Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sharpe's Rifles

Sharpe's Rifles
© 1988 Bernard Cornwell
304 pages

Where did Clint Eastwood get that great big sword....?

It's the year 1809, and Richard Sharpe has just survived a slaughter in the wintry wastelands of Spain. Cut off from the army and surrounded by Frenchman, the lieutenant -- promoted from the ranks after he saved the future Duke of Wellington's life --  must assume command of what his left of his regiment and lead them to safety. They are not impressed with a soldier-turned-officer such as he,  and his life is imperiled not only by the abundance of the enemy and the savageness of the terrain, but by his own soldiers' risk to mutiny. In the hills, however, Sharpe meets a group of battered Spanish cavalrymen who carry a box of such great important that their major thinks it may turn Spain's almost-defeat at the hands of Napoleon around to victory.

It's been a few months since I read my first Sharpe's book, largely because I've been enjoying Cornwell's other work. Before finishing off the Grailquest series I decided to repay Sharpe a visit, and -- of course -- it was well worth the while. Sharpe's Rifles tells the story of how Sharpe came to command the 95th rifles, with whom he shares an antagonistic relationship throughout the novel -- especially regarding Patrick Harper, the large and surly Irishman who is the  rifles' leader despite his lack of rank or battle honors. Although Harper and Sharpe are    battlefield comrades and close friends in later novels, here their conversations tend to involve a great deal of physical violence. While I haven't read enough of the Sharpe novels to appreciate everything a 'prequel' novel like this would hint at, I was as usual impressed by Cornwell's dramatic flair and characterization. I especially enjoyed his depiction of the cynical Sharpe set against his superstitious comrades and allies, who use holy water to drive away malevolent water-spirits in streams they wish to ford. Cornwell's lead characters tend to lean away from religion, a fact, I've always appreciated -- and the one religious protagonist I've seen of Cornwell's came in Heretic.

Having seen the movie first, I was concerned that the novel itself would seem like old hat. Although Sharpe's ultimate objective is the same in both works, the movie and book reach their ends through considerably different means. As much as I enjoyed the movie, Cornwell's writing is far superior, especially in the endgame where Sharpe has a private motivation to capture the final objective, one which overwhelms the military or strategic importance of it.  That personal quest captured my attention in the book's final chapters.

I'm beginning to suspect that it doesn't matter which order I read the Sharpe novels in,  and I'm tempted to hang both the chronological and order-of-publish approaches and just read the books in the order that they strike my interest.  I will be marching with Lieutenant Sharpe again, in any case.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach
From The New English Bible, pp. 158 -251
© Oxford and Cambridge Universities 1970

Last week I read the Book of Wisdom, a title within the original Jewish and Christian bibles, but one discarded by Protestants. In an effort to learn more about the evolution of Judaism and Christianity, and out of my own interest in wisdom literature, I'm continuing to read from the more complete Catholic canon. Ecclesiasticus is also placed firmly within the genre of wisdom literature and is largely similar to Proverbs in being an extended collection of observations, maxims, and advice. The author also tacked on Book of Wisdom-like devotions to wisdom, poetic history, and two sections of praise worthy of the Psalms.

Unjust rage can never be excused; when anger tips the scale it is man's downfall. (1:22)

Ecclesiastisicus is definitely an interesting little book. I forgave its frequent praise of submission and obedience (to kings, priests, etc) as being a fault of the times which produced it,  and delighted in its frequent references to emotional self-control, especially given that the author seems to have been influenced by Stoic cosmology, using 'wisdom' in the opening section in the same way that a Stoic might refer to the divine fire: it is rational, fused into the universe, and given to mankind so that we might draw closer to God.  While a fair bit of the advice consists of objections worth reflecting on ("Do not overrate one man for his good lucks or be repelled by another man's appearance"), other advice stands out. I would have never expected to read admonishments to examine evidence and engage in reflection before making a judgment, and to put conscience before deferment to authority in a religious text that places so much emphasis on faith and obedience to authority.

I have still more in my mind to express;
I am full like the moon at mid-month.
Listen to me, my devout sons, and blossom like a rose planted by a stream.
Spread your fragrance like incense; and bloom like a lily.  (39: 12 - 14)

It's hard to get a handle on the author of Ecclesiasticus. He seems pious and introspective, yet at the same time encourages readers to make hay while the sun shines -- 'you will enjoy no luxuries in the grave'.  Like Epicures and the author of Ecclesiastes, he obviously doesn't consider pleasure a mortal failing: he only warns against excesses. Speaking of excesses, he unfortunately his own -- especially in the hate department. I am surprised that "Jesus, Son of Sirach" doesn't enjoy more name recognition in the United States: publishers have obviously missed two huge markets to sell his thoughts to: those who subscribe to the American Family Radio school of parenting would adore his brutal approach, which consists of breaking the will of sons and bemoaning virginal daughters as liabilities who are remarkable only for their potential bringing shame to the family; and gangsta rappers would delight in his fantastic misogyny, which crippled the closing two fifths of the book for me..  As I read line after demonizing line, culminating in the classic "Better a man's wickedness than a womans goodness; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace (42: 14)", I thought to myself that this guy had some serious frustration issues to work out. Obviously, he didn't have a happy love life.  His attitude toward slaves borders on schizophrenic: he warns readers to keep their slaves constantly working, or on the rack being tortured, lest they run away -- and then on the very next page, scarcely twenty lines later, suggests treating them like family. Considering this fellow's attitude toward wives, sons, and daughters, however, I would not be surprised if he recommended the rack for them. I'm still reeling from the moral whiplash: the lack of consistency is problematic, and why I would recommend Marcus Aurelius or a similar philosopher over this faithful, but unpredictable, wisdom-seeker.

All in all, an interesting book. It's not as revealing of the Jewish  and early Christian mind as the Book of Wisdom,   but if you excised a few choice sections there's a fair bit of value here. Just er, don't give it as a Mother's Day present.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Accidental Time Machine

The Accidental Time Machine
© 2007 Joe Haldeman
278 pages

When underachieving-and-mildly-discontent MIT graduate student tested a new calibrator for his professor's lab work, he didn't expect it to vanish for twelve seconds. More precisely, he didn't expect it to jump in time twelve seconds. But it did, and like a true scientist he pressed it again -- this time, taking notes. While Boston hunkers in under a snowstorm, Matt takes the calibrator to his home and begins running tests, noting that the length of the temporal jumps seems to increase exponentially with every push of the button. After his turtle returned from a jump alive and relatively unrattled, Matt decided to make a jump himself -- and he does, a few weeks in to the future where he is under arrest for theft and murder. Oops.

While the novel's front cover seems to advertise that this little adventure would be the whole of the plot,  a mysterious stranger bails Matt out and he presses the button again -- and stumbles into a bizarre, tense, whimsical, and utterly unpredictable plot that involves a paradoxical religious dictatorship in the United States, dinosaurs, talking bears, and at least two Jesus Christs, one of which probably lives on a space station.

...yeah. I first heard of Joe Haldeman through his The Forever War, a story of the futility of war and the alienation of soldiers from society, so I wasn't expecting something this funny to read. I generally expect science fiction to be Serious Business, but Haldeman's work is filled with comedy -- both from the absurd situation and his dialogue. Haldeman's worldbuilding -- in creating various future-earth scenarios -- fascinated me, and so I wolfed this book down in a single sitting. It's not quite hard science:  Haldeman tried to keep it grounded in serious theories, but admitted to looking for an esoteric source for his temporal anomaly that would not be overturned by real scientific revelations anytime soon, and which most readers wouldn't know enough about to take serious issue with his approach. It involves string theory, branes, and multiple dimensions, so that's a safe bet.

Accidental Time Machine is an entertaining, very readable novel that had the same effect on me as a thriller or a Christopher Moore book.  Its ending managed to be satisfying without resolving everything too neatly -- leaving room for speculation as to the ultimate endgame. I will definitely be reading more Haldeman.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Disaster 1906

Disaster 1906: the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
© 1967 Edward F. Dolan Jr.
172 pages

If, as some say, God spanked the town
For being over-frisky
Why did He burn the churches down
And save Hotaling's whisky?
-p. 175

Years ago I read a fantastic book called Disaster! The Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. A few years later I determined I wanted to buy my own copy of that book, but alas! Woe! My home library no longer had the book and I forgot the title of it. I hit Amazon, and this seemed like it might be what I was looking for.  It actually isn't, as I found out while reading the book and noticed that key elements from the masterpiece I remembered were missing -- like Enrico Caruso hearing of the volcano eruption in his hometown and thanking God he was in safe San Francisco, only to wake up to an earthquake and an inferno.

Disaster stories interest me, hence why my home library contains several books on the Titanic and why I've read various books on the San Francisco and Chicago fires, as well as the Galveston Hurricane. Part of this is what Augustine might call gross curiosity -- the appeal of looking at a car wreck -- but I'm also fascinated by the way people react when their world is completely eradicated and the society-as-usual  no longer exists. In Disaster 1906,  the sleeping town of San Francisco is visited by a mighty earthquake, and then ravaged for several days by fires which consume much of the city.  Communications are negligible, the water pipes are dry, and yet -- people survive. People freely gather together to help pick up the ruins, men from all walks of life join the fire brigades,  women empty their pantries cooking food for the newly-homeless, and a corrupt mayor  suddenly begins to fulfill his moral responsibilities as a public official and becomes a hero. And people are clever! They improvise! They fill the bathtubs with water before the cisterns leak completely dry, saving the water for use in fire fighting: they construct stoves of bricks and random metal grates.  Throughout the long night, as the fires burn and destroy homes, businesses, and all the hopes of tomorrow, people gather together and tell jokes: they sing and entertain one another, and when they day breaks they start picking up the pieces.

Disaster 1906 was probably written for younger readers given its length, but it's a fine introduction to the disaster and one written by someone who grew up in San Francisco, and who is so fond of the City by the Bay that his last chapter is devoted to  commenting on the rebirth of the city after the disaster, in which the wild child of the west coast grew into a Queen who astonished all the world at the Exposition in 1916, but who maintained her childish sassiness.


  • Disaster! The Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, Dan Kurzman
  • The Great Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco, 1906. John Castillo Kennedy. I may have also read this one while trying to find Disaster!  I think my confusion in trying to find the book is warranted given how similar these three titles are. 
  • Good Life in Hard Times: San Francisco in the 20s and 30s, Jerry Flamm. One of my favorite books.

This is my fifth review in 15 hours, and while two of those were leftovers from last week and the week before last, it's still odd. Why do I go days without being able to progress in collecting my thoughts on a given book, and then have days in which it's easy?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Book of Wisdom

The Book of Wisdom, or The Wisdom of Solomon
from the New English Bible, © 1970 Cambridge and Oxford University Press

Christian personification of Wisdom

My favorite book in the Judeo-Christian bible is that of Ecclesiastes,  in which a man known as 'the preacher' or 'the teacher'  engages in a search for the meaning of life, exploring both the 'low road' of exulting in pleasure and the 'higher' road of seeking wisdom and religious discipline. He finds that the best approach may be one of moderation, as neither hedonism nor obsessive scrupulosity create happiness over the long run. I think Ecclesiastes a humble and pragmatic book, and so when Isaac Asimov mentioned that a book of the original Jewish and Catholic bibles called The Book of Wisdom was similar to Ecclesiastes in genre, I determined that I had to read it.

Wisdom shines bright and never fades; she is easily discerned by those who love her, and by those who seek her she is found. She is quick to make herself known to those who desire knowledge of her; the man who rises early in search of her will not grow weary in the quest, for he will find her seated at his door. To set all one's thoughts on her is prudence in its perfect shape, and to lie wakeful in her cause is the short way to peace of mind. For she herself ranges in search of those who are worthy of her; on their daily path she appears with kindly intent, and in all their purposes meets them half-way. (6: 12-17)

The Book of Wisdom is not really a book of wisdom  in the same sense that Ecclesiastes and Proverbs are, though it does praise wisdom lavishly.  Proverbs refers to wisdom as a woman at least once, and the Book of Wisdom takes that personification and runs with it for page after page. I took perverse pleasure in reading these sections of the text as though they were a poem in praise of Athena, although the Christian personification of wisdom is referred to as Sophia. The prose or this translation thereof is beautiful and stylish. I relished reading the text aloud, although the viciousness of some of it amused me.  While the author doesn't tell you what qualifies as wisdom, he is quick to tell you it is the path to God, the path to both peace on earth and immortality. The godless who reject it are treated with as much hate as the author can muster, which I thought somewhat comical. The lack of wisdom is its own punishment, just as virtue is its own reward.

Protestants may not have heard of the Book of Wisdom because it -- along with books like Tobit, Judas, the Maccabees, and additions to Daniel and Easter -- were dropped by various Protestant denominations preparing their own bibles. These books were included in the original Jewish canon, the Septuagint, and would have been read by Paul, Jesus, and the other apostles. A later Jewish canon, compiled  around the turning of the second century, threw out those books which were written in Greek*. The Christian church didn't, though. The devotional poetry to wisdom aside, this book makes for interesting reading. It's not a very Jewish book, at least not by the standards of modern Jewish orthodoxy. Christianity and Islam have a completely different notion of Satan than Judaism does: the Christians turn a loyal servant of God who tests people and gives them opportunities to strengthen themselves by triumphing over temptation into a pathetic rebel who attacks people just to be a dick, but whose attacks are co-opted by God into use as trials.  In the Book of Wisdom, though, he is mentioned as spiteful, which seems a hint to me that the author shared the same villainous perception of Satan that some Jews around the turn of the century did -- Jesus refers to him as a roaring lion trying to eat people, and (I think) as a foul Dragon.  I don't know what happened to that train of thought within Judaism, but I think they're better for having lost it.

"But the souls of the just are in God's hand and torment shall not touch them. In the eyes of foolish men they seemed to be dead; their departure was reckoned as defeat, and their going from us as disaster. But they are at peace, for though in the sight of men they may be punished, they have a sure hope of immortality; and after a little chastisement they will receive great blessings, because God has tested them and found them worthy to be his."  (3: 1-9)

Protestants often attack the Catholic idea of Purgatory as unbiblical, and they're sort of right -- because they removed the parts of the Bible which refer to Purgatory from their own canon. It would be as if I held up the Jefferson Bible and said, "The idea that Jesus worked miracles is unbiblical!", or tore out Genesis from the Torah and said "The idea of a Great Flood is unbiblical!".   The Book of Wisdom specifically mentions that even the good who die must endure 'some chastisement', which sounds like the Catholic idea of purgatory as it has been explained to me by three sources -- two books and a deacon.  I'd be very much interested in finding out when this book was written, and in what part of the world, because the author is obsessed with bastards. He devotes several 'paragraphs'  to attacking people born out of wedlock, leading me to believe that there's some 'illegitimately-born' monarch or warlord somewhere that he's taking aim at. There's also a section that celebrates a martyr for wisdom, which probably also has a real-world inspiration.

If you're looking for wisdom literature, this isn't it -- but if you want to find a lovely poem about wisdom, or gain some insights into the evolution of Jewish and Christian thinking, I would suggest tracking this down.  The Oxford/Cambridge translation is very readable

* I think this may have had something to do with the fact that the Temple had just been destroyed by Rome (Year 70)  in retaliation for the Jewish revolt, which was prompted by the attempted installment of a statue inside the Temple to honor the emperor as god. Hatred of all things Greco-Roman may have prompted the dumping of these Jewish texts written in Greek.

The Stars like Dust

The Stars like Dust (originally titled as The Rebellious Stars)
© 1951 Isaac Asimov
From Triangle, pp. 349 - 516. © 1952

Only a few days before his graduation from the University of Earth, Biron Farril awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of his room clicking happily to itself -- clicking with radiation. No university prank, this seemed more an attack on his life, an attempt to unite Biron with his recently executed father.  And so he flees Earth to seek sanctuary in Rhodia, to ask protection from a friend of his father's. So begins a story of politics, rebellion, and ambition with more plot twists than there are stars in the sky.

Though classified in Asimov's empire series,  this story appears to have been set rather early: humanity has settled a little over a thousand worlds, and while one of those worlds -- the aptly named Tyrann -- has established a fifty-planet sphere of influence for itself, the Empire proper is never mentioned, nor is Trantor.    The focus is instead on the dominion of the Tyranni, who repress scientific advancement in the worlds they control to restrict the possibility of rebellion. Still,  tyranny does not sit well with human beings: there is a conspiracy, and in fleeing Earth Biron has stumbled upon a galactic chessboard to be used by the Tyranni and the rebels-in-waiting, each manipulating him for their own ends. His greatest hope is to find a rumored rebellion world in the Horsehead Nebula, blessedly free from any politics except staunch resistance to the tyrants.

Although Asimov makes passing reference to technology -- ships Jumping through hyperspace, devices which project images into the mind -- the emphasis here is on political mystery, and it kept me thoroughly entertained though I grew weary of the rug constantly being pulled out from under me. The Second Foundation-like ending was a bit of a surprise, but the novel's length shortened the number of possible resolutions. The last words of the novel reminded me a bit of Star Trek's bewildering episode "The Omega Glory".  As with seeing that episode for the first time, I wasn't sure if I found it amusing or bizarrely inspiring or not.

I fully intend to finish the Empire trilogy this year, so I'll probably be reading Currents in Space sometime soon.

This Week at the Library (20 April)

I wanted to share something that happened to me today, but it's a longish story so I found some code for it to hide behind.

Anyway! My library loot:

Last week I picked up:

  • Evolution: Society, Science, and the Universe, an anthology of essays by various authors, including Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, and Freeman Dyson. Evolution is used in its most broad change: change in systems over time. 
  • How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom. Haven't gotten far into this yet, but its focus is on reading literature as a means of cultivating ourselves as people.

This week I added:

  • The Catholic Church and the Bible, Peter M.J. Stravinskas
  • The First Salute, Barbara W. Tuchman
  • The New English Bible: The Apocrypha, Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press.
  • The Accidental Time Machine, Joe Haldeman

I've been trying to check out a Haldeman book for weeks now, but every time I go into the library I forget his name and wind up wandering the aisles muttering "Handler? DeHandle? Handleton?" and disturbing other patrons. I remembered him this week, though! Pity my library doesn't have The Forever War.

You can expect a review of Isaac Asimov's The Stars like Dust either tonight or tomorrow, and I'll also be finishing Disaster 1906: The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. The great quake struck on Wednesday, 18 April, so reading it this week seemed appropriate.

Why Do Catholics Do That?

Why Do Catholics Do That? A Guide to the Teachings and Practices of the Catholic Church
© 1997 Kevin Orlin Johnson
304 pages

Continuing in my newfound curiosity about the oldest extant Christian organization, I accidentally read the book that inspired the man who created 'Catholics What We Believe and Why' -- the PalTalk chatroom that made me interested in gaining a little Latin rite literacy in the first place. His motivation is understandable: this is an excellent, thorough book. Johnson goes into great detail explaining the theological significant of elements like the Eucharist, but also reveals these element's historic origins, like the Mass's pomp and ritual being drawn from Roman courts.

Johnson's  work is in four sections -- Faith, Worship, Culture, and Custom. Between them they cover a great deal --  Catholic symbols, the calendar,  the difference between Latin and other rites,  the thinking behind church architecture,  the role of incense and prayers,  church law, the Cycle of Redemption, and more. In addition to the Church itself, Johnson also gives a short history of the Vatican City (complimentary, of course -- no corrupt political popes here!) and writes about books which are not included in the Catholic canon as such, but which  still may add to a person's understanding and appreciation of the Christian faith. One of these books is the story of St. Christopher, a giant who decided he wanted to serve the strongest king alive, and whose path to Christ took him into the desert where he found Satan marching around with his army and joined up.

My only caveat is Johnson's light protectiveness of the Church. I say light because as far as I am concerned, the man is impressive in admitting that the Church has taken inspiration from human culture as well as 'divinity': Easter's pagan roots are acknowledged by him freely. Still , as a child of the Church he leads the reader around some of the unpleasantness in Catholic history, like the utter corruptness of the papacy through much of medieval history.  Even so, I'd recommend this to anyone curious or interested in Catholicism. As far as I'm concerned, it's first-rate.

If you're wondering what the imprimateur mentioned on the cover is,  well -- that's answered in the book, too. (It means the bishop in question has read the book and found it worthy of examination.)

The Heart and the Fist

The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL
© 2011 Eric Greitens
320 pages

Heart and the Fist is a fascinating and inspirational account of an idealistic young student dedicating to serving humanity across the globe.  His activism began in his teen years, where he developed an approach  to aid work which involved strengthening people's ability to help themselves. As a university student, Eric visited China, Rwanda, Chile, and other locations around the globe before deciding that sometimes the helpless need more than a hand offering assistance: they need a fist offering protection. Thus he joins the Navy SEALs,  one of the world's most elite combat units, and serves in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas where the US army maintains an active presence.

The book's subtitle does it justice, for it can be divided between the growth of Eric as a young man with a passion for service, and his training as a SEAL. His accounts of his entrance into the Navy and of the months of training that followed are more thorough than any other soldiers' memoir's I've ever read. What he endures is remarkable,  I think while studying at Oxford -- Mr. Greitens is a Rhodes scholar as well as a Navy SEAL, doncha know -- he must have read from the Stoics,  for Greitens is almost a model for the 'Stoic warrior'. He teaches himself mental discipline, utter focus, to concentrate only on that which is in his power to control. This sees him through the worst the Navy can throw at him, including 'Hell Week'.  After he graduates as a SEAL, the book loses focus a bit -- following him to four different areas of the world united by nothing but the fact that the US military is active there. Greitens is chosen for several of these assignments based on his past experience as a humanitarian and his effective leadership as an officer.

I truly enjoyed reading Greiten's account, of seeing his approach to helping people and handling difficult situations. What will make the book stand for me is the character of Greitens himself:  he's an ideal soldier, one who cares most about people and who is so self-disciplined that Navy regulations seem moot.  Even after  his term of service is up, Greitens goes to work setting up a foundation to help injured military personnel continue to give back to their communities, allowing them to continue to be of service -- which is their desire.

The book recommends itself in many ways, and I think parents who want to help their adolescent kids find their way through life might find this book a helpful gift.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (19 April)

Teaser Tuesday!

I missed last week, so I'm going to cheat more than usual share an extra teasers this week, drawn from one of the quotations I've copied in my journal in recent months.

Oh,  Mother of God, she prayed, be with us now.  The screams sounded downstairs. Feet thumped on the stairs. Men's voices shouted in a strange tongue. Be with us now and at the hour of our death for the English had come. 

p. 60, The Archer's Tale. Bernard Cornwell

Sir Francis Bacon, who provided some of the ideas that Johnson put to use, famously gave the advice: 'Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.' 

- p. 21, How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom

We humans can willfully strive to control our emotions. We can decide which objects and situations we allow in our environment and on which objects we lavish time on.

- p. 82, The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley. (I read this back in January and have yet to review it. Oh, the shame!)

Top Ten Rewind: Childhood Favorites

This week the Broke and the Bookish are revisiting topics they missed the first go-round.

1. The Henry Huggins/Beezus and Ramona series (Beverly Cleary)

These books were among the first I ever checked out at the library. I believe I began with Ribsy, the story of Henry's dog getting lost and finding his way back home. As a kid I dearly wished I lived in Henry's neighborhood, and some of my childhood adventures were in part an attempt to emulate him -- in the building of a clubhouse, for instance.

2. The Boxcar Children Series, Gertrude Chandler Warner

I saw these first at a book fair at school and grew inexplicably excited about them.  The series follows the four Alden orphans and their dog, Watch. The orphans decided to run into the woods rather than live with their grandfather, whom they'd heard was "very cross".  Eventually they learned that gramps was a swell guy and moved in with him, where they solved mystery after mystery.  I had an entire shelf lined with their books.

3. Back in Action,  Elvira Woodruff

Another bookfair prize: in this, a kid uses a powder to both bring his toys alive, and shrink himself down to their level where he has adventures with them. This appealed to me immensely because other than reading and wandering in the woods (like Calvin, only without a tiger companion) , most of my childhood was spent outside playing with toys, building forts and dungeons and such out of wood, cinder blocks, and other miscellaneous objects. (A wrapping paper tube was used as a slide to the Vehicle Pool, while big D batteries were explosives.)

4. Indian in the Cupboard Series,  Lynne Reid Banks

Similar to Back in Actions: if you've never had the pleasure, this series concerned a magical cupboard which could bring toys alive. These toys were not merely sentient pieces of plastic: they were real people, and through them Omri  explored the world of the past.  Sad as it sounds, this series is probably responsible for my childhood knowledge of the French and Indian War and the Algonquin Indians.

5. Goosebumps, R.L. Stine

My mom bought me "Let's Get Invisible!" and it thrilled me. The books became an obsession of mine throughout childhood, to the point that my very conservatively religious parents were alarmed:  while Let's Get Invisible seemed harmless, other covers sported mummies, ghosts, and vampires.  Goosebumps was a national craze for a while: my home library even hosted a "Goosebumps Fan Club" .

6. Bruce Coville's sci-fi series

Strange as it seems, Aliens Ate My Homework! was probably my first introduction to science fiction. I hadn't  encountered Star Trek before reading it, otherwise I would have been deeply amused at book three, The Search for Snout -- in which a human boy assists a multiracial crew of peaceful aliens in finding their logical comrade, Snout...who is missing and was presumed dead. He's something of a father-figure to the boy, who helped the aliens before in defeating a villain of some kind.

7. Redwall, Brian Jacques

It's a medieval fantasy story, only with woodland creatures instead of people. Redwall was the first 'epic' novel I ever read.

8. The Matthew Martin Series

This is more preteen than childhood, but Matthew Martin was the ultimate cool kid for me. I didn't watch a lot of Saved by the Bell, but Matthew was sort of like Zach, only he could use computers. I can't remember much of what Matt did, beyond fighting with girls and later flirting with them.

9. Wayside School, Louis Sachar

Welcome to wacky Wayside Elementary! The city wanted a one-story school  with thirty classrooms, but instead they got a thirty story school with one classroom per floor! One of the teachers is a witch, one of the students is possibly just an opossum wearing a lot of rain coats, the thirteen floor doesn't exist (except for when it does), and if you happen to get a bunch of cows on the top floor, they won't come back down. The book focuses on one classroom, filled with kooky characters.  The series is absurdism for children, and I'd buy used copies for myself if I ever thought of it.

There was also a math-related spinoff series (Sideways Arithmetic is the book I remember) which adult reviewers call "quite clever", but which confused me utterly back in the day.

10. Great Illustrated Classic Series

Ah, the series which introduced me to so many books -- The Call of the Wild, Black Beauty, The War of the Worlds,  Journey to the Center of the Earth, Robinson CarusoDr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, Dracula,  and Around the World in Eighty Days are just a few I remember.  The books were abridged version of their real inspirations, possibly restyled in parts to be more readable to children growing up distracted by video games and television, and illustrated amply. For the past few years I've been revisiting some of the books I read in that series..

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Open Secrets

Star Trek Vanguard: Open Secrets
© 2009 Dayton Ward
448 pages

In Reap the Whirlwind, Vanguard commander Diego Reyes took some drastic steps to prevent the secret of Vanguard Station and the Taurus Reach from claiming more innocent lives -- steps which have earned him the ire of both Starfleet and the Klingon Empire. While Starfleet is content to court-martial him for treason, the Klingons will settle for nothing less than Reyes' head on a plate. (Which they would then...possibly eat?)  Tensions between the Federation and its rivals continues to mount, especially after Starfleet's lead scientist on the Vanguard project vanishes inside a Klingon transporter beam. As the friction builds, a flotilla of Klingon cruisers approaches the station with weapons loaded for bear.

Open Secrets almost seems like a break in the action in the Vanguard series. While the science investigation continues, much of the book's focus is on the decaying political situation, the trial of Commodore Reyes, and the slow recovery of Commander T'Pyrnn, who is trapped in her own mind on Vulcan.  Because Ward and Mack have built such strong, varied, and sympathetic characters in the last three books, the focus on their trials here -- mostly separated from constant action -- carries the novel well. Ward also works in more TOS references than preceding books: it opens and ends with references to a Star Trek episode.  Reyes is one of my favorite characters, so I read with interest. Worth reading for the characters, but this is probably the book most easily to summarize through a recap in following novels. It has one of my favorite pieces of covert art in the series, though.

The Archer's Tale

The Archer's Tale (originally released as Harlequin)
374 pages
© 2001 Bernard Cornwell

In the first decade of the Hundred Years' War, a French raiding party sacked a small coastal town in England, called "Hookton".  Ordinarily the destruction of this village would be of little note to anyone, but one of its inhabitants --- who, with a bow, shot fear into the hearts of the raiders -- wants revenge.A sacred relic -- the Lance of Saint George, Patron Saint of England -- was stolen from Hookton's church,  and he has been tasked with restoring it to England.  Thomas' path takes him to France, where the army of Edward III -- King of England, and, if all goes well, King of France -- is busy ravaging the countryside in brutal raids called chevauchée. Thomas takes to war happily, but his temper threatens to make him an outcast, making recovery of the relic a necessary act of penance. As he looks for the man who stole the Lance,  Thomas discovers his family's complicated history and is tasked with nothing less than saving all of Christendom by finding the Holy Grail.

The Archer's Tale is the beginning of Bernard Cornwell's Grail Quest trilogy. Its conclusion enthralled me last year when I inadvertently read the capstone book (Heretic) out of order, and the medieval setting left me yearning for more. I launched into the Saxon Stories series, which has solidified my interest in Cornwell. The Archer's Tale does not disappoint, introducing me to the three principle characters of this trilogy while sending young Thomas through some of the early battles of the Hundred Years War -- culminating with the Battle of Crécy, in which the French attempt to capture the Prince of Wales.  As usual, characterization is strong --Cornwell introduces two strong female characters to toy with Thomas' emotions, and his relationship with one of the villains makes for fascinating reading. Cornwell also shows off his skill with saturating just a few sentences with drama, especially when he's  about to lead the reader into battle.  I'm looking forward to 'completing' this trilogy by reading the second book, though I note with concern I am starting to exhaust my library's complement of Cornwell novels.  I'd like very much to read the Warlord Chronicles, but someone appears to have stolen them from my library's shelves.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Echo Park

Echo Park
© 2006 Michael Connelly
405 pages

Listen to the first chapter being portrayed in film here. 

Harry Bosch may not be the most charismatic, popular, or politically savvy detective in the Los Angeles Police Department, but he takes every case seriously and keeps pursuing leads until he gets his man.  For thirteen years, the case of Marie Gesto has bothered him:  the young woman disappared more than a decade ago, and neither Bosch nor his partner were able to find any suspects. For over a decade, Marie has haunted Bosch, but now her case may be on the path to resolution. A squad of police detectives working on a burgular case chanced to catch a serial killer at work, and in exchange for commuting his death sentence to life in prison, the man -- Raynard Waits -- has volunteered to confess to thirteen murders, including Gesto's.  Solving thirteen cases in one fell swoop would be a godsend to several police officials hoping to prosper in the upcoming elections, but they can't be sure the man is legitimate. Given his history with the case, Bosch is asked to confirm the man's story.

Like every other Bosch novel I've read, Echo Park sees Bosch following his gut and running afoul of police politics while dating an FBI agent who happens to be helping him. This time the odds are higher: if the confessor's story is legitimate, then Bosch and his partner missed a vital clue thirteen years ago, and the weight of the killer's resulting murders now sits upon their shoulders. Bosch doesn't give a damn about the political ramifications, but the thought that negligence on his part contributed to the death of twelve more young women agonizes his conscience.  That aside, something about the killer doesn't sit right with him -- and as he digs deeper, he realizes there's more afoot here than a killer pleading for leniency.  Echo Park is as much a story of politics and conspiracy as it is a murder whodunit.

As usual, Connelly's setting of Los Angeles is alive, and the neighborhood in question really exists. Its greatest strength -- besides a villain who takes his inspiration from medieval legends -- is the conflict within Bosch as he struggles with the idea that he screwed up.  Police detectives on television and in books are often portrayed as following their instincts before evidence, and usually being proven right, and the possible shakeup intrigued me. Would Connelly make Bosch face the consequences of misplaced judgment....or would he keep to the standard approach and see the detective triumph in the end?

I'd call it a 'fairly good story'. I'm lending my copy of the book to my sister to see how she'll take to Connelly and Bosch.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Catholics Really Believe

What Catholics Really Believe: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions about the Catholic Faith
© 1992 Karl Keating
155 pages

Last week a friend of mine introduced me to the chat client PalTalk, and since then we've been spending our evenings together, usually participating in or listening to conversations about religion and philosophy. We're both especially fond of a room called "Catholics What We Believe and Why" because of the genial host, and my experience in there has proven to be elucidating -- though it also makes it plain to me how shallow my understanding of Catholicism: I know only what I have gleaned from the study of European history.

Unfortunately, that limited understanding has not been much remedied by this book, in part because it is written by a Catholic to Catholics: Keating doesn't explain the tenants of Catholicism to outsiders, and his answers to many questions seem to be written more to assure or calm concerned Catholics who are having their doubts than to satisfy the serious student. Though Keating is regarded well by Catholics (at least those I've asked), his answers to more meaty questions (regarding the inerrancy of the Bible, for instance) were frustratingly simplistic -- like applying a band-aid to a bullet wound. When commenting on contradictions within the Gospels, for instance, he chooses an example that can be easily reconciled with a little imagination and expects the reader to be content that this example speaks for the rest.  Fixing a single pot-hole doesn't repair the rest of the street, to say nothing of the broken bridge.  Perhaps all of the contradictions can be resolved with sufficiently creative imaginations, but convoluted what-if scenarios are unnecessary, unhelpful, and unconvincing to outsiders. Keating encourages Catholics worried about the integrity of the Bible to view it through Catholic eyes, to assume it is inerrant...and then all will be well. You only see contradictions if you're LOOKING for them, he says. I have no idea how someone can write that so un-selfconsciously. Again, it speaks to consoling readers rather than fundamentally resolving the issue.

Though Keating's work has the benefit of being conversationally easy to read, what information I learned from it I could have gleaned from another book just as well -- and perhaps from an author with a more respectable approach.


  • The Jewish Primer: Questions and Answers on Jewish Faith and Culture, Rabbi Dr. Shumuel Himelstein  

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (5 April)

Once again, it's Tuesday Teaser...time..
..or it will be at some point.

As he walked down the hallway, I remember watching with anthropologist-like fascination and thinking, This is interesting, watching these college kids get indoctrinated in the U.S. military; you can see that they're afraid. I wonder if the drill instructors practice this, the walking-down-the-hallway moment. I wonder what's going to happen next.  Staff Sergeant Lewis grabbed me by the green collar of my fatigues, walked me back three steps, pressed me against the wall, and yelled, "Join the rest of this sorry group!"
I realized then that I was actually in the Navy.

The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL. Eric Greitens.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Gallows Thief

Gallows Thief
© 2002 Bernard Cornwell
297 pages

It's the year 1817, and the conflict between England and Napoleon which dominated the minds of Europe for nearly two decades is finally over -- and yet, still haunting those who survived it. Captain Rider Sandman returned home from fighting in Spain and at Waterloo to find that his father had driven the family into debt and shot himself. Though of 'noble' lineage, Sandman is now penniless and without prospects, save his skill at cricket. His skill at "batting" may keep him from starving, but it won't be enough to marry his longtime love. Thus, when Sandman is asked by the Home Minister to investigate and confirm the guilt of a man who will soon be executed for the murder of a noble, he accepts the generous fee offered and sets about the task of obtaining a confession.

Naturally, it's not that simple. As soon as Sandman questions the man, he realizes the account of his guilt can't be true. Fortunately for the accused -- a painter who had the bad luck to leave an aristocratic lady's home shortly before her rape and murder -- Sandman is a firm believer in Justice.  England means something to him: he didn't help defeat Napoleon just to come home to a land where the innocent are hanged.  As his investigation continues, Sandman stumbles upon a secret society of artistocrats who will murder just to prove they can get away with it; if Sandman doesn't leave things be, he may become their next victim.  Sandman must race against time with multiple lives hanging on the balance, and the painfully suspenseful ending will keep readers on the edges of their seats until the final page.

Given that I'm chiefly familar with Cornwell's military work, this diversion into detective work came as a pleasant surprise. The writing and characterization are up to Cornwell's usual standards, and to them he adds  a barrage of period slang ("flash") and a generous dollop of cricket discussion. This last would have had me utterly confused were I not familiar with some cricket terms (courtesy of a Regency take on "Who's on First?" which uses terms like 'bowler' and 'wicket-keeper' for pitcher and catcher).  Both bring the post-Napoleonic setting more to life, though for some reason I suspect Cornwell was amused to be able to use either. I for one would have been interested in seeing a Rider Sandman series of mysteries -- like most of Cornwell's protagonists, Sandman is strong, wily, courageous, and 'a good man' --  but it's been  over eight years since Gallows Thief first saw the light of day.

Gallows is an fun,  tense mystery novel set against the grim backdrop of public executions: those interested in both historical fiction and detective stories should find it especially appealing.


  • the Richard Sharpe novels, the main character of which may have been mentioned here. I am not sure, but Sandman refers to a certain green-jacketed rifleman with remarkable shooting prowess.