Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books from 2017 (so far)

This week's Top Ten Tuesday from the Broke and the Bookish concerns favorite books for the year, and while there's still a chance that some amazing book could pop up in the last two weeks of the year,  I'll go ahead and offer my thoughts. 

1. In the  City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, Pete Jordan.  Rarely does a book give me such joy as this,  a history of Amsterdam's bike culture and the author's experiences getting used to it.  I'll quote my review:

It's simply a story of humans living well --  Jordan, and the people of Amsterdam as a whole.  It is connected but free, rebellious but highly functional for human needs. If you like the city at its best, or like cycling, or simply have a care for human flourishing, this is a wonderful little book. I loved it before I bought it, I was thoroughly enblissed while reading it, and I already know it's one I will keep remembering with the thought: this is how life should be.

2. The Twilight of the Presidency, George E. Reedy.  A former Johnson aide who was fascinated by his boss's isolation during his administration here analyzes how the presidency has become an elective monarchy -- and a bad one, surrounded by hundreds of people who shield their king from criticism, and make the imponderable ship of state even harder to move from its course. Crucially, the problem is now structural: it doesn't matter who is elected, because the same problems have afflicted nearly every man since Hoover. 

3. This Brave New World:  India, China, and the United States; Anja Manuel. This book both reviews the political. cultural, and economic evolution of 21st century India and China, as well as argues for  a prudent American relationship with both (rather than favoring one against the other). 

4. Fear no Evil, Natan Sharansky. A Jewish Russian is picked up for his political activism -- arguing for easier emigration of Jews  from Russia to Israel -- and fights back against the gulag's psychological warfare. An incredible story of a man who kept his integrity in unimaginably difficult circumstances. 

5. How To Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen.  This is a tongue in cheek "appraisal" of modern mass culture, and how destructive it is to a humane life and humanistic education.  Esolen abandons the farcial praise in his sequel, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child

On its face, Redshirts is a fantastic parody of Star Trek,   more serious than Galaxy Quest but definitely fun. Those codas at the end, however, turned it into a moving story.  I listened to the Wil Wheaton  Audible presentation.

7. Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwest in Pursuit of Coronado, Douglas Preston. I'd like to think that I would have been thrilled by this book on the basis of its writing alone, its excellent mix of history, travel, and reflections on the Southwest,  even if I didn't have a fascination with the Southwest that visiting it has only increased.

8. Conquest of the Skies: A History of Commercial Aviation, Carl Solberg.  It's everything I could ask for in a history of commercial aviation, covering business, society, and technical advance. 

9. The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, David Eimer. A tour of the outer rim of China, covering steppes, mountains, jungles, deserts, and tundra, and mixing stories of China's revolutions with those of smaller people carried along in China's wake...from Tibetans to Russians.  Great variety here in terms of the topics discussed -- religion,   narco states, Russian architecture...

10. The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. This one is cheating a bit, since I'm not yet done with the third volume, but it would have merited inclusion here just based on the first volume. 

Honorable mentions:

The Circle, Dave Eggers.  Google eats facebook and Apple and goes evil.   Comedy meets..er, 1984. 

The Fellowship, Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip and Carol Zaleski.  A four-part biography on C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. I still haven't finished a review for this, and frankly -- need to re-read it, because the first time around I largely focused on Lewis and Tolkien. 

Ancestral Shadows, Russell Kirk. This collection of short stories features ghostly characters who often don't know they're caught in the veil between the living and the dead -- and neither does the reader, very often. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Favorite Covers from 2017

Although we're not supposed to judge books by their cover, it still happens. A good cover can draw the shopper's eye, and impart some feeling of what the book has inside.  Perhaps it's an atmospheric murder mystery, a  grimly functional war story,  or a breathtaking journey into another country.   Any of those can conveyed by the right cover, and some books are worth savoring just for their cover art.

In no particular order, here are my ten favorite book covers from 2017!

1. On Bikes: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life, Amy walker

Facing a city in the sunrise, with a day of adventures ahead of us, this cover is warm, inviting, and optimistic.  I think it's incredibly effective at delivering the title.

2. Before Plan 9: Plans 1-8 From Outer Space

The utter goofiness of the original movie and many of the stories here is captured rather well by this art.

3. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson

Here we see both the innocent wonder of a child, and the glory of the cosmos, matched perfectly.

4. Cities of Gold, Douglas Preston

The sun's rays on an adobe village, which a perfect sky behind them -- what a fantastic photograph!

5. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

This cover really evokes a man against the world feeling, as well as Roark's triumph, his love for the energy of cities and the creative work their skylines could show.

It could just be the use of blue and orange, but this one jumps out at me.

Cyberpunks uses contrast even more (red, purple, green, and yellow), but I like the fist and keyboard imagery evoking the rebellion of early technolibertarians. 

8. The Benedict Option

The Benedict Option's appeal is completely opposite: instead of contrast and energy, its cover is one of peaceful, serene stability. 

There's a lot going on in this cover, which makes sense given how the book opens a reader's eyes to how lively our bodies are.

10. Empires of Light

This cover inspired this list; I checked the book out several times before reading it, and every time I was drawn back by the gloriously lit tower and the art-deco like font.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Empires of Light

Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World 
© 2004 Jill Jonnes
464 pages

Empires of Light is less a history of how the United States became electrified and more a biography of three electrical titans – Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse -- as they pursued their own electrical projects in cooperation and bitter conflict. All three were passionate, heedless inventors who loved plowing their money in money into new ideas, sometimes at the cost of bankruptcy. They differed sharply, however, on the best way to distribute electricity. Edison preferred the safe, expensive, and density-demanding direct current. Westinghouse and Tesla both viewed alternating current -- which was easy to ramp up the voltage or ‘speed’ of electricity, and transmit at long distances -- as far more promising, allowing them to reach places that didn’t have the population density of New York City or Pittsburgh. Alternating current was more dangerous to work with, however, and Edison used his rivals’ volatility for all it was worth. When the State of New York considered using electricity for the death penalty, Edison – borrowing a page from Marc Anthony’s funeral speech lauding Caesar’s assassins – praised the merits of Westinghouse’s AC for killing people. He hopefully speculated that perhaps in the future death row would be the “westinghouse”, and killing someone with electricity would be a verb – “He was westinghoused”. Sheer economics, however, shifted favor to AC’s court, and by 1930 even Midwest towns could count on the lights being on. Edison would return to his phonograph and open the doors for moving pictures and Hollywood, while Tesla – whose AC projects had made possible the electrification of Niagra Falls – would drift from idea to idea, all of which were ‘ahead of their time’, and none of which ever became realized. One that came close was a radio-controlled mini-boat.

Although Empires is often entertaining – between chapters on patent wars, anyway – the combination of biography and business/technical history didn’t quite click for me, possibly because I was chiefly interested in the electrification of the US and less so in the projects (The White City, Niagra) that allowed Westinghouse to prove AC’s worth. Readers will glean only a flicker of information about the pace of electrical expansion, chiefly through the cited sales of AC light bulbs. These men certainly merit reading about: Edison and Tesla are both legends, but Westinghouse made his reputation in brilliant but boring improvements to railroad brakes and such, and his and Teslas’ expansion of the AC system accomplished the same for the electrical infrastructure of the US.

Phillip Schewe's The Grid: A Journey into the Heart of Our Electrified World is more about national electrification, but its history jumped from Edison's early attempts at municipal power transmission to governments co-opting power companies as public utilities.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London
© 1933 George Orwell
224 pages
"Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge.
"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?"
(A Christmas Carol)

In 1933, young George Orwell took a room in the warrens of Paris and was promptly rendered penniless when someone broke into his room and stole his savings. Struggling to find work teaching English, Orwell drifted into poverty, until he found himself back in England, living as a tramp. Or...did he?  Down and Out in Paris and London describes itself (in my edition) as a novel;   elsewhere, it is described as a memoir of Orwell's, one that took real events and made a proper story out of them.   Regardless,  Down and Out delivers a convincing picture of life in the dregs, both employed and not.

The story begins in Paris, where a struggling narrator links up with a Russian friend of his as they both try to avoid being thrown out of their penny flats. They try everything from the circus to  writing Communist propaganda, but most of these opportunities melt away as soon as they get close. (Orwell concludes that  the communists are swindlers; brother, you ain't see nothin' yet.)   At last they find work -- and plenty of it -- in the kitchens of a classy hotel, which is far from classy behind the servants' doors. There the scene is chaos, insults, heat, and staff wading their way around one another through floors wet with discarded lettuce leaves and oil.  Seventeen hours a day -- broken by a mid-afternoon break to relax in the bistros --  is not unusual.  This provides a secure existence until the two friends break away to help launch a Russian restaurant. It never ignites, and eventually Orwell drifts to England where he takes up tramping and tries various boarding houses and so on.

Most of this is strictly memoir, but Orwell pauses to reflect on what he is seeing from time to time. He notes, for instance, that the high class meals are an utter farce: if the gentlemen outside were to witness their food being prepared, they would hesitate to feed the result to their dogs -- what between the steaks being rescued from dustbins and the hair grease-tainted soup. The work was badly organized, Orwell wrote, highly inefficient, and he suspected motive at work. Keep the lower classes running hither and yon, and they wouldn't have time to get in trouble.  Similarly inefficient is the waste of human energy he sees in London:  the tramps spend their time on the move because they're only permitted to use a given relief house once, so they move from house to house. All of this time spent walking and waiting for hostels to open could be made more productive, Orwell muses, if lodging homes for the poor included some element of farming: those who stayed would work towards their own support.

Down and Out is utterly readable in the Orwell way and despite its subject is funny from time to time. One man is described as rather ambiguous, for he wore sidewhiskers and those were the mark of either an apache or an intellectual -- and no one knew how to place him.  In the Paris segment, when the narrator considers a job at the circus, the requirement include: cleaning up litter,  moving benches, and standing astride two chairs so that a lion might pass through one's legs. One of those things is not like the other.   Orwell captures a great many human stories, some of them curiosities of the time -- like the Russians who fled Stalinist Russia.  Part of his argument made a certain sense and others do not. He writes that beggars' labors should be considered as work, since they perform actions -- wailing a song, or drawing on the sidewalk -- that are responded to (albeit grudgingly) with money.  What's the difference between that and a man swinging a pick at the railroad, he asks -- they're both labor.  That would be the labor theory of value, which is of interest to middle schoolers who spend all day half-hardheartedly picking at their bedrooms and then claim they've worked all day at it.   The difference between a man paying to go to an Enrico Caruso concert and a man giving a dollar to a street yodeling is that he actually wants to listen to Caruso, and he wants to get away from the yodeler.  The London system does seem inefficient, but equally counterproductive is encouraging unemployed people to remain in one county forever through social support, when there are neither jobs nor the prospect of jobs in then near future. People used to move away when opportunities failed; now problems just fester.  It just goes to show that there are no solutions, merely trade-offs.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Welcome to the Orthodox Church

Welcome to the Orthodox Church
© 2015 Fredrica Mathews-Green 
384 pages

What it means to be liturgical can't be encapsulated in a creed; liturgy has to be practiced,  experienced.  In Welcome to Orthodoxy,  FMG creates a fictional Orthodox parish and guides readers through it. She begins first with a tour of the church's physical structure -- an outward and visible sign of its theology -- before guiding her readers through Vespers, the Divine Liturgy, Pascha, and -- the holiest of holies -- coffee hour.   FMG isn't playing tour guide to a fictional landscape, as every step of the way she is sharing the theology and culture of the Orthodox tradition.  Particularly interesting for me is FMG’s statement that the Orthodox regard the Crucifixion differently; for them, Christ died to conquer Death – not to sacrifice himself as atonement for forgiveness of sin.  Kin to this is the Orthodox view of sin, which is regarded as deathly not because sin is like a law that carries the death penalty, but because sin is simply spiritual disease. Anger, lust and so on disrupt the soul’s connection to God, and make people vulnerable to worsened health - -both spiritual and physical. This view is echoed in Stoicism, or at least in the writings of Marcus Aurelius -- he urged himself to return to philosophy as a patient to the doctor.   Throughout the book, FMG explains the origin of Orthodox practices that seem strange to ‘modern’ Christians who are largely divorced from history. . Icons, for instance, are viewed as windows into heaven, and when they are kissed it is not the object that is being greeted, but the person who the icon is showing.  I've read similar books (The Way, on theology, and FMG's Facing East, on a year in the Orthodox church), so there weren't many surprises.  I could see recommending this to someone who was curious about the Orthodox tradition.

Blogger having some technical hiccup, so here are links which would otherwise be in-text:

The Way:
Facing East:
The Orthodox Church

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Emperor Far Away

The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China
© 2014 David Eimer
336 pages

The Emperor Far Away takes readers on a journey along China’s outer rim, beginning in the western steppes where the ‘Chinese’ are a minority,  and following it south to the Tibetan plateau, the jungles of the Golden Triangle, up to the Korean border,  and ending in the far north,  where the snow only melts for three months of the year.   Eimer’s  travels would be fascinating in themselves, given the variety of landscapes and people encountered, but also shed light on the Chinese state’s interactions with its neighbors and internal ‘others’.

The people’s republic of China, like the supposedly vanished empire whose borders it revived,  counts a multitude of peoples as its subjects.  The Chinese state recognizes at least 56 ‘minorities’ within its borders.  The Uighur people of Xinjiang, a larger group,  are more Turkic than ‘Asian’, and hold fast to their own traditions -- particularly Islam. This annoys the Party to no end,  and not only because it disdains religion.  The unity of the Chinese state and its people -- unity controlled by the party -- is a fundamental doctrine of the government.  Separatism is heresy, and since religion’s importance in creating cultural identities is rivaled only by language it remains anathema. Despite this, even its own people drift into religion:  in the section on Tibet, we meet Chinese tourists who are searching for something in the Buddhist temples,  and those near the Korean border are embracing exuberant evangelical sects like Pentecostalism.

The golden triangle is another area of interest. for here there exists narco-states that ignore national boundaries and impose their own authority on their subjects.   These are not necessarily dangerous places, provided one is vouched for. The streets are patrolled by fifteen year olds with Kalushnikovs, and the economy largely consists of growing, processing, and shipping opioids -- including little red pills that are not swallowed, but exposed to flames and the smoke inhaled.  China’s southern border encompasses both ‘model minorities’ and unyielding nomads,  the latter of whom are most common in Tibet, where they have traded camels for motorbikes.  Unlike Xinjiang and Tibet, the people in the golden triangle region are free from the fear that their culture will one day vanish: the Han are not settling en masse here as they are elsewhere.

Further north, near the border with Korea, readers encounter the ‘third’ Korea. The Yanbian prefecture of of China sits along the North Korean border, and nearly half of its population is ethnically Korean. Some are refugees from North Korea, others have drifted there more naturally -- and like American immigrants, many straddle two identities and refer to themselves as Chinese Koreans.   The region is strongly influenced by South Korean culture, and particularly its abundance of churches. Because of the fusion of North Korean refugees and South Korean culture, Eimer believes Yanbian is an image of what a unified Korea might look like. Even further north Chinese culture mixes with Russian, instead, resulting in blonde-haired blue-eyed people with Chinese names. 

If Emperor Far Away is anything, it is varied. Eimer takes us across steppes, up mountains, down rivers, into the jungle, and finally into areas so cold that the snow is only absent in the high summer.   Eimer’s interest in meeting people off the beaten track makes for interesting reading as he uses his Mandarin, a few contacts, and the curiosity of people to make travel arrangements on the fly.  Sometimes this meant breaking down in the middle of nowhere,  bypassing border checkpoints, and hitching rides on cargo ships.  Those interested in China’s  place on the world stage will no doubt be interested in sections like the one on North Korea, where it is revealed the Chinese government treats North Korea like one of its autonomous prefectures:  it doesn’t respect the Kims as leaders of a neighboring nation so much as it regards them as a necessarily evil.  Better to manage the Kims and keep their economy from dying completely than to see the place collapse and all those starving  Kim captives flood China.  The chapter on the Chinese-Russian border is a reminder of how the Chinese are haunted by the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse,   one of the reasons the Party is so ruthless about political dissent.

Emperor Far Away will easily rank as one of my more memorable and helpful reads this year.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Are We There Yet?

(I am officially curious about that statue/statues...)

This year my study series has been the Discovery of Asia, with a stated goal of reading two books in Asian (primarily Indian and Chinese) history per month.   Other challenges and themes have cut into that, aided and abetted by some general sloth,  and I’m five books shy of making my goal.   But I have a month left, and I’m going to see if I can’t make it!     I have two books in the post (Factory Girls and Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, both ‘life in modern China’-esque books),   two on my Kindle,   Nehru’s Discovery of India, and my local library’s holdings, so I’m fixed for content.    Speaking of, here's another micro-review, this time from a book I was reading during my St. Augustine trip and...er, left in the weekend bag when I threw it in the closet.

Dragon Rising uses each geographical region of China to review an aspect of the country; Shanghai stars in a chapter on China's infrastructure projects, and other areas cover agriculture, manufacture and shipping, the environment, and so on. The final chapter is particularly interesting as it addresses China's influence on other countries in Southeast Asia and abroad, as in Latin America. The photography is beautiful.

Friday, November 24, 2017

China, Japan, and New Mexico

In the last couple of weeks I've finished some books  that haven't gotten full reviews. Here are some quick shots!

First up: New Mexico, A History. This is...exactly what it says it is, a history of New Mexico. Published to celebrate the state's 100th anniversary of being part of the union, it begins with the first known human habitation of the area and proceeds to the present day. In broad strokes:  Pueblos and other tribes settle, the Spanish arrive to preach and mine, Mexico revolts, Texas invades, cattlemen and sheep-ranchers fight, rail lines bring farms and tourism, World War 2 brings a lot of military investment,  Indians organize for civil rights, and the cities pursue their own individual identities:  Santa Fe as the ancient and mysterious capital, Albuquerque as the progressive center of business, Las Cruces as a haven for low-income residents, and Roswell as...well, you know Roswell.  If you have an interest in the state, it's an interesting book, particularly given that New Mexico is home to three cultures which have been rubbing off on one another for centuries.

Next: Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WW2. When I checked this out I thought it covered the second half of the 20th century, documenting how a war-ravaged empire became a booming democracy whose economic prowess was putting the fear of conquest into people in the 1980s.  The book largely focused on the immediate postwar era, however, on the six years of American occupation in which the Japanese had to figure out what to do in the wake of their worldview being fairly destroyed.  It makes for diverse reading: the author examines new literature and social behavior alongside debates over a political constitution and economic development.

Thirdly, The Heart of the Dragon is a book published in 1985 which surveys Chinese culture.  In the wake of reform, China's economy was on the rise. threatening even Japan. This survey explores China's historical legacy and its growing role in the global economy.  China's culture, not its politics then and now, are the feature;  early chapters cover the arguments between China's biggest schools of thought (Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism). The first two had their own differences, but both had an optimistic view of human nature at odds with Legalism -- which viewed people as so liable to mischief that only an omnipresent and unyielding mesh of rules could keep them on the straight and narrow.  Although the chapters on agriculture and economics are badly dated,  overall it's an attractive introduction to Chinese society through the ages.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

These Rugged Days

These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War
© 2017 John Sledge
296 pages

Although Alabama was not the site of as many bloody battles as Virginia and Tennessee in the Civil War, it was not a quiet backwater only troubled at the war’s end. From the Confederacy’s birthplace in Montgomery in 1861 to the coup de gr√Ęce burning of Selma in 1865, Alabama saw altercations, skirmishes, and at least one major battle throughout the war. These Rugged Days is a personal history of Alabama in the civil war, in which the accounts of battle are made more intimate and entertaining by unique stories from the ground.

When South Carolina seceded from the union, Alabama was one of the first states to follow, and its central location in the deep south seemed to recommend Montgomery as a capital – one supported by two major commercial rivers, no shortage of rich farmland, a secure port, and ample mineral deposits. As an example of like repelling like, however, the politicians who gathered in Montgomery in that humid spring were put off by the clouds of mosquitos. Although the seat of government moved to Virginia, Alabama’s rail lines and rivers were of great interest to the enemy. Union cavalry raided and captured several cities in northern Alabama early on, only to be driven out. Sledge notes that Florence and Huntsville would change hands several times throughout the war. Although many citizens of northern Alabama were unionists, and the first Union troops were careful not to step on toes, the eventual Union reprisals against civilian populations in the wake of guerilla war alienated the military and their civilian hosts against one another. Larger in scale was the siege of Mobile, the port of which  fell in 1864. Mobile was an important port city for the entire South, hosting blockade runners who darted to Cuba and back with supplies long after New Orleans had fallen. The battle of Mobile Bay involved several ironclads, as well as the use of naval mines (or “torpedoes” – this battle gave birth to the expression, “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!”).  The city itself, however, would not be taken until 1865.

Sledge opens the book with a story from his childhood, recounting the moment in which history became real: he and a friend discovered a half-buried Spencer carbine along a creek bed, one presumably dropped by an invading Yankee during Wilson’s raid. Throughout These Rugged Days, he draws on stories that add a human touch to the already lively account of daring raids, rebellious farmhands, and steady action. The chapter on Streight’s Raid, for instance, includes several humorous accounts – though the raid was bound for some level of absurdity from the beginning. It was a cavalry raid conducted on mules, who frequently gave their riders trouble and drew amused crowds. The troopers had their own laughs; in one abandoned town, a few newspapermen turned cavalry broke into the town’s news office and printed a broadsheet that presented the arrival of the Yankees as if they were a group of young men come to pay a social call. (“It is unknown how long the general and his friends will stay with us.”) The conclusion of that raid saw the troopers surrender to a force a third of their size after being bloodily harried for days. The rebel commander Nathan Bedford Forrest ‘put the skeer in’ his opponents by sending aides with orders to nonexistent companies and shuffling his two guns to appear like a battery of fifteen. Streight was not amused when he realized how small a force had taken him in. The book concludes with Wilson’s Raid, a large cavalry action that involved a running battle between carbine-carrying Yank cavalrymen fighting against a much smaller Confederate force led by Forrest. They sparred from Montevallo to Selma, where Wilson achieved his aim in burning the city and its naval foundries, which had helped make Mobile such a tough nut to crack. (Selma’s contribution to the naval war were honored in the good ship Selma, which was the last to surrender at Mobile Bay. )

Although there are other books on Alabama in the civil war, These Rugged Days is easily the most entertaining book I’ve read on the subject. The author has obviously inherited his father’s ability to weave a story that keeps audiences spellbound.

With the Old Breed, Gene Sledge. (Literally related: Gene Sledge is John's father.)
The Yellowhammer War: The Civil War  and Reconstruction in Alabama

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Never Ending Sacrifice

The Never Ending Sacrifice
© 2009 Una McCormack
352 pages

No Star Trek series rivals Deep Space Nine for its moral drama, for its stationary setting meant that characters had to live with the consequences of thir decisions. It told rich stories, and put characters into hard positions. Decisions and their consequences are the theme of The Never Ending Sacrifice, which tells the story of a young boy whose life changed radically when Commander Sisko had to make a hard choice about him, The boy, Rugal, was a Cardassian orphan thought dead by his father, adopted and raised by Bajorans as their own. When the boy's Cardassian father realized his son was still alive and on the station, he successfully petitioned Sisko for custody. The Never Ending Sacrifice explores the consequences of that decision, as Rugal returns to a Cardassia that will -- as DS9's seven year run unfolds -- descend into hell. As Cardassia reels from one government to another, Rugal copes with his homesickness and self-loathing -- lashing out against those who want to love him, and courting disaster by seeking purpose in revolution. Ultimately, as Cardassia falls into tragedy -- the abyss of the Dominion War, and its eight hundred million dead -- a young man surrounded by death finds life to cherish.

My regard for this book see-sawed a bit at first. I was immediately won over by the title, which is that of a Cardassian family epic mentioned in "The Wire". As Rugal uneasily settled into his new Cardassian life, I was disappointed in the easy "Bad Guy Empire" rendering of Cardassian society, as it seemed less like a coherent state and more of a device to complain about contemporary society. However, McCormack skillfully works in connections to the larger Trek verse that lured me into appreciating it more. Rugal takes inspiration from the words of dissident professor Natima Lang, for instance, who fled Cardassia in "Profit and Loss"; Tekeny Ghemor, the sympathetic reformist gul who was the target of a plot in "Second Skin", is a constant source of hope -- and later on, Rugal's connections to Ziyal allow him to elicit the help of one Elim Garak. Ultimately, it was McCormack's ending which fully won me over. Rugal fights the title of the novel by resisting the tendency to pass on old battles to the next generation, and his own decisions to stay or go create a redemptive ending that buried my grumbles. Although this is not quite A Stitch in Time, it's still very good.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

North Alabama III: Beautiful Buildings and Curious Stories

Another purpose of my weekend in northern Alabama was to visit cities I've heard of, but never visited -- Florence, Muscle Shoals, and Decatur.  Muscle Shoals earned a name for itself in the 1970s when it became a center for music production, commemorated in the Lynard Skynard song "Sweet Home Alabama".   My main goal, however, was to see a bank in Florence which is built as a replica of a unique antebellum home.

The original house was unusual in that its two-story colonnade completely encircled the building. Known as the Forks of Cypress, the house burned in the mid-20th century. The columns stand today and are almost visible from the road -- at least, in winter when there's no leaf cover --  but the grounds are only opened twice a year to the public.   Two buildings have been modeled on the Forks of Cypress: this bank and a private home.   The Regions Bank version strays a bit by having a rear addition that juts beyond the colonnade, but even so it's a beauty.

Downtown Florence in general is the picture of main street urbanism. 

I took numerous shots of downtown Florence's main street,  utterly taken by the buildings' close-knit variety. This is a city, not  strip malls and collector roads!

Near Seminary Street, the location of the bank, sits this public park -- right in front of the public library, which you can see to the left. 

(Still my favorite shot from the weekend...)

In downtown Sheffield, opposite the river, there is a statue that commemorates the musical scene of the 1970s. 

Downtown Sheffield, which I found only by getting lost trying to find Florence. 

Speaking of getting lost, I did it  soon after this while navigating down to Dismals Canyon. I failed to notice that my highway "continued" via left turn, and wound up going further south than expected. I entered a curious town called "Phil Campbell".  I stopped for gas and prompted the clerk, "I guess Phil Campbell must have been some kind of man to get the town named after him?"  She didn't know who he was, though. She didn't know how to get to Dismal Canyon, either. She said she was from Spruce Pine,  which despite her tone was not in another country, but ten miles up the road. I looked up ol' Phil when I got home, though, and discovered he was a carpenter who was asked to build a railroad depot and sidings  so that a local businessman could develop a town. Campbell was rewarded by having the new town named after him, Phil and all. Much of the town was destroyed in the 2011 Super Outbreak of tornado which so savaged northern Alabama, but a grand gathering of people named Phil Campbell raised money for its relief.

That story may have some bearing on this mural.

I would definitely return to Florence,  hopefully during a weekday when its main street was active, or perhaps during its spring Renaissance Faire. I have friends who dress up as knights and such and attend there, anyway! 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

North Alabama II: Space, the Final Frontier

I visited the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center in my childhood, but my memories of it are hazy.  I found it much changed; although the rockets are still there, of course, what little I remember is gone and a lot of new stuff has taken its place.  The museum is divided into three areas:  the Saturn complex (seen above) houses a Saturn V  hanging from the ceiling, alongside which run the majority of the space program exhibits; outside is a rocket park, which shows off the entire family of Redstones, Junos, and Saturns, along with pieces of military equipment that rely on missiles or avionics; and on the other side of the park is the 'main' museum, which includes exhibits on invention, avionics, and military hardware, along with a rock climbing wall.  Most of the exhibits are of the electronic interactive kind, in which visitors watch videos, play games, and create a general din of noise.  There are reminders that this is a space museum, however, in the impossible-to-miss mock-up of the international space station. This is used for the "space camp", which encourages children to become astronauts and has them swim in underwater tanks, that sort of thing.  

Now, what shuttle is that? It's not a shuttle, really: it's called Pathfinder, and is a wood and steel mock-up of a shuttle. Huntsville was unable to get one of the retired shuttles after the program was terminated,  possibly because it already has the remains of Skylab, an Apollo command module,  and the rockers.  Pathfinder passes casual inspection, however -- I only looked into it because I knew full well Huntsville hadn't gotten one of the shuttles.

This is part of the International Space Station replica, parts of which are open for touring. The other parts are reserved for space camp folk, and indeed a few kiddies were about.The walk-through demonstrated how every bit of space is used: there are storage lockers built into the "ceiling", for instance, and there are cardinal labels ("Overhead", "Deck", "Port", and "Starboard") painted to keep people oriented.  Our tour guide also demonstrated the toilet, although he only ran the vacuum. Zippers were thankfully not involved.  

When I visited back in the 1990s, I'm fairly sure the booster stood upright, sans shuttle. This new arrangement allows visitors to stand underneath and ponder how efficiently they would be squished if it were to fall. 

From left to right: the Saturn-I, the Jupiter, the Juno, the Mercury-Redstone, and the Jupiter-C. One of those was only used for the nuclear program, I believe, and the Redstones are most famous for blowing up repeatedly when the United States tried to launch their own probe after Sputnik.

Much larger is the Saturn IB,  built while the Saturn V was still being hammered out. The IB was part of Apollo 7, which saw the command/service module tested in earth orbit. 

This, however, is the titan that got men to mars. Huntsville has two Saturn Vs: the upright one outside, which is a local landmark, and the one above. It's flanked on either side by exhibits that detail the evolution of the space program, with particular interested on the five F1 engines that the Saturn relied on. 

Saturn V's "brain", the instrument panel. 

This trailer was used to quarantine astronauts upon their return to Earth, and strangely enough turned up in 2007.  The rocket center used to have another quarantine exhibit, one with a couch. The interior of the trailer has four bunkbeds on the left, and a table with chairs on the right. I asked several employees about the original exhibit, but they were all younger than me and kept pointing me towards the trailer.  (I commented to my friend as we were in line that the people selling tickets probably hadn't been born the last time I was here.)

An Apollo command module from Apollo 16. It's hard to believe three people were in that little capsule, and together they would have fallen into the ocean and bobbled together like a cork awaiting recapture. 

One of the few things that hasn't changed since my visit in the 1990s is this Blackbird, a CIA project that helped create Groom Lake/Area 51's reputation. The museum has two "Avengers", which are Humvees with missile launchers. 

We stayed here until they closed the place down, then drove back to Decatur.   What a sight to drive home to!