Crescent Moon"

Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, #1)Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saladin Ahmed has created a fantasy world where Middle Eastern themes and culture are neither disrespected with broad caricatures and offensive tropes nor idealized with the breathless admiration of the wannabe, which is a danger for this sub-genre and others like it. Because he follows this middle road between extremes, the author is able to tell an engaging story that draws on traditional literature like The Arabian Nights but can still comment credibly on humanity and society, especially the evils of the class system. The story is peopled with round main characters who drive the action, but even the imperfectly drawn characters have an arc and both good and bad qualities, enough to give the appearance of realism for fantasy purposes. I enjoyed reading it, and intend to find the sequels.

I have genuine criticisms of the novel, but since it has so much more that I like about it than otherwise I will just leave it at that. A very human author created art that I appreciate, and I look forward to seeing more.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

The book "What If?" and why you should totally buy it

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that doesn't have a clear genre. Physics humor? I dunno. Whatever--it's a lot of fun, and laugh-out-loud funny. (That's not just me talking. I could hear my son across the house when he read it.) The author is brilliant, able to mix great comedic writing with high-level science. It's like Mythbusters and Cracked and Big Bang Theory and a Michael Crichton novel all rolled up into a kind of demented physics lesson. If that appeals, then you're going to like this book.

A hypothetical like "What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% of the speed of light?" is answered with a serious essay--hard numbers, real science. (The short answer is that an expanding ball of plasma would destroy the batter, the backstop, the infield... and about a square mile around the diamond.) Though the questions are taken seriously--"How long could a nuclear submarine last in orbit?"--the answers are ironic. Still accurate, but funny. (Part of the answer: "Nuclear submarines use electricity to extract oxygen from water. In space, there's no water, [citation needed] so they wouldn't be able to manufacture more air...") When discussing things some animals are good at, he writes, "Horned lizards shoot jets of blood from their eyes for distances of up to 5 feet. I don't know why they do this because whenever I reach the phrase 'shoot jets of blood from their eyes' in an article I just stop there and stare at it until I need to lie down..." That's the kind of smart-ass writing that I really like. And it's probably not just me.

What would happen if the ocean drained away? How far would an arrow go with air but no gravity? What would happen if your DNA disappeared? His take on these absurd questions is as entertaining as it is instructive. Even his stick-figure drawings help tell the story. It's like having a crazy-brilliant NASA guy at your party answering the dumbest questions you can think of.

But, you know, drunk.

Highly recommended.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

1950s Bible epic--my review of "The Song of Ruth" by Frank Slaughter

The Song of RuthThe Song of Ruth by Frank G. Slaughter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(I read the Spanish translation--"La Canción de Ruth." Not a great translation, but very readable.)

I enjoyed reading this book, which is why I give it 3 stars. However, it wasn't a very good book, which is why I don't want to score it any higher.

Much of the novel was fun to read, like a romance/action adventure. The characters were pretty good, and although it is a story from the Bible it was not written in a devotional way, so that the bits of religion didn't feel too cloying. However, it had flaws that were impossible to ignore, even reading for fun.

Many of the plot points were not believable, and felt like blind spots in the author's research. It has the kind of flaw that drives me crazy in fiction, relating to errors in scale and size. Sometimes, two points are treated as close, as if they are just a short walk apart, and other times they are days between. Sometimes, the Israelites feel like a community of a couple hundred who all know each other, and then they are treated like a nation of tens of thousands. A related error is the way the author has the characters handling weapons, which he did not write about with much authority. I think he was guessing.

In other words--using a term that might or might not have been current in the 50s when it was written--the author has done a poor job of world-building. Too much was implausible. Honestly, it felt a lot like a 50s-era Hollywood set standing in for the Middle East. That impression is intensified by the fact that Ruth, a Semitic woman of 3000 years ago, has red hair, as if she is played by a European actress. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it better if I had imagined it like a sword and sandal epic, with Tony Curtis as Boaz and Sophia Loren as Ruth. Yeah, that's better.

Or better still, imagine it with William Shatner and some green lady on a red planet. Then I can forgive the cheap Paramount sets. :)

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Upon reading The Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights (Barnes & Noble Leatherbound Classic Collection)The Arabian Nights by Richard Francis Burton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books you know about from cartoons and cultural osmosis, but generally don't read. Well, I'm glad I finally did. Not only is there a lot to enjoy, there's a lot to learn--about the literature of other peoples, historical customs, attitudes toward law and justice, and a thousand (and one) other important things. All taken with a grain of salt, of course, but instructive just the same...

But what I liked learning about most was the place of the servant, and the slave, and the con artist, and the liar, and the murderer, and the swindler, and all the people of that sort. That, to me, was the most interesting part of these stories. They were filled with kings and viziers, true, but they also dealt with people at the bottom of the social ladder, those just getting by, the unfortunates, telling how they lived, how they avoided being crushed by the powerful, what they believed, what they valued. One example of this is seeing how readily sympathetic characters would lie, and how often they would be completely forgiven even when found out. I did not expect that. There was a reverence for the clever con-artist, who was often rewarded, or at least forgiven, because again and again they were respected for their brilliance, even if it was criminal. Some of this parallels western stories and fairy tales, but much of it felt quite different. I liked that.

I wish I had enjoyed the poetry in the Richard Burton translation. I tried to. There is a lot of verse throughout, and the translator worked really hard, it seems, to make the couplets resemble the original, and rhyme in English. The lines are so tortured I can hardly understand their meaning most of the time, even when trying to puzzle it out, which is made worse by Burton, in the late 1800s, using language that I have never seen anywhere else--not in Shakespeare, or Austen, or Tolkien, or Blake, or Spenser. (Where'd he get "fou" and "gar" and "cark" and "undight"? Okay, undight looks like something Spenser would have used...) I would like to have the text rendered in plain prose. I might have enjoyed that more. Would have.

But that's minor. Overall, this volume is a great pleasure. Much more profane than I expected, in a good way--earthier, and more accessible--it is filled with memorable characters and fantastic (in the original sense) stories, offering a fairy-tale glimpse into the kind of lives people enjoyed across the Muslim world centuries ago. Well worth, in my opinion, the time it takes it to read through its pages.

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The 12th Jane Austen mystery--my review

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas (Jane Austen Mysteries #12)Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, like the entire series, is such a pleasure to read. It isn't just that Stephanie Barron gets the language of Jane Austen and the time right, which she really does, or that she gets the details so right, with the appropriate and measured inclusion of all of her meticulous research into Jane Austen's personal story. That's part of it, but not all. As a mystery writer, she has such a deft touch with clues and characters that readers like myself can master the details without growing confused, and can enjoy the story without constantly searching for missed connections or buried clues. As an observer of human nature, Stephanie Barron always impresses, creating a wide range of characters and behavior while always making them feel familiar and real, their concerns genuine and their motivations human. And as a historian, she grounds the novel in the very real history of England after the loss of the colonies, during Napoleon's rise and fall and subsequent rise. Sometimes, I appreciate Jane Austen novels for being set almost outside of time, in a bubble made up of the well-dressed and well-mannered, where members of that polite society mingle in balls and drawing rooms, engaging in witty and bright conversation, safe from the darkness of the outside world--our world. But I appreciate this novel, and whole series, for the opposite reason. The author vividly creates the time and place, establishing the characters in that timeline, so that it is real as our own world, so that it IS our world--no bubble--a place where war and invasion is the frequent topic of conversation and constant concern, where the poor and the unfortunate also have their roles and their lives, and where well-mannered ladies might sew tiny dresses for a niece's new doll or drink tea with the neighbors, but might also investigate a murder or regret the passage of time or feel the pain of grief and lost love. The author has done well to create such a real place, and people it with such engaging characters, and craft so satisfying a story. I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

Drift--by Rachel Maddow

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military PowerDrift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book well worth reading. I have enormous respect for Rachel Maddow, and even more after reading this book, which is basically a long-form essay. Military policy is in no way my favorite topic, and not even particularly interesting to me, but this is written with such a clear voice (just how she sounds in interviews and on the news) with so many real-life examples that I found it as compelling and entertaining as it was informative. Rachel has a quirky manner (which I rather like) which includes bouncing from hard facts to folksy commentary, and from biting satire to disarming concern and empathy. She does not make this topic about herself, but she makes it a personal communication, from her to you, from her store of knowledge to your new information.

The title comes from a quote by Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Obama, who said, "If the military drifts away from its people in this country, that is a catastrophic outcome we as a country can't tolerate." Her thesis is that this is exactly what has happened. It's not just about the ballooning cost of defense, and what that means to other priorities, but the social and political ramifications of these changes.

Because she is scrupulously fact-based--working from news data, biographies, interviews, transcripts, and other verifiable sources, which are clearly described in the back--and conscientiously fair when making her case--avoiding hyperbole or personal animus--it is difficult not to follow her to her conclusion: we've allowed our society to become dissociated from the pain and sacrifice of war which now falls on military families only; we've allowed others--CIA, Blackwater/Xe and other mercenaries, SEAL teams and rangers, etc.--to prosecute war without our knowledge or consent; and we've made it easy for the executive to wage war instead keeping it as a prerogative of Congress, where the Constitution put it. She argues that these and other points need to be pushed back on, and ends with a series of recommendations that (IMO) should probably be in the democratic platform--if not the republican.

Good stuff, on a dry topic. And I couldn't help but think as I read it that John Oliver could make several really good episodes of Last Week Tonight out of this information.

And now, this...

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Malcolm Gladwell's "What the Dog Saw"

What the Dog Saw and Other AdventuresWhat the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I liked The Tipping Point, and I was kind of liking this collection of essays at first. Made up of seemingly random topics that all lead to a "now you know the rest of the story" kind of reveal, it is mostly an intriguing read. Some of the stories are, frankly, quite dull, but they all seemed to have at least one place where he mined the research to make an interesting connection or had a useful insight. But when he started in one essay to make a case for the pseudo-science of "value added measurement" for teachers, and made extravagant claims both for the impact of individual teachers and for the difference in outcomes between so-called good and bad teachers--claims that have since been debunked by statisticians and researchers and courts of law--I soured on his discernment. And, because I knew how wrong he was on this one topic, I had to wonder how many of his other clever connections were based on faulty information.

Maybe this was the only one, but likely not. And there went the main source of pleasure in reading the essays.

You know how, when you get a nasty surprise in a bite of your restaurant food, it puts you off the rest of the meal? That's how I feel about this collection.

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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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