Friday, October 21, 2016

The Brave Cowboy

The Brave Cowboy: An Old Tale in a New Time
©  1956 Edward Abbey
277 pages

"Where're your papers?"
"My what?"
"Your I.D. -- draft card, social security, driver's license."
"Don't have none. Don't need none. I already know who I am."

When  stock wrangler Jack Burns heard tell that his old friend Paul had gotten himself thrown in the can, he knew there was only one thing to do: get himself thrown in so he could arrange for a jailbreak. So,  riding north he goes on his not-so-faithful horse, Whisky. Two problems:  one, Paul doesn't want to be jailbroken, because it's only a two-year sentence and that's a lot easier for his young family to bear than a lifetime of being hunted.  Two, the sheriff isn't an old-timey fellow with a tin star and nothing else. He's got helicopters.

  The Brave Cowboy is a western in the modern era,  and ends fairly badly for those who pay more attention to the 'western' part than the 'modern' part.    One of Edward Abbey's earlier works, it features two quasi-anarchists, one of whom is imprisoned for resisting the draft,  and several other characters whose paths violently intersect toward the tale's end.  It's a sad story,  almost announcing the Death of the West.    Burns isn't a lantern-jawed hero on a white horse, but he holds to an older sense of honor, and he counts among his friends more recognizably 'good' characters. (Paul is such a fellow,  a pillar of his community who refused to comply with the Selective Service: not because he objected to soldiering, he objected to the government's assumption of ownership over citizens' lives.)  Abbey's terrain description is more functional than poetic here; his talent for conveying the ecstatic beauty of western vistas may have still been in the honing.  What's not absent is Abbey's attitude, his righteous beef against the government and corporate power, against anything oversized and overmighty: half the book is a chase scene through the New Mexico wilderness, as Burns on his horse defies and eludes the local cops, State Police, and even the Air Force, while living off the land.

Dated and crude, but it's hard to lose with a cowboy fighting the Man.  Burns may be a prefigure of Hayduke, from The Monkey Wrench Gang -- there's even a horse named Whisky in Abbey's sequel to MWG, Hayduke Lives!   Another note: this book was the basis of Lonely are the Brave.

A few interesting covers:

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

West of the Revolution

West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776
© 2015 Claudio Saunt
288 pages

In 1776, the bid of thirteen colonies for independence wasn't the only interesting goings-on in North America.  From Alaska to Cuba, colonial and native powers were fighting, trading, exploring, and competing with one another. West of the Revolution begins with Russian forays into the Aleutian islands,  moves south to Calofornia, where Spain frantically attempted to create a safeguard after catching wind of the Russians,  and then takes readers across the Rockies and plains until the Mississippi is reached. There, we travel south to Cuba, which was not only a prospering sugar plantation but a potentially powerful trading partner of the Creek people in the Southeast.   Brief and full of interest,  West of the Revolution not only sheds light on what else was happening in 1776, but provides the context for future developments in American history --  the drive towards the Mississippi and the hunger for Florida.  There's also a rare look into Canada, or rather the Hudson Bay area and still later, a region that encompasses both Canadian and American states. A section on the Black Hills, known to Americans as the home of Mt. Rushmore,  makes plain their importance to the Sioux and other tribes: the Hills are an oasis of rain in a relatively dry region, and for generations a source of food and materials in lean periods.   I discovered this book via a podcast (Ben Franklin's World) and can pass on the recommendation,  no less for the information on Russian and Spanish colonization as for the tour of North America, this most diverse and extraordinary continent.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Week of Enchantment: Epic? Nay, MAMMOTH!

The natural history museum in downtown Albuquerque is monstrously big, and after arriving at its service doors I made my way around the campus ("building" does not suffice), admiring the way the landscape was sculpted and filled with plants to deliberately portray different areas of New Mexico.  I was very nearly the first person in, and decided to do only the museum tour. There's a planetarium, but I was just at the VLA yesterday and had seen massive photos of galaxies, not just stars, there.  The museum is so incredibly HUGE that simulated stargazing wasn't missed. (And...the last time I visited a planetarium, it turned out to be a light show and I fell asleep.)

Where to begin with this place?   Its heart and soul is natural history, with an extensive and winding tour through time that involves dinosaurs, the ice age, and early American man.   The museum tells the story through massive skeleton reproductions, murals, 'real-life' models, and flat pictures.  Just as Carlsbad gave the definition 'cavernous' real weight, here too the megafauna gave 'mammoth' a new meaning.   They were imposing even as frames, and people used to summon the courage to attack them for meat!

Note the the man in the foreground for scale.

A computer science wing attracted my interest going in, though I found it too noisy; television monitors are everywhere,  with interviews of various people like Bill Gates talking about New Mexico's role in turning computers from warehouses into pocket conveniences.  They had all manner of interesting gadgets there: early portable radios, an array of vacuum tubes and transistors; teletype machines, even a UNIVAC.

The plate said UNIVAC, and I've realized now that UNIVAC is a brand name and not a particular machine. 

 The noise moved me out, though, and into the space science hall. There I played with a Mars rover, rotating its camera around with a joystick. It's not as easy as it sounds, because the rover's eyeball isn't obvious.  Massive models of the planets ("and Pluto") line the wall, and a small theater offered a depressing film on environmental destruction, ozone depletion, that sort of thing.  Natural history is king here, from the the T. Rex models to the enormous rock collection. There's even a reproduction of a cave, and live animal exhibits.  In another area, Actual Science is done -- there's a closed off area visible by glass where people were peering into dishes and studying their computers.  Perhaps they were an exhibit: "Science At Work".   The museum also has live animals, at least fish and reptiles.

Week of Enchantment: Takin' that Left Turn at Albuquerque

Ever since I arrived in Albuequerque, I'd be haunted by the constant din of traffic. I entered town in the middle of it, and remained surrounded by it. It never ceased -- even at three am in the morning, I'd awake and hear the steady roar of the interstate and Coors Boulevard.   Here in Old Town, though, long before tourists and shopkeepers had arrived, I was free from the storm of steel.

I beelined for the church, of course, it being the largest and most attractive building. Called San Felipes, it was closed for the moment, but early visitors like myself could still wander the courtyard.  After getting my bearings, I noticed the doors being opened and entered.

Sanctuary of San Felipes. Notice statue of Mary on left, posed above an entombed Jesus.  

San Felipes later in the day

San Felipes was the only church I visited whose aura hadn't been trampled under by throngs of fellow tourists, and I enjoyed five minutes of peaceful silence before anyone else came in. They came armed, with cameras, so I took my own shots and departed.  From here I would wander in and out of streets admiring the architecture.  I decided to see if I could find the science museum, but on the way encountered art.

Does that say 'Christmas Shop'? Yes. Does it refer to red and green chile? No.

Monument to Spanish colonists

To the left of our intrepid explorers lays the rear of the science museum. Onward! 

The Sword of Summer

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer
© 2015 Rick Riordan
491 pages

Magnus Chase is the Boy Who Lived.  As a youngster he witnessed his mother sacrifice herself for him, dying at the hands of some evil creature that he remembers as a wolf.  Having been homeless ever since, Magnus is confronted  on his 16th birthday by a lost relative who duly informs him:  Magnus, yer a Norse god!

..okay, the son of a Norse god. Not Odin, of course, just Freya -- the fellow we named Fridays after. God of summer and the growing season, apparently.  (Demeter with a beard?) Long ago,  Freya gave up his sword for love, which is unfortunate because he needed it to fight in Ragnar√∂k,  the battle at the end of the world. The only one who can retrieve it from its watery grave is his only living son...Magnus. You know how these things go if you've read any Riordan at all. The plot for all the series so far: "Hey, kid, you're a demigod. The world is ending in a week (by the solstice/equinox/new moon)  unless you and your plucky sidekicks (one girl who can fight, one boy who can't but is a magic native providing exposition) can find, rescue, and transport the Magic MacGuffin across the continent and frustrate or kill  the minions, mini-bosses, or Monster of Chaos itself.  (It's hard to take Ragnarok seriously when the world is on the precipice of doom every single novel.) This happens in nearly every book of all the series, which is why I haven't bothered reading him in a while.

I found Sword of Summer mildly enjoyable in a cartoonish sense.  Very little of Norse mythology's dreadful awe is here, though it's impossible to make light of Loki being chained with his slain son's entrails.  Aside from that Riordan's world -- full of Elvish TV addicts,  Dwarfen Taylor Swift fans, and entirely too many characters who introduce themselves with an interesting monicker, then add, 'Call me Jack//Otis/Bob' -- is definitely juvenile.   Magnus, introduced as homeless for several years, doesn't bear any sign of that beyond leaf debris in his hair.   There are interesting moments, though;  Magnus' Valkyrie,  Samirah, is a hijab-wearing Arab woman who sees no conflict between working for Norse gods and worshipping Allah.  According to her, her family has a history of involvement with the Norse.  There are more subtle jokes, too;  one set of characters consistently refers to their boss as the Capo.  They're not Sicilian mobsters, though, they're using the word in its Latin sense: their boss is a head, carried around in a bag.

 As glad as I am to see fiction about northern mythology,  the Norse stories mentioned as background to Magnus' quests, combined with the mostly-funny chapter titles, are the chief entertainment, aided slightly by more unexpected characters like a deaf-mute Elf and and Samirah.  I might read the second book, but only when in need of a little light diversion, as I was this past weekend.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"They cannot conquer forever!" said Frodo

Lewis expressed a similar thought in his nonfiction, The Weight of Glory:

"A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease."

My strategy for surviving this nadir of politics has  been to keep the advice of a letter to the Philippians in mind:

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Kahlil Gibran, too, is helpful:

“Yesterday we obeyed kings and bent our necks before emperors. But today we kneel only to truth, follow only beauty, and obey only love.”

They cannot conquer forever, as Sam said...the sun will shine again.

Friday, October 14, 2016

World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
© 2006 Max Brooks
352 pages

Reading Night of the Living Trekkies put me in the mood for more weird fiction, and World War Z fits the bill!  Fictional, but not a novel, it presents itself as an 'oral history' of the great zombie war -- one that began as a medical crisis before metastasizing into a global struggle to survive.

 The writing is clever;  this isn't the retelling of an action novel, but a depiction of global society  reeling under the threat and changing to take on new circumstances.  Early on we see nation-states struggling under waves of refugees, the stresses producing conventional warfare. As the epidemic morphs into a war,  we are with the soldiers and generals who realize how poorly suited modern warfare is to fighting the undead.   Zombie hordes have no supply lines to guard, no officers who can be shot,  and no problem replacing fallen comrades: every enemy they kill reanimates to fight for the horde.  Destroying their bodies merely slows them down; death necessitates headshots or decapitations.    The author has a good handle on how diverse the human race is;  the plague has different names throughout the globe, depending on how it was first discovered.  This can lead to tragedy;  one name for it, "African rabies", lead people to think that rabies  inoculations would keep them safe.

 Responses to the threat vary by nation; some survive, some vanish, and some -- Cuba, incredibly -- thrive.  The author also create some sense of the psychological toll the war is having on people, through the creation of 'quisling's, humans who pretend to be zombies. It's not simply a matter of playing possum; they actively live as the undead, even trying to eat people.  Civilization doesn't collapse completely; although strategic retreats abandon much of the planet, castles and strongholds provide safer areas where abandoned material can be refashioned into tools for war. The war has a strange combination of modern and medieval;  airplanes are used only for  supplies and recon, and melee combat returns in a big way.  The American infantry's favored melee weapon is a combination spade and axe, the Lobo.

With characters from across the planet, and a similarly diverse set of pondered topics, World War Z  must be the most intelligent zombie fiction out there!