Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sharpe's Christmas

Sharpe's Christmas
© 2003 Bernard Cornwell
104 pages

Sharpe's Christmas collects two stories which do the seemingly impossible, in honoring the Christmas spirit while simultaneously being action-adventure tales starring Richard Sharpe. Sharpe doesn't lend himself easily to Christmas stories; he is not lovely or kind. He is a soldier whose battle-scarred face has frightened women, and whose rifle and cavalry sword have frightened men, from Indian to France.  He is a wonder as a soldier, grimly effective, but dismally unlucky outside the killing fields.  His attempts at love have met in disaster as his beloved ones die or vanish, along with whatever fortune he entrusted to them.  And yet the Daily Mail asked Bernard Cornwell to write two Sharpe-related Christmas stories for them, and so he did.

 The stories are not unusual in their Christmastime setting;  the series has seen battles set around the Christmas season before.  But while there Christmas was the background, here it is the abiding theme.In the first story, "Sharpe's Christmas",  Sharpe is participating in the invasion of France, and caught between two forces of Imperial troops in a narrow mountain pass, some of them commanded by an old friend. In "Sharpe's Ransom", disgruntled Hussars break into Sharpe's postwar home in Normandy and hold his wife and child hostage unless he produces the gold  the evil masterspy Ducos framed him for stealing in Sharpe's Revenge.  After outwitting the dopes guarding him, Sharpe must effect a rescue of his family.  Readers are treated to the usual elements of a Sharpe novel -- desperate battles between riflemen and massed columns of French troops, small-scale action by Sharpe himself, plenty of humor (especially between Sharpe and his usual compatriot, Patrick) but with a Christmas twist. Sharpe creates a miraculous victory out of disaster out of nothing but cleverness, skill, and cutting remarks, but the discovery of an old friend allows him to act as an agent of mercy; in "Ransom", he doesn't take out the entire band of Hussars singlehandedly, but turns the crisis into an opportunity to win the trust and acceptance of the local villagers, who -- being French -- resent an English war hero taking up residence among them and taking as his mate a once-noble widow.  Sharpe's Christmas is as exciting, historically grounded, and funny as any Sharpe novel -- but it's also heartwarming. It's positively touching.  I thought it quite appropriate.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The View from the Summit

The View from the Summit: The Remarkable Memoir from the First Person to Conquer Everest
© 1999 Sir Edmund Hillary
310 pages

The Himalayan Mountain range boasts the highest peaks on the surface of the globe; its heights equal the cruising altitude of a cruising jetliner. . In 1954, Sir Edmund Hillary and  Tenzing Norgay accomplished what many before had perished attempting: they reached the summit of Mount Everest.The View from the Summit tells the story of Hillary’s ascent up the mountain,  presented within a  partial biography of his life.  Beginning with its climactic triumph, that perilous day in 1954,  View then offers a look back, to Hillary’s childhood in New Zealand, where he began as a beekeeper. However humble that might sound, it was considered duty serious enough to warrant officials attempting to prevent Hillary from risking his life,  not that he let their concerns stop him from joining the air service. Hillary never shrunk from death; even after besting Everest, he went on to a series of similarly extreme adventures.  Merely climbing Everest wasn’t good enough, no; he had to climb several other peaks in the range, shoot the rapids of the Ganges,  trek across both the North and South Poles (once with Neil Armstrong) and give a speech upon being knighted. (His first thought after becoming a Peer of the Realm: “Oh, God, I’ll have to buy new overalls.”)  He was in short quite the character, pugilistic and stubborn; even the death of loved ones didn’t stop him from taking on challenges. His many accomplishments don’t include writing like a journalist; readers will find this tale of outdoors adventure tending toward the technical  the feats are more exciting than their telling.  His sober, factful approach has its own appeal, however.   Those interested primarily in the ascent of Everest should know that this is only a partial account of that challenge;  High Adventure  is Hillary's chief Everest memoir.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Men Who United the States

 The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible
© 2013 Simon Winchester
496 pages

The Men who United the States is a storied account of how the American people came to realize their ‘manifest destiny’, from the explorers who plied rivers and mapped the vast expanses to the technological tools that knit the continent together. It is organized thematically, utilizing the five elements of Chinese mythology: wood,  earth, water, fire, and metal.  Although most sections cover the full expanse of American history, the focus of each moves forward; ‘metal’ largely concerns revolutions in communications technology,  culminating in the Internet  while ‘fire’ covers the effects of the steam and combustion engines. Politics and war are downplayed: this is the tale of explorers and inventors whose dangerous  and enterprising deeds made political dreams a factual reality.  Winchester is a personable author, often inserting his attempts to retrace the tracks of some intrepid but doomed explorer along mountain passes or through river rapids. It's an odd element in a work of history, but works well enough despite sometimes bordering on off-topic.  Winchester makes for a winsome host through the annals of American explorers, and his work of adventure, history, and technological progress are sure to find a warm reception among readers.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
© 1999 Terry Brooks

The Phantom Menace was the first movie in the new 'prequel' trilogy of the Star Wars saga, which told the story of a promising young Jedi who was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, even as the Republic which he served was corrupted by the master of the dark inside into the Galactic Empire. It is easily the least-liked of the Star Wars movies, featuring a young boy who is far too precocious ("Are you an angel?") and the majestic silliness of Jar-Jar Binks.   Terry Brooks' challenge in creating a novelization of this story was thus considerable, and he tries valiantly. He cleans up parts of Jar-Jar's language; while much the psuedo-ebonics remains ("Dat", "dis", and so on),  his unique turns of phrase ("Dat's baaaad bombin'!")  are sterilized, with mixed effect.  The dialogue is fleshed out to make some of the characters' decisions more understandable; Qui-Gonn Jinn only takes a fourteen year old girl with him into a wretched hive of scum, villainy, and obnoxious aliens only after she reveals her extensive self-defense training. Anakin, too, gets a little development, demonstrating his awareness of how he can manipulate his own mental state; he tells Jar-Jar that the bumbling Gungan's fear attracts abuse to him.  There's also a scene with the Sand People that becomes more interesting when the plot of Attack of the Clones is taken into consideration, though I don't know if Brooks knew what Lucas had planned for Anakin's poor mother.  While Brooks doesn't improve the original nearly as much as Matthew Stover did with Revenge of the Sith,   it's a step in the right direction, making a previously juvenile story a bit more sensible.  Books in the EU universe like Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter and Cloak of Deception do the lion's work in that department, however.

Revenge of the Sith, Matthew Stover. For my money, the gold standard of movie novelizations.
Darth Maul. Shadow Hunter; Michael Reaves
Cloak of Deception, James Luceno

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

This week: Christmas reads, science in the city, and social telegraphy

Dear readers:

            A blessed Yuletide and a merry Christmas to those of you in the northern hemisphere, as we celebrate the rebirth of the Sun – or the birth of the Son, if you prefer. The library is closing early today and I’m heading home for the week with an armful of books,  to be read between the caroling and snacking and time spent with family.  I’m still trying to wind the year down with lighter reading, so this week I’m carrying home two Star Wars novels (to complement my annual Christmastime rewatch of the entire Star Wars saga), and reading The View from the Summit, Sir Edmund Hillary’s telling of his travail up Mount Everest.

            In recent weeks I’ve finished two books that haven’t gotten comments previously; A Scientist in the City, which was interesting enough, and The Victorian Internet. A Scientist in the City, published in 1994, peeks into the science that makes city function.  That science is more material than social, though the behavior of people within the urban environment appears occasionally as data in traffic projections.  [author] examines the physics that define strengths and weaknesses of different building materials, and explains subjects like the generation of electricity. He doesn't cover systems by themselves, and water treatment is ignored completely. I liked it well enough, but it's definitely dated and on the thin side.  The book ends with several different projections for the City of the Future: our options are Trantor, the Matrix, and suburban sprawl with bullet trains.

            Before that, I enjoyed Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet, which tried to convey to readers that the internet now completely transforming their lives was not without precedent. It's a breezy history of how electricity transformed communications and helped create the modern world. We creatures of the 21st century can't appreciate how radically life changed for those of the 19th; our idea of technological revolution is smaller computers, or ubiquitous touchscreens. The nineteenth century took civilizations held by the same limits that had enclosed humans for millennia prior -- the speed of transportation and communication maxing out at a horse's gallop -- and threw them into a completely new world. Cities could communicate with other cities in mere seconds; economies were revolutionized by merchants' ability to keep track of broader markets and manage their inventory more efficiently. Although the comparison is slightly overstated-- for telegraphs required intermediaries for most people to use them to communicate -- the telegraph's transforming effects on society do bring to mind the way the internet worked its way into our everyday lives in the 1990s, when this book was published; the creation of military scientists and the domain of tech geeks, it has conquered so much of society that many essential functions depend on that. The telegraph didn't become quite that pervasive, but it was a tool of friendship and romance as well as business and politics, and it started our slide toward being plugged into the electronic, digital world. The Victorian Internet  is on the lighter side, but definitely useful.

    I've also finished small is beautiful in recent weeks, and thought it tremendous but I'm not ready to try to comment on it yet.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Blacks Rednecks and White Liberals
© 2005 Thomas Sowell
360 pages

Thomas Sowell's provocatively-titled Black Rednecks and White Liberals casts a critical eye toward  conventional understandings of race, class, and history, collecting a half-dozen extensive essays in one volume. Although each essay is written as a standalone piece, some concern common subjects and refer to one another.  Sowell principally writes on African-Americans and Jews here, aside from an apologia written on Germany.  His central argument essentially blames the welfare state for the continuing degradation of black Americans, by way of historical arguments, one of them deliciously twisted -- the title essay.

"Black Rednecks and White Liberals" sets the stage by contending that the woeful culture of poverty keeping urban blacks in a despairing state is not one which they created themselves, but one inherited from poor whites, and specifically the poor whites who emigrated from a border region of Scotland during a specific timeframe in which Scottish 'crackers' of the area were slobbering savages, having not yet been tamed by the graces of English civilization. The poor whites of this ‘cracker culture’  exhibited the same self-defeating behaviors lamented over in the ghetto today; a disdain for education and work, a painfully abbreviated approach to the English language,  wanton sexuality,  and a gleeful embrace of violence, along with an ‘honor’ system that promoted the use of such violence.   It is Sowell’s opinion that southern blacks were acculturated into the behaviors of the ‘white trash’ and dragged it around the country with them. Given its self-defeating nature, Sowell comments that this cracker culture largely died out among the poor whites, and even the first waves of southern blacks who carried it around the country – but after the 1960s, when the welfare state  sprang into being,  those behaviors were propped up – being no longer culled by the scythe of sheer necessity.  After arguing for this, Sowell later builds off it in an essay on education, and again in his final essay on the historical perspective, condemning modern approaches as too forgiving, too soft:  blacks and whites who lifted themselves up out of poverty and despair did so not by accepting substandard English as their cultural heritage, nor by taking self-esteem classes, but by acknowledging the relative inferioty of their station in life to others:. The Scots became intellectual titans after abandoning Gaelic for English, and consequently gaining access to the English literary world, and the Japanese adopted western means of science, government, and economics to catapult from feudal island to global power in the Meiji revolution. In putting aside defensive pride and setting a superior standards for themselves, they both catapulted themselves from backwards hinterlands to first-world countries who would be active players in shaping world history..

Thomas Sowell, it should be noted, is black himself, and is a product of this process of enlightenment, having been reared in the kind of schools he now advocates,  having set for himself superior standards.  To multicultural sensibilities, he may seem like a self-loathing black man at times, for all the abuse he heaps on poor blacks and whites and for all he waxes poetic about the glorious intellectual and moral history of the west, problematic as it was. Were he white, Sowell would almost certainly be condemned as a racist, and a cavalier of western chauvinism.  His entire argument is simultaneously thought-provoking and problematic. Some is straightforward history, like his account of slavery or the reactions of northerners to white southern emigrants, which as they are quoted sound exactly like what you might expect to hear of those participating in 'white flight' decades later.  It's not surprising that long-term residents of an area would react with hostility toward the sudden intrusion of poor immigrants, flooding into areas the residents rightfully considered their own.  Sowell's belief that the culture of contemporary 'ghetto blacks' was one passed down directly by 'crackers' is a much harder sell. Given that slaves were owned not by 'white trash', but by the plantation elite, would they really have spent enough time around the 'crackers' to acquire the values? And why would they adopted those values, considering that impoverished white sharecroppers were just as economically miserable as themselves, and loathed the former slaves to boot?  The statistics Sowell quotes to demonstrate that the black story of the 20th century is sometimes one of regress are damning: even if a reader doesn't accept his condemnation of welfare as causing the erosion of black family life, and stymieing the natural processes that would reverse self-destructive behaviors,  the  analysis is staggering in its implications.  This isn't exactly a national secret -- Bill Cosby has written books despairing about the woeful condition of black family life and communities in the latter half of the 20th century -- but Sowell's  work puts the decline into sharp focus.

Although I find Sowell's contempt for the poor, self-defeating they may be, highly uncomfortable -- especially his frequent brandishment of 'cracker', which in certain counties of the Deep South is a pejorative on the level of kike or wop -- I appreciated various elements of this collection. The almost tributary history to Germany's ancient cultural heritage, for instance, was a relief compared to the  Omnipresent Nazi approach to German history, and the statistical work offers data that can be considered regardless of one's opinion on the unintended consequences of particular welfare policies. I'm increasingly sympathetic to the idea that improperly-designed welfare can exacerbate social problems, but think it more likely that certain destructive behaviors are endemic to the human experience, rather than being the legacy of Scottish emigrants to urban ghettos. Not for nothing have humans created so many religions, philosophies, and institutions to curb the worse of our instincts. Though readers will find a lot of food for thought in this collection, it has a sometimes bitter edge. 

Things that Matter

Things that Matter: Three Decades of Passion, Pastimes, and Politics
© 2013 Charles Krauthammer
400 pages

Things that Matter collects articles spanning at three decades, largely culled from The New Republic, giving voice to psychologist-turned-cultural observer and journalist Charles Krauthammer as he watches the ebb and flow of America’s fortunes at home and on the global scene.  Although he opens with essays of a more personal note (commenting on the pleasures of ‘taking in’ baseball, especially when rooting for a perennially losing team), politics undergirds most of the collection. He describes himself as a conservative, though one whom today's standards would judge a centrist, and the body of articles bears that judgment out.

 Although Krauthammer's  opinions fall within a broad enough spectrum that he can't be dismissed as an ideologue or a reactionary (he is baffled by resistance to gay marriage, for instance, and derides Social Security as a Ponzi scheme even while proposing a way to make it financially stable),  he's liable to take the most flak for his acceptance of the notion of American Empire, and his approving attitude toward interventionist schemes in other countries. Of course, he writes, they could have been better managed --  we're always so wise after the lives and money have been wasted, aren't we? Of note is Krauthammer's various pieces concerning Jews and Israel; he sees the tiny nation-state as Jewry's best hope, but says this with a hint of anxiety, for it seems to him of his fellow Jews' putting all their eggs in one vulnerable basket. With the abiding hope of Jews for centuries past now realized,  what will the Jewish people make of their future? Will Israel sustain them, and their identity, or will some future crisis  ravage them again...perhaps permanently? It has happened before, he says, reminding readers not versed in biblical history that once there were two Hebrew kingdoms, Israel and Judah, and Israel was destroyed, its people scattered to the winds:  the children of Judah, now gathered as Israel, can be broken again.   Aside from his attitude toward war, Krauthammer is never politically obnoxious, and in fact frowns on the nature of politics today. In going negative, he offers:

      Delta Airlines, you might have noticed ,does not run negative TV ads about USAir. It does not show pictures of the crash of USAir Flight 427, with a voice-over saying "USAir, airline of death. Going to Pittsburgh? Fly Delta instead."
     And McDonalds, you might also have noticed, does not run ads reminding viewers that Jack in the Box hamburgers once killed two customers. Why? Because Delta and McDonalds know that if the airline and fast-food industries put on that kind of advertising, America would soon be riding trains and eating box-lunch tuna sandwiches.
      Yet every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practicioner in the country -- and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians."

Things that Matter is an interesting, thoughtful collection of miscellaneous pieces,  presumably of interest to Americans who have heard of him. (I hadn't, but have a weakness for reflective essay collections.) 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Into Thick Air

Into Thick Air
© 2003 Jim Mauser
388 pages

            Jim Mauser might be interested in the view from the Seven Summits, the highest points of each continent, were it not for the fact that they have accessibility issues. To Mauser, any place you can’t bike to isn’t worth bothering with. When Discovery offers to drop Mauser in the middle of nowhere and film him attempting to find his way back to civilization, Mauser has a better idea: why not finance and film his traveling to the seven lowest points on Earth – the seven anti-summits?   And so he embarks on a six-continent journey (Antarctica lowest point being covered by a very large pile of ice), through war zones and Passover, assailed by dogs, hurricanes, and crowds of children joyfully attempting to stone him,  to six of the lowest spots on Earth. Although his destinations are anticlimactic in the extreme, it’s the journeys getting there that makes this book. Mauser is rivaled only by Bill Bryson for the sheer entertainment value of his narrative, and is similar to him stylistically,  but Mauser records his world journeys with a botanist’s eye.  Those eyes are open to the full sweep of the glorious panorama of nature around them  -- the wildly divergent climates, the abundance of mesmerizing and often lethal fauna. Central to Mauser's story, like many travelers' tales, are the people he meets along the way, their kindnesses and eccentricities recorded along the way. Mauser isn't quite as vulnerable as world trekkers; his anti-summits are made in six completely different legs that take the better part of a decade to complete, and his starting locations for each leg seemed to be a week away from his destination, at best.  Even so, he's at considerable risk given his luck at pedaling into a place right before drama hits -- like a sudden case of the monsoon in South America -- and people around the world offer him friendly smiles and a stomach full of local cuisine. Into Thick Air is a fantastic cycle-touring book, treating the reader to a wide spectrum of human cultures and natural environments, with plenty of wry humor and scientific commentary on the way.

Little House on the Prairie

© 1933 Laura Ingalls Wilder

I would say that Little House on the Prairie brings back fond memories, but in truth the volume I remember so happily was Little House in the  Big Woods, which recounts author Laura Ingalls Wilder's accounts of growing up in the Wisconsin wilderness in the 19th century. In Little House in the Prairie,  little Laura and her family -- Ma, Pa, big sister Mary and baby sister Carrie --  leave the big woods behind. Wisconsin, once the frontier, is now brimming with people -- and Pa has decided to move the family to Indian country, to the plains. Little House on the Prairie is the story of their journey westward, and of their first year among the wolves, wind, and natives.

 Wilder’s account, partially based on her own childhood, is charming, beginning with its opening – "once upon a time, when all the grandparents were babies" --  exciting, and educational. There’s no end to the dangers faced by the Wilders on the frontier; not only is the landscape rife with creatures that find humans edible, like wolves and panthers, but carving a house out of the wilderness is perilous work.  Gas within the ground poisons men digging wells, the timbers of homes fall, and storms appear out of nowhere.  And then there are the Indians, to whom the country belongs and who have a pretty good idea that the increasing appearance of white settlers within their territory isn’t a harbinger of peace.  Published in 1933, this is not a book that would fare  well among publishers today, given Ma Ingall’s outright loathing fear of the Indians, and the cheerful assertions that the white men have got to take the land in hand and make something of it, creating a civilization where these Indians have let the wilderness remain.  The stories are lessons in history, as when Wilder describes Pa building the cabin in exact detail, or comments on how the settlers didn't know that the disease that swept through their farms was malaria. 

Long after publication, Little House on the Prairie remains a lovely story about American history, giving children an idea of what it was like to head into the wilderness and begin to make a home for themselves. Although today's readers are more removed from Laura's world than her initial audience, the Ingalls remain immanently relatable. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Other Side of Western Civilization

The Other Side of Western Civilization: Readings in Everyday Life,
© 1979 ed. Stanley Chodorow
363 pages

The Other Side of Western Civilization collects readings in social history ranging from antiquity to the Renaissance. Its subtitle Readings in Everyday Life is largely accurate,  for the articles contributed by diverse authors largely ignore the halls of power and tell instead the stories of the common man, or detail the historic aspects of everyday life; there are pieces on the  adventures of traveling on medieval roads, for instance, and on family life in Renaissance Italy. Others move near ‘traditional’ historiography – one article covers the Battle of Agincourt – but maintain the 'everyday' focus;  "Feudal War in Practice" examines Agincourt from the perspective of the foot soldier,  taking into consideration how much room for movement there might have been if every archer in the English line had planted a stake in front of him, as official records of the battle establish. Principally, the collection covers trade, city planning, family life, social relations, and religion. Each piece is introduced by the editor, whose commentary attempts with some success to connect them together,  comparing different articles’ coverage of medieval women for instance. While readers will no doubt find some pieces easier reading than others based on their individual interest,  it's generally accessible. Also of note is the fact that this collection doesn't have a political edge to it; the 'other side' of western civilization  simply concerns topics ignored by  conventional military-political histories, like "Ancient Ships and Shipping" or "The Operation of a Monastery".  This is accompanied by a second volume, which covers the Renaissance to the early modern period.

"Ancient Ships and Shipping"
"Cities of the Roman Empire"
"Women in Roman Society"
"The Appeal and Practice of the Mystery-Religions"
"The Conversion of the Germans"
"German Tribal Society"
"Peasants and the Agricultural Revolution"
"Jews in a Christian Society"
"The World of the Crusaders"
"The Training of a Knight"
"The Role of a Baron's Wife"
"Mother and Child"
"Traveling the Roads in the 12th Century"
"The Workday of a Bishop"
"The Operation of a Monastery"
"Hunting Subversion in the Middle Ages"
"The Peasants in Revolt"
"The Organization of the Late Medieval City"
"The Relevance of a University Education in 14th Century England"
"Touring the Holy Land"
"A Community Against the Plague"
"City Women and the French Reformation"
"Cultural Patronage in Renaissance Florence"
"Parent and Child in Renaissance Italy"

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart
© 2013 Harry Turtledove
400 pages

What was the difference? Just a little timing. There wasn't a person in the world who didn't have a story like that. If you'd been a little late or a little early, if you hadn't had that fender bender, if that woman in the store with you had bought the secondhand book that changed your life when you read it, if this, if that, if the other thing, your whole life would be totally changed. | It made you wonder. It really did. Ordinary lives were so easy to jerk around that way. What about the lives of nations? If your destiny could twist like a contortionist slipping on a banana peel, what about your country's?  (p.379)

Almost ten years ago, a supervolcano buried under Yellowstone National Park erupted, vaporizing a few deer and covering most of the American west with ash. That ash and dirt filled the air, too,  killing millions and blocking out sunlight.  As a year without a summer becomes a decade without one, the odds that the planet is slipping into another ice age look increasingly large.  Like the books that preceded it, Things Fall Apart follows the lives of the scattered Ferguson family as they continue to adjust to the new facts of life -- or in one character's case, continue to whine about it.  It is essentially a soap opera with a mildly interesting background -- for ten years into the crisis, changes are everywhere.

While most of the characters live in the greater Los Angeles area, two one lives on the fringe of habitable land in Nebraska and another lives in the wintry wasteland of Maine. Their county is now virtually autonomous, forgotten about by the US Government in its attempt to find food and shelter for the millions who are still displaced, a decade after mounds of ash moved quite rudely into their neighborhoods overnight. The few who remain there eke out a living growing turnips in greenhouses, hunting moose, and chopping wood, though ten years of such harvests have fallen to meager pickings. After a decade of intermittent power and scarce resources, the 21st century has been pushed back: now typewriters sit upon desks, notes are taken by hand on paper, and virtually everyone bicycles. In the cities, many still crowd onto public transportation, but aging and overworked buses are breaking down with no parts available to replace them. As people emigrate between the states -- or in Europe, flood from the north away from a dying Gulf Stream to invade Greece and Spain -- tension between the long-time residents and newcomers surge.

All this is background, however, the scenery to a plot consisting of a police officer retiring, his oldest son having an affair with a married woman and then being dumped by her; his oldest daughter having all of her money stolen by her Serbian revolutionary-boyfriend, and his two younger sons (well, son and almost-son-in-law-who-he-thinks-of-as-a-son)   being cold and having wives in Nebraska and Maine.  Oh, and his wife begins dating a middle-aged man who can't get enough of European football and Broadway musicals.

Things Fall Down is really As the World Turns....into an Ice Age. or, The Young and the Restless and the Very Cold.  Or, Coronation Street Ice-Plow Capers.  At any rate, if you're looking for science fiction, this isn't it:  science-as-plot was over after the eruption, and now it's scenery. If you want post-apocalyptic thrills, then sorry, out of luck. Now, if you want characters eating oatmeal and taking showers and brooding over their love lives while it snows outside, then hey --  this is the book for you.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

This week: Nature Wants to Kill You with Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Harry Turtledove

Craving manly tales of outdoor adventure, I checked out a handful of short-story collections by Ernest Hemingway and Jack London. I started with the titular story of Hemingway's The Snows of Kilamanjaro, having seen the movie earlier in the week. and was surprised when the main character died, instead of being rescued by plane as he was when portrayed by Gregory Peck -- surprised because in the story, he was rescued by plane -- but that was, alas, the dream of a dying man.  I switched to To Build a Fire (And Other Stories), only to be treated to the account of a man freezing to death in the Yukon wilderness, having cheerfully blundered into the snow despite even his dog knowing -50 degrees is too cold for country walks.  I decided to stop reading those and find something slightly happier, like The Men Who United the States.  At the library, though, I spied that we've recently acquired Things Fall Apart, the latest piece in Harry Turtledove's supervolcano-induced ice age death of civilization series.

Thus, death-by-nature seems to be a theme among the books I'm spending time with as we head into winter, but surely all of Hemingway and London's stories collected in the volumes I have can't end in death. I intend on reading the Snows of Kilamanjaro collection through, if only because the only Hemingway I've read is The Old Man and the Sea.  He feels like an author I should have read much more of.   So, this week I'll be finishing off Small is Beautiful, then entertaining myself with tales of the outdoors. Distracting me will be The Men who United the States and The Other Side of Western History,  the latter of which contains historical pieces on everything from shipping traffic during the classical era to the daily minutia of being a  Renaissance bishop -- war in the morning, graft in the afternoons. Work, work, work!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Down the River

Down the River
© 1982 Edward Abbey

In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey collected contemplative pieces he had written while a park ranger in the high desert, putting his passion for the wilderness into action by working to conserve it. The volume mixed poetic descriptions of the wild beauty of the desert with reflection on the value of wilderness; not as an avenue of resources yet-to-be-exploited, but as a place for reflection and the realization of an authentic life. Down the River follows the same course, though the pieces here are connected not to a season living as a park ranger, but to various adventures Abbey embarked upon while exploring the rivers of the American Southwest.  Abbey simultaneously recounts his journeys with friends with the thinking the landscape inspired, and since often he made a journey to find something out, those thoughts are not as random as might be supposed. In one essay Abbey explores an area that will soon be off limits to him, for it will be shut to the public to protect an incoming missile installation.  Here his descriptions of what is seen combine with condemnation of the military-industrial complex and thoughts on Cold War geopolitics in general. This at least has a happy ending, for Abbey’s kindred spirits in the region were able to rouse enough local protest to prompt President Reagan to put off building the complex. This is certainly a happier piece than the similar essay in Desert Solitaire which saw him exploring Glen Canyon River shortly before it was dammed up.  There are a few odds and ends, like his faux-review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from the perspective of a Hells Angel who critiqued the book on its mechanical advice.  This is presented in all seriousness.

Although not quite on the level of Desert Solitaire, Down the River is worth reading  purely for its opening essay, “Down the River with Henry David Thoreau”.  Abbey is a modern Thoreau, in that their works see them retreating into Nature in search of a more authentic life; they find solace and fullness in the wilderness, and distantly removed from ‘civilization’ they can reflect both on its merits and flaws more objectively. The principle difference is that while  Thoreau is a gentle Puritan from the forest; Abbey a cantankerous free spirit in the desert. Thoreau ruminates, Abbey complains, but while Thoreau is a lonely sage of the wilderness, Abbey is almost never alone and always in the middle of a good time. Whether he's touring with cowboys in Desert Solitaire or swapping jibes with boatmen here in Down the River,  Abbey is plainly enjoying the wilderness. Regardless of the sheer animal pleasure Abbey takes in the wild, he is thoughtful, as well. Thoreau appears through the volume, for in Abbey’s words his is a spirit which has only grown larger through the ages as we continue to replace the wild with lifelessness. In addition to again defending the virtues of the wilderness -- both for its own sake, in its beauty, and for the practical importance the wild has as a place of refuge or comparison for the civilized man -- Abbey continues his grousing against the 20th century's fondness for size and complexity, in abandoning small,  resilience farms run by homesteaders for massive agribusinesses run by men in suits whose every solution is even more energy- and system-dependent.

Again I owe a debt of gratitude to the commenter who suggested I might like Abbey a few years ago.

Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
Walden,  I to Myself, Henry David Thoreau
The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry, which he references
Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher

Sunday, December 1, 2013

This week at the library: NaNoWriMo! Victorians, Napoleon, and a cantankerous Thoreau


Is it weird that I was more excited to hit 45,000 words than to actually 'win' NaNoWriMo? I suppose that's because when I hit 45,000, it was the evening I added a few days' work from different files into the body of the text, and the word-count soared 10,000+  with one Ctrl-V and I realized I was going to do it, there were only a few days left and the odds weren't good that something could derail me completely.  The lesson I learned from NaNoWriMo is that I should take a audio recorder out with me on my morning walks and jogs, because that's when my brain starts being productive. It's terribly hard to write notes while running, especially when you're dodging puppies at the same time.

I didn't do an enormous amount of reading last week, or writing outside of NaNoNo, so there are still reviews pending for several works. This past week I finished the excellent Sharpe's Revenge, finished No Plot? No Problem? A Low-Stress High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in Thirty Days, and read through Edward Abbey's Down the River.   No Plot No Problem is allegedly the same size text that NaNoWriMo winners produced during the month. The goal of the month is simply to write, to kickstart the creative engine of the brain and deliver to aspirin authors the less than yes, if they make themselves sit down and write  every day, they can produce something. Baty's advice ranges from the generally helpful to the NaNo-specific. He explains the basis process of figuring out setting and characters, provides in-text buttons that the reader is supposed to press to turn off their inner editor and so on, and in general does everything he can to encourage readers to just sit down and write.  In the end he offers would-be-writers some perspective: even if you never get published, maybe that' not the point. Maybe the point is the satisfaction gained in writing, in expressing yourself creatively, in seeing what worlds you can create and what inspiration strikes your brain. 

NaNoWriMo having been accomplished,  I'm going to be unwinding these last few weeks of the year, with novels. Writing fiction of a sort has made me want to read more of it, though at the moment I'm happily in the middle of a book which has arrived in the post. What book?

Into Thick Air!  When I saw it on Amazon (related reads for The Man Who Cycled the World), I couldn't resist reading it, given that I had just finished Into Thin Air.  It's a treat so far;   the author reminds me of no one more than Bill Bryson.  After that, I'm not certain -- I have a few nonfiction reads on the table, but I may poke my nose into Harry Turtledove's WW2-with-dragons-and-wizards series.  Like alien lizards and WW2, it's such an odd combination I have to investigate it.  I'm probably going to be reading more of Jack London; not only am I craving outdoor adventure books, but London's works have such philosophical interest that I want to consider more of him. 

Sharpe's Revenge

Sharpe's Revenge
© 1989 Bernard Cornwell

Englishmen in Toulouse, Prussians in Paris -- there are foreigners everywhere, and for Napoleon the war is over. Not for Sharpe, though, not by a long shot. His old enemy Pierre Ducos has seen fit to ensnare Sharpe one last time before the piece is signed, and it will cost Sharpe more than he ever imagined.  Sharpe’s Siege takes the reader  through what seem to be the last skirmishes of the war, and then into the peace, which is far more dangerous. Accused of murder and grand theft,  Sharpe is left to wander through France avoiding the armies of l’Empereur and the English Crown, for both have become his enemy.  Sharpe’s Siege is one of the more agonizing pieces in this series, but satisfies in a way few have.  The plot is vaguely familiar (I’m sure this isn't the first time Sharpe has been on the lam from his own army with no one but Patrick at his side),  but the late game is more than mere military adventurism.  Sharpe’s own soul is tortured here, and while it’s painful for him it’s great reading -- and it is moments like those crafted in here that will be remembered long after the series is finished and the epic battles scenes have evaporated from memory.  I rather doubt Sharpe’s Waterloo can top this, but we’ll see.