Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Final Storm

The Final Storm
© 2011 Jeff Shaara
446 pages

The Final Storm is an appetizer served in lieu of a main course: tasty, but unsatisfying. As fine a story as it is, it's a frustratingly disappointing treatment of the Pacific War.

Jeff Shaara has penned three prior novels set during the Second World War, all set in the European theatre. Shaara borrows his father's intimate writing style, which combines traditional narration with a stream-of-consciousness approach that conveys the thoughts and emotions of his lead characters. In the case of the Final Front, "lead character" is a more accurate expression, for this novel distinguishes itself among Shaara's work by focusing heavily on one character: Clay Adams, Marine. Adams is among the ranks of the men who are expected to pray the Japanese army from Okinawa and set the stage for the greatest, bloodiest battle ever imagined: the Invasion of Japan.

The Final Front picks up in spring 1945, when Japan is defeated, but defiant: despite the lack of naval and aerial support, the Japanese soldiers on Okinawa fight ferociously and cost the American marines and infantry dearly. Battle is inevitably gruesome, but the island battles of the Pacific War are exemplars of the horrors of combat: Eugene Sledge's stomach-churning details of Okinawa  ("hell's own cesspool") still linger with me over a year after reading his memoirs, and Shaara's account brought those memories into sharper focus.  While the Battle of Okinawa is meant to depict the difficulties, cost, and savagery of the Pacific War as whole, the fourth act -- relatively minor -- offers Adams and the reader some relief by promising to bring the war to a swift conclusion through the use of the atomic bomb.

The fourth act seemed more like an epilogue than anything else: ultimately this is a novel about the Battle of Okinawa. Clay Adams is the predominate character,  relegating almost everyone else to the sidelines until the final pages when Truman and bomber pilot Col. Paul Tibbets take priority. The focus on Adams  may be a sign that Shaara is developing his own style (moving away from his father's use of multiple viewpoint characters from all sides), but it means that this is NOT a book about the Pacific War as a whole. Shaara is perfectly capable of penning a  grand Pacific trilogy, one beginning in 1941 and following key characters,  through to Okinawa and beyond, doing justice to the Marines, airmen, and sailors who fought,  but apparently his publishers are in a hurry for him to write a Civil War trilogy to be published next year in time for several anniversaries.

While it's a fine story, I'm hard-pressed to recommend it. This isn't a suitable tribute to the Pacific War, and those wanting to read about Okinawa would be better served reading Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed

Saturday, June 25, 2011

This Week at the Library (26 June)

This week at the library...

I checked out:

  • Sharpe's Trafalgar, Bernard Cornwell
  • Creations of Fire:  Chemistry's Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age,   Cathy Cobb and Harold Goldwhite
  • and The Final Storm, Jeff Shaara, the finishing touch on his World War 2 novels which takes place in the Pacific. 

I'm still reading Radiation in Modern Life, which is proving to be an eye-opener, though I had to return The Age of Faith and The Cat Who Walks through Walls because of a library computer error. I'll pick Age of Faith back up next week: the library's computer system has a problem with my account in which it fails to register which books I have checked in and out. I like to think I've checked out so many books at the library in my life that I've overwhelmed the system.   I also have Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee which I bought a week or so ago.  I'm anticipating making a couple of purchases next week (a couple of new Star Trek novels, and my Bastille Day read).

Friday, June 24, 2011

God is Not One

God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Rule the World and Why Their Differences Matter
© 2010 Stephen Prothero
400 pages

Despite the promises of modernity to drive religion out of the human mind, the New York City skyline bears witness to its continuing relevance. While religion can serve as a force for good,  it’s a master at nurturing the darker sides of human nature, and the good religions have achieved is often a testament to the moral courage of humans who have fought to push these systems of thought beyond their origins.  Some have gone so far as to say that the differences between religions are unimportant, that they are merely different paths up the same broad mountain which arrive at the same place. Stephen Prothero says different.  None of this tearing-down-the-walls-that-divide-us nonsense for Prothero, he intends to prove that religions are all rigidly disconnected boxes, and that while we may choose to shake hands with or shake fists at the fellows in the other boxes, we can only do it through tight little windows.

I looked forward to grappling with this book, largely because my own mind is so divided on the subject: while I believe that all religions were created by human beings to understand the world and perhaps to better themselves,  I also know that some religions are so defined by their aggressive assertions that they cannot easily find peace with other.  I found God is not One to be an unsatisfactory sparring partner, however, being  frustratingly simplistic, and ultimately disappointing.  In the first eight chapters, Prothero analyzes eight  of the the world’s major religion’s through  four-points:

  • a problem
  • a solution
  • a technique
  • an exemplar

He believes each of these religions (Islam, Confucianism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Taoism, Hinduism) attempts to address one of eight different problems in human nature, and offers eight fundamentally different approaches to life based on that problem.  This analysis is entirely too simplistic for the problem at hand, however. While it’s possible to identify characteristics within a religion that make them unique, those characteristics do not constitute the religion. This eight religions, eight boxes organization ignores the more fundamental similarities religions might have:  the constant cycle of life/death/rebirth in Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, and the hateful split between the material and spiritual worlds that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are so keen on convincing us of.

A second problem with this is one Prothero tip-toes around: although the eight religions he identifies here do have many varied differences, they are not necessarily hostile.  Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have all existed in China together for centuries, for instance: they each have different offerings, and people happily sample beliefs and practices from each table, cafeteria-style, arriving at a worldview that meets their needs. Prothero speaks of religions ruling the world like hostile nation-states, but not all religions are as imperialistic (and therefore, conflict-prone) as the dominant forms of Christianity and Islam.  The Asian triplets point out the greatest problem with this book, Prothero’s sinister attitude about the relationship between humans and religion.  He would have us owned by religion, forced to live within that particular religion’s box. In the beginning, he snorts that attempts at interfaith dialogue which ignore the walls of differences are “disrespectful” of religion. I say poppycock. Why should we be respectful of religion and let it lie like a dusty rug? We should pick it up, bring it into the sunlight, and then beat it vigorously until all the dirt has fallen away and nothing but beauty remains. Why should we, the living, be content to breathe the dust of our ancestors?

Although Prothero’s thesis never grows legs to stand on here, the book may have some use for those interested in learning about other religions. He shows no bias toward one religion over another, though I advise nonreligious readers to steer well clear. He is bizarrely hostile toward humanists and atheists, dedicating an entire chapter to calling the ‘New Atheism’  a religion and its advocates hypocrites and plagiarists. This is stupidity, of course: religions are organized systems of beliefs, while atheism is a single belief -- and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are no more plagiarists for making the same criticisms of religious assertions that Bertrand Russell did than is the second man in the crowd who dared to say the emperor had no clothes on.

I’m ultimately disappointed with this book: while it has its uses for comparative religion readers, there are assuredly superior books out there on that subject. I daresay even The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religion or some similar work would be better. I despise the spirit that sees the maintenance of religions as more important than the good we might do by overcoming our differences.


Sharpe's Fortress

Sharpe’s Fortress: India 1803
© 1999 Bernard Cornwell
294 pages

There’s nothing quite so miserable as a good sergeant who’s been made into  purposeless officer. Mister Richard Sharpe is a man with a mission -- the defeat of renegade-murder Dodd -- but as an ensign in his majesty’s Royal Army, he’s stuck behind the lines supervising the bullock train in the company of his worst enemies. Leave it to Sharpe to get himself into more trouble than he’s ever been in, though: Sharpe’s Fortress could have just as easily been titled Sharpe’s Peril.  Rejected by the other officers and betrayed by his comrades, Ensign Sharpe is left alone to prove himself still a soldier against impossible odds -- resulting in one of Cornwell’s more fantastic endings.

Sharpe’s Fortress takes place in 1803, as Sir Arthur Wellesley’s tiny army moves to crush the remnants of the Mahratta Confederation, commanded partially by the traitor Dodd, who has taken refuge in the fortress Galwighur. For him and the Mahrattas resisting British colonial expansion,  the forthcoming siege will lead to victory or death: there is no escape from this citadel upon the high cliffs.  Sharpe’s Fortress is one of the better Sharpe novels I’ve read up to this point: and not only for the ending battle and Sharpe’s usual heroics. While they carry the novel, a new villain provides considerable comedy. I’m not sure if Cornwell intended this, but I delighted in every scene the man was in.  The Indian trilogy overall has been superb, and I think I shall continue to read the series in chronological sequence.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Booking through Thursday: Soundtrack

Booking through Thursday asksWhat, if any, kind of music do you listen to when you’re reading? (Given a choice, of course!

In general, I find that classical music is an excellent complement to reading -- softer pieces, generally, nothing bombastic. However,  when reading some specific genres and books, I like to take advantage of my diverse music collection and play appropriate tunes.  While reading Bernard Cornwell's Napoleonic adventures, for instance, I'll play the fife-and-drum version of The British Grenadiers and other period marching tunes. I listened to nothing but fifties/sixties hits while reading Stephen King's Christine, and the fact that I played only the songs Christine played went far to make my reading experience all the more creepy. Jazz plays if I'm reading police novels ("Harlem Nocturne" is so very noire), a pairing I tried for the first time while reading the Harry Bosch mysteries, since Bosch is obsessed by jazz. There are other obvious matches: Star Wars/StarTrek novels get music from the movie soundtracks, and "La Marseillaise" plays during any work set in France. It helps that I keep my music organized by genre, though my particular way of sorting music ("Eighties Pop", "50s/60s/70s Pop and Rock",  and "Rock" are three different folder I use) may confuse others.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

This Week at the Library (19 June)

In addition to the reviews posted this weekend, I also finished Biology Made Simple -- which proved to be too simple for my needs. Although the book improved vastly as the author covered the bodily systems, the opening chapters on basic biological functions are too simplistic to be of help: I generally need to see diagrams of chemical reactions to fully appreciate what is happening. For that, I think I should return to Biology Demystified instead.

At the library, I picked up:

  • Cop Hater by Ed McBain, which I read within hours of picking it up for the first time.
  • God is not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Rule the World and Why Their Differences Matter by Stephen Prothero. This book has been checked out of the library for months: I'd assumed someone lost it, but apparently they've been renewing it again and again and the library's software didn't catch them. This should be an interesting read, given that I tend to believe humanity's various religions have all interacted with one another too much throughout the course of history to be completely separate. 
  • Sharpe's Fortress, the final book in the Indian trilogy by Bernard Cornwell. 

Also, on Friday morning I received The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond in the post. I've been wanting to read this one for a while.

I also have The Age of Faith. I'm presently reading about  the Islamic wars of conquest and hoping for something a little more cheerful, like the spread of the Black Death. Robert Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks through Walls is still unfinished. I'm finding it an altogether odd reading experience: I read Currents of Space by Asimov last week in part to scratch my old-school SF itch but with a more familiar author.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cop Hater

Cop Hater
© 1956 Ed McBain
236 pages

The heat is on for Detective Stephen Carella of the 87th precinct and his fellow officers. As a heat wave reduces the city to misery, someone is murdering the precinct's detectives one by one. The killer's victims are spread across the department too much to have been connected to a single case, and one lead after another fizzles to a dead end. Though the unforgiving heat and increasing body count sap their spirits, Carella and the other detectives are determined to find their killer and take him down. When resolution comes, however, it's from an unexpected corner.

Cop Hater is the first in the 87th Precinct series, Ed McBain (Evan Hunter)'s  most famous body of work. The series is so expansive that I have no intention of attempting to read them in order: this merely caught my attention while at the library. McBain/Hunter has a strange style, one that mixes simple grittiness with sometimes flowery prose. He speaks of tenement buildings reaching into the skies like misty fingers while his main characters talk about who's just been 'knocked off'.  The combination works, though, and the novel's use of multiple viewpoints adds to the suspense: in the introduction, McBain mentions that he wanted to use an entire squadroom of detectives for this series, just so he had the option of imperiling or killing characters when useful, and the potency of that decision is made clear here. One detective is killed within moments of our meeting him, while others survive long enough to ensnare the reader's sympathies before they become victims themselves. I roared through this book in a single sitting, though the ending left me wanting -- seeming more the work of coincidence than detective work. Still, there's no denying McBain can write a thriller, and so I've no doubts I'll be reading more. 

The Omnivore's Dilemma
© 2007 Michael Pollan
450 pages

What to eat, what to eat? Between our robust physiologies and intelligent, creative minds, there's little on Earth that we human beings cannot eat or somehow convert into food. The entire planet is one big smörgåsbord  for H. sapiens, but such a plethora of choices overwhelms our hunter-gatherer instincts. We are no longer creatures of the plains, but of the cities: a relative few grow food for the masses, and they can do so only by being highly efficient. Such efficiency allows for cheap food, but in Michael Pollan's eyes there's no such thing as a free lunch. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan digs into four possible meals of the modern era to find out what it means -- and costs -- to eat in the 21st century. On the menu: fast food from McDonalds, an organic supper from WholeFoods,  a hearty banquet at a local farm, and a meal foraged from the wild.

Pollan begins with the most typical American cuisine: fast food from McDonalds, which despite being advertised as beef and potatoes, contains an awful lot of corn. Corn allows cattle companies to raise their beef to market quickly and efficiently, and it's also processed into virtually every food staple sold in American market. Efficiency is the watchword for industrial agriculture, which feeds its corn to cattle and pigs on vast feedlots, which are a far cry from bucolic images of cattle lowing out on the plains. Efficiency's allure has not been lost on organic business, which -- while decrying pesticides and other 'necessary evils' of big agriculture -- is forced to pursue the same basic business model, as Pollan finds out when he follows the ingredients of his WholeFoods-purchased meal from the farm to his plate.  His organic chicken ("Rosie") may be a free-range animal, but her living conditions are roughly the same as KFC's birdies.  From here, Pollans goes off the grid and into a family farm, one which takes an entirely different approach to producing food.  Polyface Farm, in fact, does not produce food: it grows it. It cultivates it. Instead of using fossil fuels to process food, Polyface's owner simply manages nature,  putting ecology to work for him. Why fill animals with antibiotics when you can have chickens peck through cow manure and eat the bugs which would cause sickness later on? Finally, Pollan leaves the farm for the wild, gathering mushrooms and hunting for boar to create an authentically human meal, with every ingredient on the plate made by his own hands.

The great theme of Omnivore's Dilemma is awareness -- food mindfulness, if you will. We can buy cheap food and enjoy foods out of season, but at cost:  beef is so cheap because it's raised on heavily-subsidized corn, and has been since the 1970s when Nixon decided to take food off the political-issues menu. But that same subsidization encourages farmers to drive themselves into financial ruin by planting more and more corn (and seeing increasingly marginal returns for their investment). It's not a sustainable system, but taxpayers cover the gap.  Although Pollans never mentions it, there's a similarity between the birth of agriculture thousands of years ago and the growth of corn-based agriculture only a few decades ago: both allow us to feed many more people cheaply, but at the expense of quality. Uncivilized hunter-gatherers enjoyed a diet far more varied and healthy than that of the medieval peasant and possibly even ourselves.  The quantity-quality dichotomy divides the book's four chapters into two portions:  the first two meals use society's industrial infrastructure, while the latter focus on on the quality of food rather than increasing profit. At one point the owner of Polyface farm notes that while he could add more cattle to his farm, it would throw off the ecological balance he cultivates.   He thus spurns economic growth for sustainability, a philosophy I wish more businesses, people, and governments shared. Growth without sustainability is nothing more than a market bubble waiting to be popped. Pollan's last story (the boar-hunt) takes a completely different tack, focusing on the morality of eating animals and the meaning that can be found in gathering one's own food, and thus in interacting with the world in which we live instead of passively consuming foodstuffs.

Dilemma will raise difficult questions for virtually everyone who reads it, unless they live on a farm like Polyface,  and the issues are varied. Yes, we can dine cheaply -- but only if we do not take into account the nutritional, moral, political, and societal costs. Those who try to buy to satisfy their conscience and palate both by moving to organic don't get off as easily as they might think. Judging from the book,  the ideal foodsource is local, natural, and sustainable -- but  the majority of us do not have the luxury of being able to buy or eat responsibly-produced food from places like Polyface farms, either out of location or finances. As much as I would like to see feedlots give way to the Polyface approach, I think this is as realistic as hoping for the return of Mom and Pop general stores on Main Street in a world dominated by big boxes. As hideous and artificial as those box stores are, they're simply more economically competitive and will continue to increasingly dominate our society without the appropriate legislation. The solitary reader need not despair, however:  while society at large may continue to go its processed-food way, those who read this or a similar book can be provoked to change our lives and our culinary habits -- and just as I have decided to avoid Wal-Mart and buy from local businesses, I can decide to avoid processed food in favor of items from the farmer's market whenever possible.

Given the questions Dilemma raises, I highly recommend it -- though I would prefer more substantial evidence (like raw data on what percentage of cattle are raised on feedlots) to back up his anecdotal conclusions.

Sharpe's Triumph

Sharpe's Triumph: India 1803
© 1998 Bernard Cornwell
291 pages

Four years have passed since Richard Sharpe destroyed the Tippoo Sultan's empire and earned his sergeant's stripes, and those four years have been relatively peaceful. But now a malicious officer (Dodd) in the East India Company has betrayed his country, murdered the king's officers, and offered his services to one of the many varied polities in India resisting Britain's presence. Sharpe, who survived a brutal assault by Dodd, is one of the few redcoats in India who can recognize him -- and thus he joins the army making its way to destroy the turncoat and his new allies. The odds are fantastically against Sharpe and Wellesley,  but long odds are the primordial soup from which heroes are born.

Sharpe's Triumph is a novel of ambition. Sharpe wants more out of life than sergeant's stripes, his general Wellesley wants his first major battlefield victory, and Sharpe's old sergeant -- Obadiah Hakeswill, whom I hate with a fervor I've not felt since I met Lucius Malfoy --  wants to destroy the uppity sergeant for not showing him the proper respect.  Since Sharpe literally threw Hakeswill to the lions tigers,  our hero may be in legal trouble if Hakeswill actually catches up with him.  In the meantime he has more pressing matters to attend to, like surviving in enemy territory during reconnaissance, and seeing Wellesley -- whom he is temporarily serving as aide, since the last fellow lost his head --  safely through the Battle of Assaye.  The actual battle didn't interest me as much as the espionage of Sharpe's Tiger, but I looked forward to the scene in which Sharpe  so astonishes Wellesley with his prowess that he earns admission into the officers' ranks.  Hakeswill's dogged pursuit of Sharpe also intrigued me, largely because I despise his character and feared that he might actually be able to get one over on our hero.   Though the novel ends in triumph, the victory isn't quite complete -- that shall wait until Sharpe's Fortress.

Sharpe's Challenge borrows heavily from Sharpe's Tiger and Sharpe's Triumph, though Triumph's greatest contribution is the character of Dodd.

The Currents of Space

The Currents of Space
© 1952 Isaac Asimov
From Triangle (pp. 1-172). © 1952.

"Frightened people can be very dangerous, my Lady. They can't be counted on to act sensibly."
"Then why do you keep them frightened?"

An entire planet is doomed, and only one man knows enough to care. Pity he's been kidnapped, subjected to a mental probe that cost him his mind, and left in the middle of nowhere to be looked after only by peasants suspicious of the unknown. The farms of Florina aren't quite the middle of nowhere, however: they're the only place in all the galaxy which can produce the miracle fabric 'kyrt',  known for its beauty and versatility, and worn by the elite of the cosmos. Florina's fields have made their conquerors -- the planet of Sark -- immensely rich, and powerful enough to keep Sark free from being annexed by the Trantorian Empire.  But the planet in peril is in fact Florina, and if it goes so does Sark's power -- and the Galaxy belongs to Trantor.  Who attacked this man, and why? What kind of danger could threaten an entire planet? Thus begins a fantastic political mystery and the last novel in the Empire 'trilogy'.

Like The Stars like Dust, Currents of Space is a political-mystery thriller with a futuristic setting. The science fiction elements take a backseat to the puzzle of Rik and Florina's alleged doom and the depiction of Florina and Sark's society.  Their relationship is baldly exploitative: the Florinians generate all of the wealth, but it is stolen by Sark -- and Sark keeps the Florinians impoverished and uneducated, staving off rebellion through means of superior force. If the Florinians could gain outside assistance -- say, from Trantor -- they might be able to break the yoke of their masters.  Given how keenly Trantor would be interested in breaking Sark,  it's a safe assumption they have a part to play in the sinister plots which are afoot. Once the action erupts, the plot advances at breakneck speed over the bodies of anyone who gets in the main characters' way, and it doesn't stop until a revelation in the final pages which surprised me.   I started reading this to take a break from the oddness of Robert Heinlin's The Cat Who Walked through Walls, and it may just be my favorite Empire novel.

I have no idea who this woman is supposed to be, but it convinces me that book covers are an essential part of vintage SF's charm.

Friday, June 17, 2011

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things
© 1989 Robert Fulghum
196 pages

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor
-- would you be mine, could you be mine?

Imagine that Mr. Rogers wrote a book. This is it. Within its two covers is an afternoon spent on a big wooden porch, sipping lemonade and listening to the sounds of children playing while quietly talking about what 'really matters'  with a contagiously good-humored and gentle man. Fulghum's utterly relaxed writing style (employing the short, staggered thoughts and run-on sentences of human speech) and lack of an overt structure make it more a conversation about life, love, and values than a book with a pronounced point, but that's all right, because it's perfectly enjoyable and even comforting in the same way that watching Mr. Rogers is. His musings call the reader to mindfulness and gentility, but he's not preachy. Instead, Fulghum's character inspires emulation:  he's just so gosh-darned pleasant, and his stories have an utterly frank, authentic simplicity about them. I don't know that I'll remember the stories a few months from now, but like a bowl of hot soup the book warmed me inside.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (14 June)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish event in which participants share excerpts from their current reads, hosted by Should Be Reading.

"I'm not an assassin. Killing is more of a hobby with me. Have you had dinner?"

p. 1, The Cat Who Walked through Walls. Robert Heinlein.

"That must be Assaye, " Wellesley remarked. "You think we're about to make it famous?"
"I trust so, sir," Campbell said.
"Not infamous, I hope," Wellesley said, and gave his short, high-pitched laugh.

p. 215, Sharpe's Triumph. Bernard Cornwell.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Poisoning the Well

I visited the library today in the mood for some classic SF. I thought I might pick up an Asimov book I've not yet read, or introduce myself to Robert Heinlein. My local library only carries three Heinlein works: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Cat Who Walks through Walls, and a collection of novellas and stories.  I opened the cover of The Cat Who Walks through Walls to find this inscribed in an elegant cursive script:

This is my first time to read Heinlein. For an author so celebrated with awards, he does little for me. I don't see a good plot, or in-depth character development. The theme is difficult to follow. The gimmicks and surprises only distract. 

Charles, Jan. 1986

I don't know if Charles defaced a library book, or if -- more likely -- he bought the book, wrote this in it, and then donated it to the library after finding it not to his taste. But it amused both myself and the librarians at the front desk. I hadn't intended on reading the book, but after carrying it around for a while and chuckling, I decided to see if his review matched my own response.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (7 June)

Teaser Tuesday is brought to you by Should Be Reading.

So I lie there with my earphones on, wondering if it ever could have felt to Beethoven like it sounds in my head. The crescendo rises, and my sternum starts to vibrate. And by the time the final kettledrum drowns out all those big F's, I'm on my feet, singing at the top of my lungs in gibberish German with the mighty choir, and jumping up and down as the legendary Fulghumowski directs the final awesome moments of the END OF THE WORLD AND THE COMING OF GOD AND ALL HIS ANGELS. HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! WWHHOOOOOOOOM-KABOOM-BAM-BAAAAAA!!! Lord!  Uplifted, exalted, excited, affirmed,  and overwhelmed am I! MANALIVE!  

p. 113, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum

Top Ten Book Settings

This week, the Broke and the Bookish are pondering settings.

1. Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft (Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling)

Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy-warty Hogwarts, teach us something please! Whether we be old and bald, or young with scabby knees! 

2. Naboo and Bajor (Star Trek, Star Wars)
I'm cheating a bit here because both settings primarily appear in movies (though book settings have also touched on them). I lump them together because they're...similar in many respects.  Compare, for instance, their  respective architecture. Culturally, they both blend high-technology and rustic simplicity. Despite their obvious technological potency, the cities of both planets still maintain a charming medieval-to-Renaissance appearance.

Also, I'm intrigued by the idea of a planet that elects adolescent girls to govern it.

3. Riverdale (Archie Comics)
Riverdale is the city I always wanted to grow up in. Archie's neighborhood has that cozy surburban look -- sidewalks and picket fences -- but Pop Tate's malt shop is evidently only blocks away, as are ballparks and most of the city except for downtown. It has mountains, beaches, a lake, and a river. Related: whatever town Henry and Beezus (Beverly Clearly) lived in, for the same reason.

4. Palo City, California (California Diaries)
I suppose this is mostly a case of wanting to live where characters I liked so much lived, though Palo City has high points of its own -- a lovely park with rock-climbing opportunities, and Venice Beach is only two hours away.  In my younger days I used to comb through a map of California looking for the city (working within a radius of Venice Beach) before realizing it as fictional.  I did manage to move there in one way, though -- whenever websites ask for my location, I happily respond...'Palo City, CA'.

5. Terminus/Foundation (Foundation series, Isaac Asimov)

It's a city founded by scientist-librarians who are destined to rule the universe.  I don't much care for the neighbors, so let's move there after the Four Kingdoms have been defeated, eh?

6. The Shire, J.R.R. Tolkien
I've never finished the Ring trilogy, but the lack-back feel of the Shire

7. Lake Woebegone
Where the women are strong, the men are good-lucking, and all the children are above average. While this is technically a town that began in a radio/variety show, Garrison Keiller has written books set in Woebegone.

8. The Boxcar in the Woods (Gertrude Chandler-Warner)

In the first  Boxcar Children book, four children -- Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny -- ran away into the woods, where they found an abandoned boxcar. They turned it and the area around it into their home, washing clothes in the stream and building various implements made of wood.  This always enthralled me, and one of the reasons I joined the Boy Scouts was to buy a BSA manual so I could learn how to make my own outdoor structures.

9. Andalite Home (Animorphs)

I want to see the place that gave birth to the Andalites,  They're sort of like elves in that they're very much in-tune with nature, but snobbish. Warrior-scientists, the warrior class can 'acquire' the DNA of any animal and then morph into it. They ingest food through their hooves, and communicate with one another via thought-speak. Intelligent and powerful, they'd be magnificent aliens were it not for their cold-blooded policies when it comes to defeating the galactic-empire-building Yeerks -- which sometimes involves writing off and leveling whole planets taken by the Yeerks because that's easier than fighting for their reclamation.

10. Clanton, Mississippi (A Time to Kill, The Summons, The Last Juror, Ford County, John Grisham)

Clanton Mississippi is a fictional town in equally fictional Ford County, Mississippi. Although urban sprawl has diminished its charm, somewhat, it still manages to hold on to some of that southern-small town idyll, especially downtown -- amid the grand old Victorian homes obscured by Spanish moss and the courtyard square. While the picturesque descriptions of it compel my attention, its colorful characters back the town especially visit-worthy.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stock Phrases

Tonight I stumbled upon a list of "Top 20 Most Annoying Book Reviewer Cliches". I figured I would be guilty of some of them, and that suspicion was confirmed.  As I've been trying to move from informal comments to more helpful reviews, it looks like I shall have to consult my Strunk and White for tips on how not to be so predictable!

Granted, it's not as though the Examiner is the final authority on writing book reviews. Some phrases are unquestionably bland (like "readable", a phrase I flinch at using even though I keep doing it), but others may be simply overused.  The list below is copied in full from the site.
1. Gripping
2. Poignant: if anything at all sad happens in the book, it will be described as poignant
3. Compelling
4. Nuanced: in reviewerspeak, this means, "The writing in the book is really great. I just can't come up with the specific words to explain why."
5. Lyrical: see definition of nuanced, above.
6. Tour de force
7. Readable
8. Haunting
9. Deceptively simple: as in, "deceptively simple prose"
10. Rollicking: a favorite for reviewers when writing about comedy/adventure books
11. Fully realized
12. At once: as in, "Michael Connelly's The Brass Verdict is at once a compelling mystery and a gripping thriller." See, I just used three of the most annoying clichés without any visible effort. Piece of cake.
13. Timely
14. " X meets X meets X": as in, "Stephen King meets Charles Dickens meets Agatha Christie in this haunting yet rollicking mystery."
15. Page-turner
16. Sweeping: almost exclusively reserved for books with more than 300 pages
17. That said: as in, "Stephenie Meyer couldn't identify quality writing with a compass and a trained guide; that said, Twilight is a harmless read."
18. Riveting
19. Unflinching: used to describe books that have any number of unpleasant occurences -- rape, war, infidelity, death of a child, etc.
20. Powerful

Montevallo: Images of America

Montevallo: Images of America
© 2011 Clark Hultquist and Carey Heatherly
128 pages

A few years ago, I became a student and resident of the University of Montevallo. I fell madly in love with the town and its university and regard them as my adopted home. You can thus imagine my delight when one of the university's historians decided to produce a pictorial history of the town: the resulting few hours, as I ooh'd and aww'd my way through the city's history, were utterly fascinating and left me with a touch of homesickness

As mentioned, this is a pictorial history, consisting of photographs of people, buildings, and the town landscape with historic commentary. The photographs are typically divided two per page, though one of the aerial views was given a full two-page spread. Those aerial views are particularly noteworthy, for they capture the town's early state in a way unmatched by other city histories which I have read, like Yesterday's Birmingham. Although Montevallo began life as an agricultural center and mining town, its fortune was truly tied to the growth of the university. While  the role of agriculture diminished and the coal mines closed, the university  continued to flourish through the 20th century. Beginning life in 1896 as an  industrial school for women, it matured into a liberal-arts college and then finally into a mixed-sex public university covering multiple disciplines. Although the book's dozens of pictures show clearly how much the town has grown and changed through time, the university population has also allowed much to be preserved: the nearness of a large student body keeps Montevallo's charming Main Street alive and well despite the competition of chain stores.

As fascinating as it is to watch any town grow through the ages, this work will be more compelling to students and residents of the city, for whom it will be like a family album. The personalities who shaped the university, who drove its history, are honored in succession through the decades as the university grew and affixed their names to its many beautiful buildings. I loved seeing the familar campus slowly grow through the years, marveling at what facts history has hidden -- that one generation's soccer pitch was another's science and math complex. Some of the pictures are positively eerie, like the spread of Main Quad, which shows it entirely open. Today, it's home to a dozen or so trees, all grand old majestic beauties whose size and absence from the photo bear witness to the passage of time. All told, the pictures illustrate that much more has transpired upon Montevallo's red brick roads and under her stately white columns than I could ever imagine.

Montevallo is part of an extended series of pictorial histories, and my only caveats seem to be marks of the series as a whole. Because the market for these books is presumably small, the photographs are produced only in black and white (even modern ones), and are not quite as large and some might hope, though the commentary serves to remedy this by pointing out small details which might otherwise go unnoticed. Residents and students at Montevallo will find in this work a treasure.

Dr. Clark Hultquist is professor of history at the University of Montevallo, and chair of the Behavioral and Social Sciences department. Dr. Carey Heatherly is a reference librarian and archivist serving in the Oliver Cromwell Carmichael library.



Star Trek Vanguard: Precipice
© 2009 David Mack
352 pages

To date, the Vanguard series has been marked by a vast archaeological and scientific mystery, but as its matured, the implications of the Taurus Reach discoveries have been taking precedent. We saw this in Open Secrets, where the political situation between the Federation and Klingon empires deteriorated to the point of war, and it continues here. Although the setting is the Vanguard series, most of the action takes place off-station following various characters from the series as they work to prevent future catastrophes.  Concerned that the Klingons are looking to weaponize the remnants of the Shedai technology, Starfleet is attempting to undermine their efforts through clandestine means. Meanwhile, the disgraced T'Pyrnn has fled Starfleet custody and is hoping to redeem herself by discovering the means with which the Klingons are carrying out their own cloak-and-dagger enterprises against Vanguard. Multiple plotlines converge to great success.

This is a series carried by its strong characters, and that trend continues here -- magnificently. I've been fascinated by the interplay between former intelligent officer T'Pyrnn and her journalistic adversary-turned-ally, Timothy Pennington, and it's done no better than here, where the two cooperate to spy on gangsters and Kingons in hopes to saving Vanguard. Perhaps the finest contributions of this book were the appearance of Gorkon -- a Klingon official whose political views will lead to the greatest peace in the galaxy and his own assassination --  and the reappearance of a Vanguard character thought dead. I'd hoped for for this character's return, and am eagerly looking forward to what becomes of the Vanguard crew in future books.

The next Vanguard work, not yet released, is called Declassified. It will consist of four novellas by David Mack, Kevin Dilmore, Dayton Ward, and much-beloved former Treklit editor Marco Palimeri, whose years in the editor's seat marked some of the best Trek literature produced to date.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

This Week at the Library (4 June)

Summer has arrived with a fury in south-central Alabama, and this past week's heat and humidity broke several records. Suffice it to say, I'm very glad I'm not working in a factory this summer, but instead am babysitting...usually inside, though in the mornings or late in the afternoon the kids and I go outside for some baseball/basketball/grasshopper-chasing/dog-walking-and-unexpected-dog-chasing-through-the-woods-because-they-wriggled-out-of-their-collars.

This week I finished two books which I've still not written the reviews for, and I've been making steady progress on both The Age of Faith and Biology Made Simple.

Today at the library, I checked out...

  • Just in Time Geometry, Catherine V. Jeremko. While teaching my niece elementary algebra, I noticed how badly my math skills have gone to pot, and realized how much I actually miss knowing various geometric formulas. Time for a refresher. (Geometry was the only mathematics class I ever earned an A in, being generally math-avoidant.)
  • All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum. I went by Wikiquote before visiting the library, and this fellow caught my attention.
  • Sharpe's Triumph,  Bernard Cornwell. In which Richard Sharpe becomes a lieutenant -- I think.

I also bought The Omnivore's Dilemma, which a friend of mine read a few months back and remains very excited about.