Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Chainbreaker's War

Chainbreaker's War: a Seneca Chief Remembers the American Revolution
© 2002 ed. Jeanne Winston Adler
224 pages

On the eastern seaboard, young militia men marched around their town squares, tea-chests floated in Boston Harbor, and the bells of war tolled. Only a few hundred miles away in upstate New York and in Michigan, the six nations of the Iroquois lived quiet and enjoyable lives separated from the ruckus. They hunted, met together in congress to discuss matters between the tribes and their neighbors, and saw to their families -- and then the emissaries arrived.

Officials from both Great Britain and the newly-formed United States send word to the Iroquois that there is war on the coast. The royal government ask the Iroquois to avoid being drawn into the conflict: the colonials request assistance from the Iroquois. The Six Nations are divided: some believe their neighbors to be insolent for rebelling against their Father nation. Others believe that the Americans are the victims of a great injustice. Years of peace and prosperity fall to war as the nations choose sides. The Seneca support Great Britain, and a young Seneca named Chainbreaker leads his brethren in combat against the Americans. Fighting chiefly with traditional weapons, he engages in bloody battle with the colonials,  engaging in tit-for-tat village- and town- razings against George Washington, the "Devourer of Villages". After the war, the Iroquois attempt to return to their former lifestyle, but both unity and territory have been lost in the war.

This is the tale told by Chainbreaker in his old age, recounting the lives of the Iroquois amidst the war. The book proper has a conversational, almost rambling style, and is supplemented by sidebars quoting from related sources that add greater context or explain obscure references. The editor also supplied in-text illustrations depicting the homes, clothing, tools, and weapons of the Six Nations.

Chainbreaker's War made for an interesting read, although the amount of useful information is limited. Diplomacy and politics kept my attention more than the descriptions of battle: most remarkable for me was the respect Chainbreaker obviously held for Washington -- during the war as a general, but afterwards as a man. This memoir offered at the start a look into Iroquois culture, and it has whet my appetite for both learning more about the Iroquois and the role native Americans played in the Revolution. Although Chainbreaker's recollections of the Iroquois motives seem shallow,  tribes losing ground against aggressive colonial expansion would have had a vested interested in supporting the monarchy, which restricted expansion to avoid retaliation on the part of the displaced natives. I'm curious as to what motives would have driven tribes to support the departure of the monarchy.

Teaser Tuesday (29/6)

Teaser Tuesdays are out of this world, from ShouldBeReading.

With deliberate composure, Ellie left the assembled group crowded around the consoles and returned to her office. She closed the door very carefully behind her.
"Holy shit!" she whispered. (Contact, Carl Sagan. p. 79)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Man with the Iron Heart

The Man with the Iron Heart
© 2008 Harry Turtledove
532 pages

On 27 May 1942, Reinhard Heydrich barely escapes death at the hands of a Czech hitman, his life being saved by the assassin's weapon jamming.  Although the misfire does not much alter the course of the war, it changes the peace dramatically, for Heydrich refuses to stop fighting even after the death of Hitler, the destruction of Berlin, the total occupation of Germany, and the formal surrender of Nazi officials. As early as 1943, Heydrich began storing munitions and training troops discreetly to carry on the fight in the event that the Reich lost, and no sooner has the dust settled over the bombed cities of Europe than do Heydrich's Werewolves begin the Resistance. Their goal is to force the Allies and Russians to end their occupation through whatever means possible.

What follows is a clear allusion to the Iraq War and resulting insurgency: the tactics are the same, as are the arguments from either side of American politics in arguing for or against staying in Germany. Heydrich' tactics mirror those of al-Queda terrorists, including the propaganda use of captured Allied soldiers. While most of his warfare is attritive -- targeting groups of soldiers with car bombs and the like -- his German Freedom Front occasionally launches larger operations to poison large crowds, destroy symbolic buildings, and obtain supplies. In the US, a Cindy Sheehan stand-in leads an anti-war movement, tacitly supported by ambitious Republicans who see the Heyrich insurgency as a good club to beat the Democratic administration over the head and gain political power. President "Give `em Hell" Harry Truman insists on finishing the job in Germany, although he's not one to hide away in the White House or a ranch in Texas: Truman dishes out abuse as good as he gets it and speaks personally to protesters marching in D.C. While the United States grapples with unpredictable German tactics, the Soviet Union merely shrugs as it shoots or deports hundreds of Germans with every attack.

The book uses Turtledove's typical approach of relying on a panel of viewpoint characters: a housewife turned political activist, Heydrich himself, and various American or Russian soldiers. Also typical of Turtledove is the generous use of Russian, German, and Yiddish phrases, particularly profanity. The book also abounds in historical, cultural, and political in-jokes.

"Well, if that don't beat all," Benton said disgustedly. "If I do me a crappy job, I get my sorry ass blown up. If I do me a great job, they make me stick around -- so's I can get my sorry ass blown up." He spat on the filthy floor. "Ought to be a name for somethin' like that, where you get fucked over comin' an' goin'."
"Yeah, it's a heller, all right. One of these days, I bet there will." Lou got a strange kick out of thinking like an English teacher instead of a counterintelligence officer. "A guy who's been through the mill will write a story or a book about it. He'll hang some kind of handle on it, and from then on everybody'll call it that."

The book's connection to the Iraq War is obvious enough to be mentioned on the inside cover as a selling point for people who are interested in Turtledove's "profound insight into contemporary affairs". Although I  am aware of war weariness at the end of the Second World War, I doubt that events concerning Iraq since 2003 would repeat themselves so neatly in 1945-1948 Germany. Although Turtledove's villains are much more effective than al-Queda or related groups, the development of the anti-war movement and the stances of American characters are taken too directly from contemporary newspapers: the occupation of Nazi Germany, which declared war upon the United States after savaging its commercial shipping cannot be so easily equated to the invasion and occupation of Iraq,  which lacked consistent explanation for motive. In addition, the novel lacks a German perspective beyond Heydrich's, which isn't exactly nuanced. Turtledove might've used a German citizen turned insurgent to explore the effects of Soviet tactics in polarizing civilians to take up arms.

For whatever its weaknesses, I enjoyed this bit of alternate history. Throughout, I wondered what the Nazis would try next -- and what the end result would be. Would Soviet-occupied Germany become completely void of Germans? If the Americans did leave, as Republican congressmen urged, would Russia try to annex the vacated portion and instigate a war between itself and the western democracies? The beginning of the end had me on the edge of my seat.  I can recommend this to Turtledove fans specifically, and cautiously to alt-history readers or those interested in the premise.

The Summons

The Summons
© 2002 John Grisham
373 pages

When Professor Ray Atlee returned to his family home in Clanton, Mississippi to discuss his ailing father's will, he found two surprises waiting for him. His father, an elderly judge who even in retirement remained a pillar of the community, lay dead in his study -- only two hours parted from life. The judge left dozens of boxes of legal files, enough Confederate memorabilia  to stock a museum, and over three million dollars stashed away in boxes. The untimely death and the discovery of the money are staggering to the professor, who knows his father to be both grossly underpaid and as great a philanthropist as any man:  the judge gave money to anyone who needed it, so how did he manage to acquire such an immense fortune? And why isn't that fortune in the bank -- why is it hidden in these boxes away from public view?

His father's latest will named Ray the executor of the estate, but he's not willing to reveal the millions to the world, for the cash stinks of some kind of impropriety. Where could it have come from?  He begins to discreetly investigate the matter, hoping to find that his father earned this fortune legitimately through trading on the stock market or even gambling in casinos -- but the money remains inexplicable. No one else seems to know anything about the money, but Ray soon begins receiving threatening mail and phone calls and his home is ransacked. Someone else wants the money -- and they want it enough to kill.

The Summons is more of a mystery thriller than a legal thriller, although the law is an irreplaceable element of the plot. Set partially in Grisham's Ford County and partially in Charlottesville, North Carolina,  the book offers character drama, an interesting mystery -- how does an honest  judge get three million dollars? -- and a little moralizing on the effect of large amounts of cash on human behavior: Ray has no intention of reporting to the IRS, and not just because he's concerned for his father's reputation. The book is also a teaser of sorts for Grisham's The King of Torts, one of my favorites. I enjoyed re-reading The Summons: like The Brethren, it's an interesting diversion from Grisham's usual legal fare, and the setting is an old favorite.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

This Week at the Library (23/6)

From the past two weeks....

  • Memories of Old Cahaba dates to the start of the 20th century, and is the recollections of a woman who lived in Alabama's first state capital (now a ghost town) as a teenager. I checked out the book to guide me as I toured the few remains of the town, once one of the grander towns in pre-industrial Alabama. Fry's memoir depicts a heavily romanticized view of the town, but was useful during my visits there.
  • I also finished a collection of essays by Isaac Asimov titled The Roving Mind. Most of the essays were scientific in nature, with a few on skepticism and the future. There's also some satire, which is unusual for Asimov. Enjoyable, of course, and worth any Asimov reader's while. 
  • Next, I re-read The Other Side of Selma, a collection of anecdotes about my hometown (Selma, Alabama) during the fifties and sixties. Most of the anecdotes are pitched as humorous, although a few recount the kindness of people long dead. Its appeal is limited, naturally, but as a Selma native I enjoyed it. The stories are very informal.
  • Lev Grossman's The Magicians is a coming of age story set against a fantasy background.  Quentin Coldwater is an isolated and lonely young man who frequently escapes from the boredom and meaninglessness of the real world into the fantasy world of Fillory. When he discovers that the world of magic is real -- and is invited to join the ranks of magic-users by abandoning dreams of college for a private magic academy --  Coldwater finds meaning and adventure, but realizes too late that a life of excitement comes with a price.  Grossman starts off charming and funny, but grows darker as Coldwater matures into a angsty twenty-something.
  • Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire collects Twain's various works criticizing American imperialism, specficially the war against the Phillipines. Twain sees expansionistic war as dooming the the Republic to authoritarianism, and mourns the perversion of patriotism into merely "supporting the troops".  Enjoyable and applicable for today, I'd reccommend this most of all the books I've read this week.
  • Tales of the Dominion War collects stories by various Trek luminaries set during the Dominion War. The stories' characters come not only from the television and movie canon, but from the expanded universe of Trek literature. The stories are not just about ship-to-ship combat: a few are set on planets being attacked and concentrate on civilians or on low-ranking Starfleet members, while others go outside the Federation and tackle Romulan politics and Klingon honor. Great read for Trekkies.
  • Hornblower and the Hotspur tells the tale of Commander Horatio Hornblower, recently appointed the peacetime captain of the Hotspur, assigned to survey France's coast and keep a wary eye out for antagonistic activity. Such activity is assured given the rise of Napoleon, and Hornblower is soon busy blockading ports and sacking convoys. Although this book has many great Hornblower moments, I struggled through it.
  • Most recently I read The World Through Maps: A History of Cartography, a brief summary of map-making history replete with gorgeous illustrations of maps. Short's narrative provides many tidbits and a little context for understanding the maps, but it's far from comprehensive and focuses a bit much on the United States. 

Pick of the Week: Weapons of Satire, Mark Twain.

Selected Quotations:

"Patriotism is merely a religion -- love of country, worship of country, devotion to the country’s flag and honor and welfare. In absolute monarchies it is furnished from the throne, cut and dried, to the subject; in England and America it is furnished, cut and dried, to the citizen by the politician and the newspaper." - Mark Twain

"He was either going to punch someone or start a blog. Personally, I'm glad he clocked you." - Paraphrase from The Magicians.

Upcoming Reads:

  • The Adventures of Robin Hood, Paul Creswick. I'm not sure about this one: the first four times I tried reading the opening chapter, my eyes glazed over. On the fifth try, it clicked. We'll see what happens.
  • The Man with the Iron Heart, Harry Turtledove. What if hardline Nazis refused to stop fighting after Hitler's defeat? 
  • Chainbreaker's War: A Seneca Chief Remembers the American Revolution, ed. Jeane Winston Adler. 
  • I may finish a Grisham re-read, and I've got some Star Trek books I could read as well...

The World Through Maps

The World Through Maps: A History of Cartography
© 2003 John Short
224 pages

Cartography has interested me ever since elementary school, when I read that Christopher Columbus worked in a cartographer's shop. The idea that people made maps fascinated me, and I wondered what what it entailed, thinking of men sailing the coasts of islands and pain-stakingly portraying what they saw. I enjoy enjoy older maps, or those included in fantasy books, as art, for they tend to be charmingly illustrated.

Short begins by explaining the language of maps -- perspective, scale, orientation, the like -- and commenting on their uses before diving into the general history. Short's book begins with rock-art maps steeped in mythology, then moves to Babylonian maps on wax tablets that portray landowners' plots in an irrigation zone. Sections following these tend to be short -- two pages -- and roam the world. Short places emphasis on the idea that maps portray what cultures deem most important, and points out religious and political elements within maps as they come. Although every other culture in the book receives a scant few pages, Short devotes several sections to the mapping of North America and specifically the United States. I expect this disproportional emphasis on the US reflects the target audience -- Americans.  Although he drops plenty of trivia, the book isn't comprehensive: reading the sections on Islamic or Chinese maps gives the reader a glimpse of what they might've been like, but the effect is kin to trying to enjoy the plot of a fictional novel by reading the plot summary on the back. Still, the illustrations of maps are fetching, especially the Renaissance works that depicted their cities with a near-isometric perspective. The effect is more a work of art -- the illustration of a city -- than a map.

More a severe summary of cartographic history than an actual history, this book was enjoyable more for the art and less for the text, although the limited background information did come in handy when trying to understand older maps, especially medieval works.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hornblower and the Hotspur

Hornblower and the Hotspur
© 1962 CS Forester
344 pages

Young Horatio Hornblower flourished as an officer in the King's service during the general European war against the fledgling French republic, the war having given an ambitious and intelligent officer like himself plenty of opportunities for promotion. Hornblower rose swiftly through the ranks owing chiefly to his keen mind and penchant for taking risks, but he is able to call upon neither strength in civilian life: struggling to survive on a commander's half-pay, Hornblower is roped into marrying a young woman whom he does not love. He has sprinted across mast-heads without a net and bearded French lions in their dens innumerable times, but he does not have the courage to break a young woman's heart.  News that France is now ruled by a swaggering little man from Corsica who fancies himself an emperor comes as a great relief to him, and the newlywed commander is all-too-happy to accept his first real command, the sloop Hotspur. At his side is the implacable Mr. Bush. What's more, he will once again be serving under his beloved captain from his midshipman days, Commodore Edward Pellew.  Although my own experiences watching the television series have undoubtedly influenced my judgment, I  was just as happy as Hornblower to see Bush and Pellew again.

France's First Republic is steadily replaced by its First Empire as Napoleon gathers more power around himself, and Hornblower is ordered to troll the French coast for fisherman to bribe, seeking news of the French fleet. These initial orders become more aggressive as Napoleon readies for war with Europe: Hornblower and the fleet his Hotspur is part of blockade certain port cities and are eventually told to sack the annual Spanish delivery of gold from the New World: Spain intends to use the money to assist France in a newborn alliance. Hornblower and the Hotspur contains many of the legends told about Hornblower in his later years -- how he discreetly showed mercy on a man by allowing him to escape to the USS Constitution, or how he picked up a not-yet exploded shell and threw it back into the water,  saving his ship. Despite this, I struggled through the book, forcing myself to march ahead:  this book more than any other is dominated by the act of sailing the ship. It's hard to enjoy details when there are so many of them.

For Hornblower, the book is a coming-of-age: he begins the book as a young man just about to be married, and looks on Captain Pellew almost as son. By the end of the book, Pellew has been promoted to the admiralty,  removing him from Hornblower's service life for the most part -- although he did appear in the last book of the series, Lord Hornblower.  Hornblower receives his own promotion to post-captain, and begins the next phase of his life as the master of his own series of ships throughout the Napoleonic wars.

Of the Hornblower books I've read, I enjoyed this the least, although my own reception of the book seems to differ from other Hornblower fans. I would not recommend first-time readers to the series to start with this one.

Ioan Gruffuld as Horatio Hornblower, Robert Lindsay as Edward Pellew

Teaser Tuesday (22-6)

Teaser Tuesday again, from Should Be Reading.

"Repeat after me," said the parson. "I, Horatio, take thee, Maria Ellen --"
The thought came up in Hornblower's mind that these were the last few seconds in which he could withdraw from doing something which he knew to be ill-considered.

The opening sentences of Hornblower and the Hotspur, by C.S. Forester.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tales of the Dominion War

Tales of the Dominion War
Published in 2004, editor Keith DeCandido
370 pages

O'Brien: Engage, retreat, engage, retreat. I tell you, that's becoming our favorite tune. 
Bashir: Well, we'd better think of a new tune fast or the only song we're going to be singing is "Hail the Conquering Dominion". 
Dax: I wouldn't start learning those lyrics just yet. ("Favor the Bold")

If you've ever seen an episode of the original Star Trek series, you know the essential formula for most of the rest: a crew of gallant Starfleet personnel travel through the galaxy, solving a mystery or problem every week amid playful banter and warm idealism. These standard series each have their strengths and weaknesses, but their foundation is the same. Deep Space Nine stands alone: set in an outpost at the outskirts of the Alpha Quadrant, its stories are not weekly events but large arcs. The Dominion War was one such  arc: the series' second season introduced a vast trade federation known as the Dominion, protected by super-soldiers whom everyone feared. The Dominion matured through the show's early seasons, eventually being realized in full as a vast empire controlling much of the Gamma Quadrant -- a region of the galaxy so far removed from the Alpha Quadrant that only a stable wormhole providing a shortcut from Deep Space Nine to the fringes of the Dominion's borders made traveling between the two feasible. A group of aggressive shape-shifting xenophobes known as the Founders created the Dominion to protect them from outside persecution, and they used their empire to establish order by subordinating weaker powers.  In season five, the Dominion set its sights on subduing the various powers of the Alpha Quadrant, resulting in a war that lasted several seasons and culminated only at the series' finale.

Tales of the Dominion War is set during that time, in which the Dominion fights and nearly destroys the Federation as well as the Klingon and Romulan Empires. The book begins with a tribute to Deep Space Nine, crediting it for making Trek literature more varied: in breaking with the format of the original series and The Next Generation,  Deep Space Nine allowed authors to explore the entire galaxy, creating book series about characters and powers not mentioned in the television shows. Many of the characters from various series produced following Deep Space Nine's beginning make appearances here, like Michael Jan Friedman's Stargazer crew and  Peter David's New Frontier cast and ship. The stories here not not just set aboard ships, though; authors take us to Earth, when Breen ships stage a surprise attack and level Starfleet Command; to Romulus, where Ambassador Spock watches as Romulan politicians and generals struggle for command of Romulus' fate, and decide whether or not it shall enter the war; and to a world of the Klingon empire, in which a one-armed Klingon fights off a ship of Jem'Hedar warriors on foot. There's even a story about Shinzon, the foe from Nemesis who led Reman combat troops on special operations, one that sets the stage for Nemesis. Scotty and McCoy also have a day in the sun, although the Voyager crew is excluded -- having spent the war lost in the Delta Quadrant. The collection's captstone story ("Requital") is the only one that includes Deep Space Nine's characters: a young Federation officer assigned to guard the Founder who instigated the Dominion War and the slaughter that follows struggles with his desire for vengeance while reliving in his mind some of the war's most vicious battles.

For my money this book is strong indeed; I've never been able to enjoy New Frontier or Klingon stories before, but the authors of those respective stories kept my interest. David's New Frontier story is one of the few stories in the collection that comment on war itself -- while his comments on the way emotional appeals are used to glorify, promote, sell, and maintain wars, the collection's final story addresses the way individual psyches are warped by battle. The rest simply explore themes common in Star Trek war stories: bravery under fire, idealistic determination, the value of quick wits. This is a superb collection of Trek stories that is an easy recommendation to Trek fans.


  • "Tales of the Dominion War" Memory Alpha article.
  • "Call to Arms" video depicting one of the Dominion War's largest battles from Deep Space Nine. The music fits it well, I think, and the video chosen will give you an idea of the scale of the conflict.
  • The Dominion War, a four-book set divided between one of the Enterprise-E's most crucial missions during the war and the novelization of DS9's story arcs with greater context. The TNG books are two of my favorite Trek novels. TNG fans may enjoy the inclusion of Ro Laren and several characters from "Lower Decks".
  • The Battle of Betazed, set during the Dominion's occupation of Commander Deanna Troi's homeworld, which  she infiltrates in order to rescue a gifted telepath whose abilities might help the Betazoids create a potent resistance. This book integrates with the post-DS9 Relaunch canon. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Weapons of Satire

Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the American-Phillipine War
© 1992 Mark Twain; edited by Jim Zwick.
256 pages

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger's wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightenings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

("Battle Hymn of the Republic" brought 'down to date'. Written in 1901  by Mark Twain. Picture taken from the book: click for larger image.)

In 1898, the burgeoning United States declared war on the Spanish Empire and set forth to 'liberate' the island of Cuba, which Spain held. The resulting victory netted the US government Cuba, Guam, Wake Island, and a few other odds and ends -- including the opportunity to buy the Phillipine Islands from Spain. Both Cuba and the Phillipine islands posessed native populations eager to rule themselves, not that the US or Spain gave them much notice.  Filipinos mounted an insurrection against their self-aclaimed new masters in 1899, and the bloodshed would not end until seven years had passed. Some Americans saw the removal of Spain from the western hemisphere as a fulfillment of the Monroe Doctrine, or as  the beginning of a great crusade to spread Republicanism throughout the world. Other Americans were not so sure the US invasion of the Phillipines, and its occupation of the ceded Spainish territories was a good thing: they saw it as a naked land-grab. Mark Twain of the Anti-Imperialist Leauge was one such American.  He campaigned vigorously against the war, and his thoughts regarding the war are collected here.

Weapons of Satire pulls together speeches, articles, jotted-down private thoughts, satiricial essays, and a book review of Twains into this anthology, one that makes Twain's view of the war abundantly clear. At first he viewed the war as a good cause,  wanting to see his country rid the western hemisphere of imperial powers and make way for democracies. Upon seeing the way American generals, politicans, and businessmen interacted with Cuba and the Phillipines, Twain concluded that this was nothing more than the expansion of imperialism, under a new flag -- one with industrial might and not just the gold of days gone past to back it up. Twain sees the war as a moral failure on the part of the United States: instead of spreading democracy, it is expanding itself like the European states of the day, in the same manner as England and Germany. It is commiting great abuses against the people of the Phillipines, even engaging in massacre.  This imperial growth will not only harm the annexed territories, but undermine the American vision: the ideal of the Republic will be undone by these dreams of empire, for Twain believed no democracy could survive prolonged war and imperial ambition. Monarchy, or some form of authoritarianism, would be the inevitable result.  He viewed the war as corruptive -- not only of the American system of government, and of hope for the future, but of individual idealism. Patriotism, he notes, has been been perverted:

There are two kinds of patriotism --- monarchical patriotism and republican patriotism. In the one case the government and the king may rightfully furnish you their notions of patriotism; in the other, neither the government nor the nation is privilege to dictate to any individual what the form of his patriotism shall be. The gospel of monarchical patriotism is "The King can do not wrong". We have adopted it with all its servility, with an unimportant change to the wording;"Our country, right or wrong!" We have thrown away the most valuable asset we had - the individual's right  to oppose both flag and country when he (just he by himself) believed them to be in the wrong. We have thrown it away, and with it all that was really respectable about that grotesque work and laughable word, Patriotism.

Unfortunately, Twain's words are still applicable today: questioning the moral integrity of the United States' actions abroad in the late 20th century and in the past decade is kin to blasphemy: 'supporting the troops' apparently means 'letting the government do with them as it wills'. I wonder what Twain would make of corporation-dominated media and the persistently mighty influence of the US's military industries on its foreign and domestic policies.

Again from the book; click for larger image.

The Magicians

The Magicians
© Lev Grossman 2009
416 pages

Quentin Coldwater is an unenthused high school student on the verge of depression, feeling out of place in life itself.  Suffering from tedium, loneliness, and unrequited love, Quentin often finds escape in the magical world of Fillory and Further, a series of children's books that bear a remarkable resemblance to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. . That all changes when Quentin  receives his acceptance letter from Hogwart's School of Wizardry and Witchcraft , chasing a wind-blown note from a book given to him by a mysterious stranger, passes through an invisible portal and finds himself in a bewildering place -- a place of moving topiaries, where New York's winter has been replaced by a warm summer. Upon seeing a stranger waiting for him, he asks: "Is this Fillory?"

Quentin's discovery is not of Fillory, but of the grounds of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, an elite private college for young people with a penchant for magic. Quentin, or "Q" as his friends call him, sees Brakebills as what he's been waiting for all of his life: a place of excitement and meaning.  Teenage Q will, in the five years he spends obtaining his magical education at Brakebills, find a kind of happiness he's never known before. He disowns his old life, even ignoring his former friends in favor of his Brakebills peers. But something seems wrong: Brakebills is not a land of excitement and meaning. He enjoys life with his friends, yes, and enjoys learning magic -- a venture consisting mostly of memorizing recitations and arcane hand gestures -- but there's no Lord Voldemort to fight, no Forbidden Forest to explore -- no great adventure to be caught up in. The varied fantasy creatures of worlds like Fillory are absent from Brakebills: it can claim a pixie for a teacher, but that's about it. His graduation from the academy comes as an unpleasant surprise, and afterwards -- as a young twenty-something -- he tries to find substance in a life of sex, drugs, booze, and parties.He searches for some great meaning behind his life, but remains restless. The motony is broken when  a Brakebills student who had fallen off of everyone's radar arrives and breathlessly announces that he's found Fillory.

A magic realm with witches to fight is just the thing for a group of young magicians who have no purpose in life, but what Quentin and his friends find is scarcely fun:  "adventure" is terrifying and costly, and the perils to be experienced may just make Q realize that he may not necessarily want to live with what he's wanted all his life. The monsters of Fillory are far more sinister than trolls and armies of mooks.

I checked Lev Grossman's The Magicians out after seeing an excerpt from it in reader Joy's Tuesday Teaser, and enjoyed it immensely.  Grossman's narrative is charming and funny, although the book becomes progressively darker as the magicians age. Thinking of Harry Potter is -- given the setting of a magical school with a deliberately English feel -- unavoidable, and Grossman refers to the series numerous times himself, along with The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  The characters themselves are conscious of Potter, often joking about the few similarities. "I'm going to get my Quiddich uniform" says one, before they begin playing a magical game of their own.

The Magicians made for a fun read at first, and matured into something more thoughtful with its characters. Grossman's setting is vast and full of little details that make me wonder if he'll write more. I'd certainly read more, but alas! I have no access to his Codex. I'll remember this most for its early charm and humor: the darker ending was a bit of a downer. I would recommend it to to most fantasy readers, although The Magicians isn't standard fantasy -- more a story about the difficulties of coming to terms with life as newly-fledged adult that has a magical background.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (15/6)

Every little thing it does is magic, every little thing I read turns me on -- It's Tuesday Teaser! A bit late, but it's not Wednesday yet! As always, from Should Be Reading.

Later on the test gave him a passage from The Tempest, then asked him to make up a fake language, and then to translate the Shakespeare into the made-up language. He was then asked questions about the grammar and orthography of his made-up language, and then -- honestly, what was the point? -- questions about the made-up geography and culture and society of the mad-up country where his made-up language was so fluently spoken.

The Magicians, p. 23. Lev Grossman

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Other Side of Selma

The Other Side of Selma
© 2001 R.B. "Dickie" Williams
103 pages

Years ago while roaming aimlessly in my home library, I spotted a little collection of stories about Selma during the fifties and sixties. I read and enjoyed it, as the book added depth to the downtown area for me. Selma was almost a different town in those days, the economy primarily main-street: now the town's old commerical thoroughfare consists of abandoned buildings with boarded up windows, shopping being down on a depressing stretch of highway flanked by fields of concrete and boxes with bright neon signs. Part of the decay is simply the passage of time, but the closing of Selma's air force base dealt it a serious blow. This summer I've been walking the streets of downtown, pondering each building in turn, thinking about the human stories that have played out through the years. I realized recently that revisiting The Other Side of Selma -- an "old fogey's" recollections of the Selma-that-was would be appropriate for this summer tour.

Williams' style is simple: he shares funny, mysterious, touching, romantic, and outlandish stories to the reader about the people who lived in Selma during those days. No reference is given to the town's turmoil during the Civil Rights movement: this portrays Selma's Andy Griffith existence. Selma had a blind bookseller who could feel dollar bills and tell you their denomination, a barber who claimed to speak Russian fluently until he was embarrased by a visiting Russian-language professor, and a man who was known for his barbequed chicken because he did clean-up at the local underground cockfighting club. There are many little stories in here that will give me a slight smile whenever I drive through town and see various settings for these stories: for instance, when I return to Mabry Street to finish taking pictures of historic architecture there, I will know under one particular house there once were a barreful of ruined and water-swollen peas, dumped there by a newlywed woman who wanted to hide her first botched attempt at cooking black-eyed peas from her husband, so she and her friend threw them in an unoccupied house's basement.

Like Memories of Old Cahaba, this has somewhat limited appeal -- although Williams' stories are entertaining enough by themselves even outside the context of Selma that casual readers looking for a few nostalgic chuckles will enjoy this, particulartly if they hail from this time period or the mid-century South.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Roving Mind

The Roving Mind
© Isaac Asimov 1983
350 pages

In the first place, I type quickly -- 90 words a minute, when I am happy, carefree, and in a good mood. And that's my typing rate when I am composing, too, because I don't believe in fancy stuff. In my writing, there is no poetry, no complexity, no literary frills. Therefore, I need only barrel along, saying whatever comes to mind, and waving cheerfully at people who happen to pass my typewriter." (337)

The Roving Mind collects sixty-two essays by Isaac Asimov, the majority scientifically-themed, along with several tributes to the late Asimov by friends and comrades who knew him well. The essays by men like Paul Kurtz and Carl Sagan update a volume originally printed in the early eighties, and the essays reflect the preceding period, particularly the seventies.  Asimov's thoughts on the future are particularly interesting, as he seems to predict consumer-specific advertising and entertainment (as in TiVo and Google) and a computer-oriented marketplace that allows customers to buy goods and reserve hotel rooms through their private consoles. Other essays take on religious dogma and political  matters of interest (censorship), warn of the dangers of increasing population,  reflect on the human condition, and share Asimov's thoughts on the increasing role of technology in everyday lives, particularly in his own: he devotes three essays to his new-fangled Word Processor. Interesting topics abound, as is par for the course given Asimov's many varied interests, and his explanations are both lucid and witty with plenty of eccentric charm. Especially notable for me:

  • "The Reagan Doctrine", a satirical essay tackling the idea that believing in God is necessary for morality. "In every country, you'll find large numbers who claim that the United States fought a cruel and unjust war in Vietnam and that it is the most violent and crime-ridden nation in the world. They don't seem to be impressed by the fact that we're God-fearing. Next they'll be saving that Ronald Reagan (our very own president) doesn't know what he's talking about."
  • "Technophobia", in which Asimov addresses the various reasons people fear society's increasing dependency upon technology, although most of the essay is given over to overcoming people's dislike of having to learn new things. He recounts his experiences with the word-processor, how it was foisted upon him and how he studiously avoided so much as even looking at it.
  • "Pure and Impure" takes on the prejudice intellectuals, particularly theorists and liberal-arts snobs like myself, may have  against applied or "dirty" knowledge. 
  • "Art and Science" sees Asimov write on one of my favorite subjects,  the connections between every field of human knowledge. "If you look at an electron micrograph of a sponge spicule or of a diatom (you can find both in the 1977 Yearbook), you don't know whether to admire them as products of science or as works of artistic beauty -- And it doesn't matter; the two are the same."
  • "The Sky of the Satellites" is a favorite: Asimov imagines what the skies of Jupiter and Saturn's moons look like
  • "The Surprises of Pluto", in which Asimov states: "Pluto is scarcely a respectable planet; it is more like a large asteroid."
  • "The Ultimate in Communication", which Asimov sees as YouTube with VHS cassettes. 
  • "Touring the Moon" is a faux-news essay detailing what visitors to Earth's colony on the moon may expect from their trip. "Nothing, apparently, can prevent [the Moon's gravity] from being a surprise to first-timers. After the initial shock, the reaction is inevitable amusement, and a tendency to try walking, hopping, or jumping, despite the large signs that ring every possible change on the message, "Please do not run or jump, but wait quietly for processing."
  • "The Word-Processor and I" is the first of Asimov's essays detailing his partial conversion from typewriters to word processor. "With the help of my dear wife, Janet, [the Radio Shack guide] set up a 'computer corner' in our living room. Within it, the word-processor was unboxed, hooked together, and plugged in. I did my bit, to be sure. I kept saying, 'I don't think we have any space for a word-processor anywhere,' but no one listened to me."
This is a fun collection particularly of interest to skeptics and humanists, but enjoyable to all who delight in reading Asimov in general.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Memories of Old Cahaba

Memories of Old Cahaba
© 1905 Anna M. Gayle Fry
122 pages

I live perhaps fifteen miles from the conjunction of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers, where once sat a booming and stately city -- home to the Alabama legislature and the county courthouse, and a center of commerce. That city is gone. If you visit it today, you will find a stray chimney, some columns amidst overgrown wilderness near the Cahaba river, and crumbling slave quarters. Dirt lanes pass through fields of green, dotted by the occasional signpost to tell visitors of the town that was -- for Cahaba is long-dead, a ghost town.

My childhood memories of visiting the place are compelling: I recall a landscape dotted by decaying ruins, streets flanked by leafy trees, the limbs of which hung low from the Spanish moss and moved gently in the breeze. The place seemed eerie, as if ghosts walked it during the middle of the day. I decided to visit the place once more last weekend. It seemed more like a large park than a ghost town: the old allure absent. I decided to visit it again, this time with my father -- who could tell stories of it -- and this time armed with the memoirs of someone who once lived there and which could make mansions rise from empty green spaces. As it happens, Anna Gayle Fry's Memories of Old Cahaba  is exceptional for that purpose: the author literally moves street by street telling the reader of what used to be on "the west side of Vine Street", or "at the corner of Union and First North" streets. I can and will take this book to Cahaba and make it serve as a tour guide of sorts. Fry combine her own experiences living in the town with historical research to give the reader a larger perspective.

Stories about the town's occupants drift in and out of the guide to the town, and descriptions of the town itself are heavily romanticized. This book reads like Gone with the Wind in its nostalgia for the days gone by. According to the author's depiction, Cahaba was a place filled with stately homes and bustling businesses, where men with dapper mustaches waited for the steamboat to come by, while doffing their hats to delicately-dressed ladies, all served by a host of happy slaves. The book's banal treatment of slavery was particularly bothersome. Southern feudalism is mourned for, not condemned, in this book: the few freedmen are beggars, and those who dare strike against their masters are regarded as 'ignorant creatures'. The book ends with a long poem that partially laments slave uprisings and emancipation.

"For the third time within the memory of man, the town became a deserted village.The scenes of 1826 were repeated. The doors of the business houses were all closed and locked, the stately homes were abandoned and deserted. Flowers again bloomed untended in the lovely yards and grass covered the principal streets. An air of loneliness and desolation impossible to describe encompassed the place. Where wealth and fashion a few short years before held unlimited sway, ruin and desolation now danced in high carnival, and one could be exclaim: "Time! Time! How inscrutable are thy changes!"

The book has limited appeal: in its day, it ignited popular interest in the site among Alabamians, sowing the seeds for some historical preservation. The street-by-street recollection works for me given that I live so close to the site that I can immediately apply the information: I can readily relate to the description of the Crocheron mansion beside the two rivers, for instance, because I've been there: I've wandered through the woods being chased by a wasp to emerge in a clearing where three columns stand, bearing witness that once something great sat there. I suspect others will find the detailed descriptions a trifle dull. When I visit Cahaba again tomorrow, I shall find the book of value: in fact, I've integrated Fry's descriptions and parts of the poem that give the town's history into my photo-tour of the place on Facebook.

If you plan to visit Old Cahaba, then by all means stop by the Selma library and give this book a look-see: I doubt you'll find it elsewhere, unless you buy a used copy off of Amazon.

Pictures are cropped from larger images taken during my trip last week: I'm going again tomorrow, or by this point "later today".

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


I don't do memes very often here, mostly because if I started I wouldn't know where to stop. If I tried to follow every meme from ShouldBeReading, for instance, I'd be so busy typing I wouldn't have time to read. (As it is, I only do the one, and that's mostly because I like quotations.)

I got this, though, from Seeking a Little Truth.

Do you snack while reading? 
- I read on-and-off throughout the day, and sometimes during meals, so it's inevitable that I snack sometimes while reading.  I tend to want to snack while I'm reading, but given how often I read that would be an unhealthy habit. That association goes the other way around, too: if I'm about to eat or drink, I reach for something to read. If there's no book nearby, I'll go to TvTropes or go through the archives of Unshelved or Questionable Content.  Food intake = word intake for me.

What is your favourite drink while reading? 
-  I always have something to drink when I'm reading, usually just water.  I drink coffee in the morning and tea at meal times. Water is my main  "I want to be sipping something..." source.

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? 
- I once tried writing in a book, and my hand autonomously slapped me.  Instead, I copy passages on the opposite (unused) sides of my bound journal and comment on them there. 

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat? 
- I memorize page numbers or  take note of an endpoint -- a line of dialogue, that sort of thing. When I use bookmarks, I use anything -- napkins, actual bookmarks, pens, leaves, paperclips....

(Yeah. Leaves. I read under a tree sometimes.)

Fiction, non-fiction or both? 
- Both. Ever since 2006, when I decided I wanted to maintain a broad general knowledge, nonfiction became the major part of my reading diet. I started working in more fiction to balance things out -- I love a good story -- and I suppose by now they're even-ish.

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere?
- Since I read on and off throughout the day, I usually stop at the end of a sentence. I can leave off in mid-sentence, but I probably wouldn't.  

"Run for your life, there's an axe murderer coming!"
"Just onnnnne minute."

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you? 
- No: I can't even bring myself to throw away or damage useless books from my fundamentalist Pentecostal days. I'll give the book a savage look and stop reading it if it's bad enough, but I'm a sissy when it comes to hurting them.

What are you currently reading? 
- I am working through a collection of essays by Isaac Asimov called The Roving Mind and am zipping through a short collection of local stories called The Other Side of Selma.

What is the last book you bought? 
- In a brick-and-mortar store, "Elizabeth the Queen" by Alison Weir, which is a biography of Elizabeth I beginning with her coronation. Online, I bought...Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery last weekish. 

Do you have a favourite time/place to read? 
- I'm a chronic reader: I read on and off throughout the day.  When school is in session, for instance, I read before class and sometimes during the lecture if I'm already familiar with the source and am only in class for the teacher's jokes. I also read at work as I can. I'm never far from a book, typically bringing a pocket-sized paperback with me on walks and keeping books in my car in case I get stopped by a train or stuck in traffic.   At home, I usuaully read devotedly for an hour or two a day ASIDE from the off-and-on stuff. 

All that said, I guess I like my Sunday mornings -- at school, I'd sit under this tree with a bottle of water all morning, just reading and listening to the birds and wind. When school's not in session, I open the curtains of my living room and sit on the couch, listening to soft music and reading until noon.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones? 
- No real preference. I like being involved with book series, but most of my reading consists of stand-alone works, both fiction and non.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over? 
- Not especially: I can gush forever about Isaac Asimov, and I'll easily recommend certain authors for certain subjects,  but I don't think there's one particular book that holds sway. 

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away? 
- I play with it first. Etymology's one of my many interests, so I can usually take a word apart and derive some sort of meaning. I'll google it if I can't understand the passage without knowing the word. I write down unknown words in my journal, and then look up the definitions and derivations for them later. Also, if I suddenly want to know the origin of a turn of phrase ("Scot-free", for instance, or "I'll catch you on the flip side", I'll write that down and look it up later. )

How do you organize your books (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.)? 
- I don't have one specific organizational pattern at present:  in general, the closer to my bed a book is, the more I like it. If they're not in shelves, they're inside the ottoman or in a trunk at the foot of my bed. I group series together, and I stick large unwieldy books together, but that's about it as far as organization goes -- for now. 

See anything you recognize? (Click for larger image.) This is my bed's bookcase, which holds most of my favorites and a few odds-and-ends. There's a couple of books on German grammar in there, for instance.

Background noise or silence? 
- I can work with either, though I prefer some music -- usually soft classical music or instrumentals with an 'Eastern' feel. 

This Week at the Library (9/6)

This week...

I started off with Michael Jan Friedman's Death in Winter, the origin of The Next Generation's "relaunch" in novelizations. With the Enterprise still being repaired following Nemesis, Picard is tasked with carrying out a secret mission in Romulan space that his dear -- and beloved -- friend Dr. Crusher was captured in attempting to  accomplish. The novel pushes Picard and Crusher closer together while giving the reader a healthy dose of adventure and Romulan politics. Enjoyable, as I would expect from Friedman.

Next up, Around the World in 80 Days, a classic tale of Gilded Age adventure. Following a bet with his friends that he could -- in 1872 -- circumnavigate the globe in less than three months. Mr. Phineas Fogg sets off to travel the world by sea, by train -- and by elephant, if necessary. He does this while being chased by a detective who's pinned him for a bank robbery, and must face the perils of nature and angry Indians. It's a delightful little read that's brimming with 19th century optimism in technology and the future.

I also read Dinosaur Lives, a memoir of sorts by Dr. John Horner that recounts his experiences in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which he began pushing the conception of dinosaurs beyond cold-blooded "big lizards" and placed them more accurately within their evolutionary context. The book also gives readers an idea as to how paleontologists do their craft.

My last read for this week -- finishing up after three weeks -- was Charles Dickens' classic A Tale of Two Cities, a story of revolution and redemption. Thick with language at times, but worth wading through given my interest in the French revolution and my shared horror with Dickens at the inhumanity of it.

Pick of the Week: Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days.

Upcoming Reads:

  • The Other Side of Selma, R.B. "Dickie" Williams. This is a short little collection of real-life stories about my hometown of Selma in its "glory days". I read it once years ago and am rereading it in conjunction with my summer project -- exploring downtown Selma on foot and taking pictures of its more interesting sights. 
  • The Roving Mind, Isaac Asimov. A collection of essays on diverse subjects.
  • Tales of the Dominion War, a multiple-author short-story collection set in Deep Space Nine's epic war. The book is written to show the war from the perspective of various ships and people throughout the Alpha Quadrant, which should be fun. 
  • Memories of Old Cahaba, Anna M. Gaylor. "Old Cahaba" is a nearby ghost town, once a booming river city and the capital of my home state of Alabama. I visited recently, and wanted to read this memoir to shed some light. 
  • Hornblower and the Hotspur, C.S. Forester
  • The Magicians, Lev Grossman. Spotted this in reader Joy's "Tuesday Teaser" and thought it interesting.

This weekend should be fun-- I've many choices.

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities
© 1859 Charles Dickens
353 pages

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree only. 

I’ve wanted to read A Tale of Two Cities for a long time, not for its reputation as a classic so much as its setting: the French revolution fascinates me, and as this is “the” novel of the French Revolution, it surely merits my attention. According to the introduction of my copy, Dickens regarded this as his best and favorite work, and he wrote it in a hurry -- dispensing with his usual wordiness.  I can’t speak for that, as A Tale of Two Cities is as florid as any work of the Victorian period I’ve yet read. Although I approached the novel thinking it to be chiefly about the French Revolution,  Dickens keeps his focus on a few varied characters living in England for most of the book: Charles Darnay, a French nobleman who renounced his title to support himself in England;  Dr. Alexander Manette, a physician long imprisoned whose release at the outset of the book starts the plot; Sidney Carton, an alcoholic lawyer’s associate in England who believes he will never amount to anything;  Lucie Manette, the doctor’s daughter who has been raised in England during her father’s captivity; and Jarvis Lorry, a kindly old banker.

The story is told in three parts, the first being set nearly a decade before the revolution begins. After introducing the primary characters, Dickens slowly works toward the uprising that began the French revolution, ultimately having them ensnared by it through no fault of his own. He plainly expects his audience to know what the French revolution was and why it occurred: modern audiences who are more distant from its context would do well to peruse information on the subject before diving in. While Dickens writes the book to comment on the horrors of violent revolutions -- specifically, the inhumanity they unleash --  his main characters also give the reader a story of love and redemption.  The book was not as I expected in being wholly about the revolution, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed Dickens' use of foreshadowing at the outset of the book, when a comic writes the word "BLOOD" on the walls of a local shop using spilled red wine: Dickens comments that the day would soon come that 'that' wine, too, would soon spill and stain the streets.

  Being such a classic, it's almost pointless for me to "recommend" this: I'm certain most readers are familiar with its reputation. I considered it worth my while.

An illustration from my edition.(© 1942 Halbot K. Browne)

Dinosaur Lives

Dinosaur Lives: Unearthing an Evolutionary Saga
© 1998 John Horner
256 pages

   I picked up John Horner’s Dinosaur Lives  out of idle curiosity, not having read anything about dinosaurs since childhood. They remain of interest, of course, but it’s not an interest I’ve particularly pursued. Horner’s approach is that of a detailed log of his teams’ excavations in the late 1980s and early 1990s that he uses to communicate to the reader how archaeologists work  in piecing together not only skeletons, but theories of understanding based on limited information.  Horner places stronger emphasis on dinosaurs as being apart from reptiles, giving particular consideration to their unique behaviors that carry on today in the form of birds -- the tendency of some species to gather in large colonies during the egg-laying season, and the possibility that some dinosaurs tended to their young just as birds to, instead of abandoning them to instincts alone.

        Fascinating in parts and slightly tedious in others, I enjoyed the book overall and found the update on current trends in paleontology useful. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Teaser Mardi 8-7

To arms, citizens! The time has come! -- for....Teaser Tuesday!

"Come then!" cried DeFarge, in a resounding voice. "Patriots and friends, we are ready! The Bastille!"

- 245, A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Dickens.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Around the World in 80 Days

Around the World in 80 Days
© 1872 Jules Verne
160 pages

Like most highly-praised  western literature, I first read Around the World in 80 Days through the Great Illustrated Classics series, along with other Verne works. I’ve never read Verne as an adult, and decided to remedy that this week. Around the World seemed best,  as I was in the mood for a world-traveling adventure.

In the year 1872, Phineas Fogg made a bet with his friends at the local gentleman’s club, staking half his fortune -- £20000 -- that he could leave the club, take a train to the shore, board a ship, and travel completely around the world in less than three months -- in eighty days, in fact. His friends think they are taking their dinner companion for a sucker -- travel the world in eighty days? Even with steamships and rail-lines spanning continents, it’s simply not possible! There are too many variables to ensure success -- ill weather, for instance, or mechanical failure. Fogg coldly defends his premise and sets out along with his freshly-hired manservant, Passepartout.

Starting from England, Fogg sails through the Suez Canal, intending to travel across India by train and then take connecting steamers from China to Japan and there to the United States; a train across the continent, and a final steamer back to Liverpool. Fogg doesn’t think the odds are against him, although all the world does -- and so he dares the universe to do its worst. Even if storms, the Indian jungle, and Sioux raiding parties were not enough to derail Fogg's timetable, he departs England with a detective on his heels:  a policeman named Mr. Fix has decided that the eccentric Mr. Fog, a man of substantial means but no visible way of acquiring them, recently robbed a bank for £12,000 pounds and has set out on this bet to throw the law off his trail.

      I didn't expect a book from the 19th century to be such a breezy, fun read: I look forward to visiting Verne more. Verne is obviously writing for 1872's readers, who live in a world where a continent may be spanned in a week, where all the world is open to them provided their country has access to sufficient coaling stations: the narrator serves as a tour guide, excitedly lecturing on the geography and history of our characters'  waystations while Fogg stares resolutely toward the future (or to his schedule) and Passepartout stares at the surroundings in confusion and awe. All the varied landscapes of the world carry with them their hazards: some natural, and some fabricated. Passepartout learns that the hard way when he accidentally violates Hindu customs and barely escapes with his life.

   A trip around the world in eighty days may seem unremarkable to 21st century personalities accustomed to jet planes, but if readers can settle down into the age in which technological progress was first taken for granted, into a world being radically altered by steam power and nation-states with focused economies, they may stand breathlessly on the deck of a steamship beside Passepourtout and wonder at what is possible. Around the World is definitely one to recommend.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Death in Winter

Death in Winter
© 2007 Michael Jan Friedman
368 pages

I've been meaning to dive back into contemporary Trek lit for some time now, but have been somewhat daunted by a shift in the literature: instead of new releases being published as self-contained novels, Star Trek books today tend to fit into a newly-created extended universe canon that roared into existence following the end of Deep Space Nine and the rise of the "Deep Space Nine Relaunch",  a collection of individual books and series set in the post-"What You Leave Behind" era and which gave the show an eighth season in book form.  The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise soon experienced their own "relaunches", all of these relaunches tied to one another creating the type of expanded universe that Star Wars readers have so long enjoyed. The downside of this is that it increases the amount of background needed to be absorbed to enjoy a given book fully dramatically. I thus posted on TrekBBS and asked for a map of sorts to prepare me to read the newly released Star Trek: Destiny series, and the information I compiled suggested that Michael Jan Friedman's Death in Winter was the place to start.

I could think of no matter, for Friedman is my favorite Trek author: I enjoyed his Stargazer series depicting Captain Picard's first command immensely, falling in love with the characters and eagerly waiting more. Now Friedman tackles Picard in the days following Nemesis: the Romulan empire is in turmoil after the assassination of most of its senate, and most of Picard's command crew has left him. Riker is now the captain of the USS Titan (and has his own book series, along with Troi):  Data is dead, and Dr. Crusher has decided to become the head of Starfleet medical once more, leaving Picard with only LaForge and Worf to help him oversee the Enterprise's extensive repair and retrofitting following its fight in Nemesis.

Of those lost crewmembers, Picard misses Crusher the most:  one of the first season's opening episodes established romantic tension between the two, and they enjoyed a special relationship throughout the series.  Recent events have made their mutual love for each other more acute, making Crusher's departure hard to bear.  While Picard sees to his ship, Crusher is sent on a secret mission to the outskirts of Romulan territory to prepare a vaccine on a plague planet.  Her mission goes awry when the half-human, half-Romulan Commander Sela learns of a Federation officer's presence on her planet, and Picard is tasked with escorting another doctor to the planet and -- if he can -- finding the newly-imprisoned and possibly dead Dr. Crusher. Picard, along with old comrades from the Stargazer, steal into Romulan territory and try to find allies while a political battle for control of Romulus wages. If Picard is not careful -- and if he cannot keep his emotions concerning the doctor from interfering with the mission -- he, Crusher, and their comrades may be used as political pawns by the various senators and admirals who want their voice to guide the battered Star Empire.

Friedman lives up to expectations, doing justice to the TNG crew and handling Romulan politics well enough that I did not tire of it.  I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Stargazer officers given my fondness for that series. The four threads of the book -- Picard's efforts to find Crusher, political espionage and maneuverering between Romulan factions, Beverly's role in those maneuverers, and Worf and Geordi's struggle to do  their duty -- mesh neatly together to make for a compelling read.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

This Week at the Library (2/6)

This week....

I started off with Revenge of the Sith, Matthew Stover's excellent novelization of Star Wars' Episode III. Stover improved upon the movie by expanding characterization and creating deeper tension between the lead characters that redeemed weaker parts of the movie altogether.

Next I read Lemony's Snicket's The Unauthorized Autobiography,  a faux-collection of documents -- letters, memos, newspaper clippings, play scripts, photographs -- that relate to the Series of Unfortunate Events and tease readers by allowing them to piece together some of the series' mysteries.

I decided to finish Animorphs, a series from my youth, and jumped in past the halfway point with book 30, The Reunion, in which the Animorphs attempt to capitalize on the conflict between two Yeerk generals to remove both of them as threats.

My big read last week was John Reader's Africa, a comprehensive history of Africa that began with the cooling of the mantle and fades away after the first of Africa's independence movements. Reader's is a general history that attempts to dispel myths about Africa: I enjoyed my trek through it and emerged all the better for it.

Quotation of the Week: "The history books make arouse admiration for some strategic decision, or horror at some tactical blunder; the novels can conjure up a tingle of excitement, but it is the numbers that constitute the most telling and durable evocations of the [Great][W]ar. They are impossible to forget." - John Reader

Upcoming Reads:

  • Death in Winter, Michael Jan Friedman. I'm trying to get back into Trek literature, and Friedman is without question my favorite author in that genre.
  • Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne.
  • Dinosaur Lives, John R. Horner
  • Elizabeth the Queen, Alison Weir. My library didn't have it, but during a recent trip to the zoo I stopped by a local bookshop to spend a gift card. 


Africa: a Biography of the Continent
© 1997  John Reader
816 pages

And we are scatterlings of Africa, both you and I 
We’re on the road to Phelemanga, beneath a copper sky;
And we are scatterlings of Africa, on a journey to the stars
Far below we leave forever
Dreams of what we where.

For whatever reason, Africa has long maintained a hold over my imagination as a vast land abundant in natural spectacles, and as humanity’s first home with ancient secrets yet to be revealed. I have read a little about it, although not in the course of doing this blog, and intend to read still more. John Reader’s Africa appeared to be an appropriate jumping-off point for further studies,

One of my history professors always devoted the first week of classes to establishing extensive background for that particular class’s topic, and he liked to joke that we were going back “to the cooling of the mantle”. Reader does this literally, beginning the story of Africa with the formation of the great plates that make up the Earth’s crust. From there he covers the evolution of life, of the primates, and finally of humanity, making the transition from natural history to human history a quarter of the way in.

Reader focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, ignoring Africa's Mediterranean coast after the fall of ancient Egypt and Arabian expansion. Given the scope of his book, Africa takes a general approach. Reader examines the rise of African city-states and civilizations based on economic considerations: in "Cities without Citadels",  those polities that thrived on their ironmongery are the stars, later replaced by the cattle-based cultures and still later by those that thrived on the European slave trade. Reader portrays sub-Saharan Africa as a harsh land with unreliable weather and only marginally-useful soil: that humanity  has survived there at all is a tribute not to natural bounty, but to human resilience.

Reader gives significant coverage to Europe's influence on Africa, which is generally negative:  initially European demand for gold shapes the slave trader, and still later European wars become African wars once colonial expansion takes off. The modern era gets short shrift, although a few independence movements (South Africa, particularly) receive special attention.

Reader's work is certainly expansive and does justice to his overall aim, which is to clear away myths surrounding the continent and its people. It's left me particularly intrigued by the various effects of European exploration and colonization on the various polities below the Sahara.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (1-6)

Teaser Tuesdays will be a bit different for a couple of months: I have responsibilities on Tuesdays that prevent me from coming near a computer until the early evening. Thus the link to ShouldBeReading will be to the blog itself, and not the TT post -- although on a Tuesday the most current post would be Teaser Tuesday, so the effect is the same.

The absence of the wheel and the plough from sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is cited in a context suggesting inherent backwardness and ineptitude. A closer look shows that the wheel and plough were simply never an option for the indigenous sub-Saharan farmer -- not simply because many African soils are difficult to plough and domesticated draught animals would be susceptible to endemic disease; a more pressing reason was that feeding the animals would place unsustainable demands on the food-production system.

254, Africa: A Biography of the Continent.  John Reader.

The Reunion

Animorphs #30: The Reunion
© 1999 K.A. Applegate
176 pages

Ever have one of those nights? Where you're exhausted, where you'd pay anything just to fall asleep? But the wheels in your head just keep spinning and spinning and spinning? Imagined conversations. Me talking, explaining, arguing. Changing the words around, repeating them, rehashing them. Around and around in circles.  
Me talking to my mom. Raging. Explaining. Me talking to my mom, as my real mom, why I had to do it.
Me explaining to my mom as Visser One. Laughing, chortling, savoring my victory over head.
This is how I defeated you! I crowed.
This is how I saved you! I explained.
No choice. No choice. 

Long ago while in a local grocery store, I spotted an interesting book-cover that depicted a young boy about eleven years old transforming into a lizard. Naturally, it picqued my curiosity and I wanted to read it, but my mother -- thinking it suspect for some reason -- denied me the freedom to read it. Two years later I started reading the series behind her back and found myself entranced by it:  Animorphs is the story of a band of young adolescents who, with the help of an alien teenager, fight a secret invasion of Earth by a race of brain-controlling slugs called "Yeerks" by transforming into animals -- an ability given to them by a doomed member of an alien race fighting against the Yeerks.  At the outset, the novels were chiefly entertaining for their premise -- the idea of people "morphing" into animal forms, complete with animal instincts, fascinated me.  The series grew darker as the kids -- eventually becoming teenagers -- became more involved in a desperate guerilla war against the Yeerks.  They strike against the Yeerks using animal morphs, becoming bitterly-experienced warriors who fight savagely against long odds. Unfortunately, I lost access to the series before the final arc began and have not been able to attempt to complete it until now.

Because I do not quite remember where I  stopped reading, I've decided -- arbitrarily -- to jump in at number thirty. That means establishing a bit of background for curious parties reading this.

The book series began when a group of young adolescents, roughly of early middle school age, witnessed the crash of a small alien spacecraft containing one being, a warrior named Elfangor.  Elfangor informed the children that their planet was in danger, secretly invaded by the Yeerks who were slowly accumulating greater and greater numbers of human hosts.  His kind, the Andalites, were waging a great war against the Yeerks, for Earth was not the first planet to fall prey to the Yeerks: the slugs are spreading throughout the galazy, enslaving whole planets.  Elfangor was alone in attempting to prevent the Yeerks from gaining a foothold on Earth, and failed in his mission: he decided to empower the children -- Jake, Rachel, Marco, Tobias, and Cassie -- to fight for Earth by giving them the ability to "acquire" the DNA of animals and then transform into those animals at will.

This is an Andalite. They're as cool as they look. 

Their enemies, the Yeerks, are insidious: the slugs worm their way inside a victim's ear canal, squeezing into the various crevices of the brain and seizing control of it, turning the human body into their own:  the victim retains his or her personality, but cannot exert any control over their own body. The Yeerk inhabiting a host body is called a "Controller". Controllers are everywhere, constantly -- and discreetly -- acquiring new victims. They have one great weakness: every three days, they must take in "Kandrona" rays', originally transmitted from their native planet's sun.  Most Yeerks do this communally at gathering sites known as "Yeerk pools", but the elite have access to generators that provide the rays. The kids have precious few allies: the kid brother of Elfangor for one, and a few androids whose programming prevents them from partaking in violence. They're useful as spies, however. The six -- for "Ax",  Elfangor's brother, is part of their band -- use a wide variety of "morphs" to spy on Controllers and strike their gains. They fight a holding action against the Yeerks, hoping that one day the Andalite battlefleet will arrive to start open war.

Applegate and her ghostwriters rotate characters in telling the books: Book #30, "The Reunion", is told from Marco's point of view. Marco is Jake's best friend, and while Jake provides leadership and stability, Marco provides humor, often the sardonic variety. He's intense, a difficult character to read: more than any of the others, he understands that he and his friends run a tightrope, risking death and defeat at every moment while enganging in morally questionable activity. Marco is the soldier who knows they teeter on the edge of insanity, but he hides the fear of what might happen behind a mask of laughing bravado.

That mask has a weakness: Marco's mother, who disappeared during his childhood but resurfaced recently as a Controller: she is host to the highest-ranked officer in the Yeerk military, Visser One.  In every action involving her, Marco is torn between his duties as a member of the Animorphs and his love for his mother:  in The Reunion that comes to a head when he spots her walking the streets in a disguise and decides to follow her. He soon realizes that Visser One is on the run,  having lost a private war with another Yeerk ruler -- Visser Three.  Visser Three is the kids' main nemesis, as he heads the Earth invasion: Visser One was trapped on the surface when the kids undermined a project of hers that recquired experimentation on Earth.

Marco decides to use the conflict between the Vissers to the Animorphs' advantage and contrives a plan that will -- with luck -- destroy both Vissers. That he is willing to sacrifice his mother -- whom he loves dearly -- for the cause indicates how dark the series already is that this point, having already wreaked an emotional toil on Marco and Jake particularly. The resulting plan sees the Animorphs take to the mountains amid a furious battle between the Vissers' respective forces, but all does not go according to plan.

The Reunion made for a strong reentry into the Animorphs series. It's a short read -- I used to go through several of them a day in high school -- so this series won't take long to finish. If you can find the collection in your local library, it might make for a fun diversion regardless of age.