Monday, March 11, 2013

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (novel)

When I stumbled across a copy of Out of Oz and saw it called the fourth and final book of Gregory Maguires The Wicked Years series, I was motivated to read Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men. As you'll see in my reviews of Son and Lion, I was unclear on how to evaluate them. As standalone novels, they were not particularly impressive. But if taken together as book two of a trilogy that began with Wicked and concludes with Out of Oz, their flaws might actually be virtues. Until reading Out of Oz, I just can't tell.

I first read Wicked before there was any hint of a series, and I loved it. I also swore that I'd never read it again. But when reading Son and Lion, it was pretty clear there were plot points and nuances referring back to Wicked that needed to be understood to fully appreciate those two and Out of Oz. So with some trepidation, I decided to re-read Wicked.

At this point it's almost impossible for anyone to have not at least heard of this book and have a sense of what it's about. But in case you haven't . . . here's a mostly spoiler-free description.

This is what the subtitle proclaims, a biography of Elphaba Thropp, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West. But it's not the Witch you know from the Oz books or the film, and it's not even the Oz you know. Maguire keeps the broad outline the same, but overall this is a dark story set in a dark Oz.

Elphaba, born with green skin and sharp teeth, grows up largely alone except for her younger sister and her parents. They send her off to college (there are colleges in Oz? Yes indeed) where chance pairs her with Galinda Arguenna. Yes, the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the South were roommates in college. Who'd have thought it? In college, Elphaba is radicalized by the increasing oppression of the talking Animals, and ultimately becomes a revolutionary and a terrorist. But all her efforts lead to more harm than good, with Elphaba having an amazing talent for doing things at the perfect time for them to explode in her face. She attempts to withdraw from the fray, but always gets sucked back in when it's too late to do good but not too late to make the situation worse. The end is inevitable, the only question is how she'll get there. Maguire makes that journey a fascinating ride. It's an Oz that's much more nuanced and dangerous than the original, but one that on the whole is far more realistic.

It's a brilliant, brilliant book. It's also an unrelenting and depressing tragedy. No-one comes out better than they went in, only a few manage to hold their ground. Most are ground down, humiliated, and ultimately broken. The lucky are dead, the unlucky are cast aside to live with their fates. The most tragic of them is Elphaba herself, whose attempts to do well fail in a manner that results in her becoming almost everything she's striven against. In short, it ends with no hope, no forgiveness, and no redemption.

By contrast, Son and Lion (for all their flaws) seem to offer a chance that things are turning around. While reading them it was clear there were nuances I'd forgotten from Wicked, and I wanted to approach Out of Oz ready to pick up on them.  The re-read did indeed freshen those nuances; there are parts of both that are now more significant - or at least less mysterious. Nonetheless, Wicked itself remains unrelenting tragedy. Next up: Out of Oz. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Lion Among Men, by Gregory Maguire (novel)

A Lion Among Men is the sequel to Wicked and Son of a Witch. Wicked is a brilliant, brilliant book, but it was such a tragedy I swore not to ever re-read it. Son and Lion have been sitting on the to-be-read shelf for years, and with Out of Oz described as the conclusion to the cycle, it seemed time to read them (see my review of Son for more detail).

A Lion Among Men has a lot of the same flaws as Son of a Witch. It rambles, and the narrative is mostly a series of flashbacks. But when taken together with Son, it very much appears that the two are essentially the third book of a trilogy. Middle books of trilogies are usually the weakest, and in some ways their task is to set up the final book. I won't know if this assessment is true until reading Out of Oz, but the idea is promising enough that I'm unwilling to write the book off.

As standalone novels, neither Lion nor Son are up to the level of Maguire's other work. They both ramble, they both have an odd narrative focus, and neither resolves the story well. Further, they take place largely in parallel and end at about the same point in time, but with little interaction between them. That's not a particularly good thing, and under other circumstances it would be enough such that I would not pursue the series further.

Note, though, that this is almost exactly the same structure that The Two Towers has as part of the Lord of the Rings. No, I'm not comparing Wicked Years to LoTR in any way; aside from the two both being fantasies they have little in common. But if The Two Towers had been released as two short novels following Fellowship of the Ring, I'd have the same criticism.

So should you read this book? Maybe. If Out of Oz serves Wicked Years as well as Return of the King did Lord of the Rings, the answer will be an unquestioning 'yes.' if not . . . then it has to be judged strict on its own merits. Fortunately, it has merits, and more merits than Son of a Witch. Telling much of the story in flashback serves this book better than Son, with there being more tension in the plot and better coherence to the story over all. In on particular plot twist, the flashback actually improves the reveal. ISon, Liir is far more acted upon than he actually acts. In LionBrrr grows and changes convincingly over time. The novel ends with him in a much different frame of mind, and there is promise of an interesting result to come of it. But that's also a weakness, as it seem to just be setting the stage for Out of Oz. Whether that's good or bad will depend on whether Out of Oz is actually a conclusion to a trilogy or 'just' another story.

But before reading Out of Oz, I'm going to break my vow and re-read Wicked. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire

This is the sequel to Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. I adored Wicked, but it was such a tragedy I swore not to ever re-read it. When Son came out I picked it up with some trepidation, but a series of mediocre reviews and the advent of more good books by other folks pushed it further and further back into the to-be-read shelf. Eventually it was completely buried.

Recently the fourth and final volume of what's now called The Wicked Years has been published, so when stumbling across Son it was clear the time to read it had come. Verdict: not as good as Wicked, not as bad as I'd feared. It rambles, but so did Wicked. The difference is that Wicked was intensely involving both for the story and how it mirrored our contemporary world, and thus those rambles mattered. Son lacks the intensity of the events and the tragic fascination you develop for the main character, and thus is merely acceptable. If it were the first novel of the series rather than the second, I'd not pursue them any further. But since Wicked was so good and I found both of the other two books in remaindered hardback, I'll be diving into A Lion Among Men and Out of Oz shortly.

Update: I've just finished reading A Lion Among Men, and it's caused me to revise my opinion somewhat. A review of Lion will be up soon, I'll put a link here once it has jelled.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

A Trio of Wild Cards (short stories, mosaic novel)

There was a relatively brief fad in science fiction and fantasy for shared world books. A number of writers would get together, define a setting, and all write stories in the shared settings. These had varying degrees of success, and most are gone and forgotten.

One notable exception is the Wild Cards series, originally led by George R. R. Martin but eventually spread around to a number of other folks. The first volume came out in 1987. Since then they've moved from publisher to publisher, still holding to the same theme and exploring it in mostly interesting ways. Volume 22 is expected shortly.

These books were an attempt to show superpowers and their use in the real world. That's a common trope these days, but at the time it was pretty new. The background they developed for this involved an alien race called the Takisans, a hereditary tyranny by a small group with psychic powers. In looking for a method to extend and improve those powers, they developed a mutagenic virus that became known as the wild card. The virus was too dangerous to turn loose on their home world so they tested it on a lost Takisian colony - us - shortly after World War II. The virus was deployed by spraying it over New York City, but the deployment wound up being relatively small. Nor was it particularly virulent. If you didn't get it in the initial deployment, you probably didn't get it. If you did, your chances weren't good. 90% of those infected died, usually of some horrible deformity caused by the virus. 9% got the deformity but didn't die. 1% survived with some sort of power. The stories were set from shortly before deployment and moved forward to the then-current date.

The first few sets of books were written as triplets. There would be two books of short to mid-length stories written by various people, then a 'mosaic novel' that would tie together the threads introduced in the short pieces. This pattern has been followed for most of the books since then.

I was and am a huge fan of George R. R. Martin, so bought read the  series as the books came out. They were enjoyable, but by volume eight or nine the quality seemed to be falling off and I stopped reading them.

Recently I read a volume of NESFA Press' collection of Roger Zelazny's short works. It included several stories he wrote for the first Wild Card series and were quite enjoyable. A few days later we were heading out on vacation, so I dug out the first three Wild Card books for airplane reading - Wild Cards, Aces High, and Jokers Wild. They're not large books, and by our first night back home I'd finished them.

The verdict? They're airplane reading. The series as a whole is mostly fluff, with a few exceptions here and there. The short stories are uneven, running from the very good (Zelazny, Martin) to the mediocre to the downright bad. The mosaic novel Jokers Wild is better, and does a good job of tying together the threads of the first two books. It provides a satisfying conclusion to the first arc, but unfortunately doesn't make the poor threads any better. The re-read matched my memory of them, and reminded me that the writers I liked best got less involved as the series went on. They were a fine way to pass time in airports and lines, but I've probably got much better things sitting in the to-be-read pile at home. I'll neither be re-reading the rest nor seeking out the ones I don't have.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Future book: "The Streisand Effect and Me" by Ken Matherne

One of my favorite blogs, Popehat, has been threatened with a lawsuit by a Mr. Ken Matherne of the Global Wildlife Center. Well, maybe it's a threat of suit. There are threats in there and a mention of lawyers, but it's hard to separate the threats of legal action from the threats of harassment from the simply incoherent rantings. I read the threatening letters a couple of times, but familiarity quickly bred contempt, and that's going to be the judge's perogative. Don't expect me to explain it to you, just read it and enjoy the spectacle.

In any case, I have two words for Mr. Matherne: Streisand Effect. His conduct has already pushed Popehat's old article on him, The Zookeeper Is Very Fond of Dumb, up to the #2 on Google. That's up several places today. He keeps ranting, Popehat keeps publishing. Going for #1, eh Mr. Matherne? Certainly you're a lot more famous today than you were yesterday, and it'll no doubt get better. Too bad about what you're going to be famous for.

If Matherne actually files, I predict this will ultimately wind up as an article at Lowering The Bar with a title like "Motion Denied On Grounds of Incomprehensibility."

As a Special Bonus Factoid, I also learned a new phrase: murum aries attigit. Taken literally, it means "the ram has touched the wall," but see the link for explanation. It sounds ever so much more dignified than "Game on, a**hole."

The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio (science, math)

The number phi (Greek Φ, pronounced fee) has been known for millennia  Aside from it's direct use in mathematics, it is often called the golden ratio’ that defines the most perfect esthetic proportions. That might sound pretty breathless (and it is), but it's also pretty accurate. In The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number Mario Livio addresses both the mathematical and esthetic features of phi, exploding historical myths and finding it in a number of less-than-obvious places. It's a fine little book and a very pleasant excursion after the disappointment of Kline's Mathematics and the Loss of Certainty.

This is a book about a number and about mathematics, but it is not a mathematics text. Livio writes for a  general reader, never getting into more mathematics or geometry than you got in high school (or at least, what you should have gotten in high school). His explanations are simple and clear, with good references for those who wish to go further into the topic. I could wish for a few more illustrations and appendices, but their lack didn't keep me from enjoying or finishing the book.

It's difficult to talk about the book without talking about the number, and that's to Livio's credit. He writes clearly enough that you focus on the topic rather than struggling to understand. Phi is the star, and it's place in history and mathematics is what you remember coming out of the book. Phi is found in  the logarithmic spiral and the chambered nautilus, in ferns and the Fibonacci sequence, in the corners of the dodecahedron and in the placement of branches on trees. Its use is as ancient as the early Greeks and as recent as Penrose tilings, with both beauty and math seen at every step of the way. In many ways Livio combines the two, with beauty in the math and mathematics in the beauty.

This was almost everything I want in a math or science book. It made me think, it educated me on both the science and the history, and it made me want to find more on this and similar topics. Recommended for both laymen and professionals.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nine Black Doves, by Roger Zelazny (short works)

The full title of this book is The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume 5: Nine Black Doves. It is volume five of the wonderful six-volume set that NESFA Press did a few years ago, collecting nearly all of Zelaznys short fiction, poetry, and short non-fiction writings. I picked up the entire set when it was released in 2009, skimmed through hitting my favorites, and have been returning to it occasionally to read one cover to cover.

Roger Zelazny was one of the best fantasy and science-fiction writers of the second half of the 20th century. A number of his novels remain in print, but his shorter works are getting harder and harder to find. Thats a damned shame, as his best short stories and novellas compare well the novels. I have been holding onto tattered paperbacks of them over the years, and have been very happy to replace and expand them as volumes were released.

The works in this volume are all from the last third of his career. They tend to be a bit longer than the earlier ones. A number of them were written as supplements and illustrations to other works or were later incorporated into novels. Theres nothing in this volume with the incredible impact of “Comes Now The Power” (volume 2) or A Rose for Ecclesiastes” (volume 1), but Permafrost and “24 Views of Mount Fuji by Hosaku belong in anyones list of best Zelazny works. Further, this book contains a number of pieces that Zelazny wrote for other writers series, including the Croyd Crenson stories for George R. R. MartinWild Cards series and Mana From Heaven for Larry Nivens The Magic May Return. In both cases, the Zelazny pieces were highlights of the original collections, and they read surprisingly well in isolation from the original series.

Each story is followed by comments from Zelazny when appropriate ones could be found, and some brief comments by the editors about things referenced in the story. The Zelazny comments are usually at least interesting, the editorial remarks less so and can usually be skipped without loss.

Each volume also has a number of Zelaznys poems, articles, scripts, novel and film proposals, and so forth. Zelazny was never one of my favorite poets, but the rest are almost always interesting and often give you additional insights into other works or things planned but never finished about his serials. Theyre worth reading, but on their own are not interesting enough to buy the book for.

Ultimately you want this and the other volumes for Zelaznys fiction. On that point, the only downside is that there is a lot of minor Zelazny in each volume. NESFA could have made an excellent ‘best of’ collection out of two volumes this size, but Im very pleased that they resisted the temptation. Even minor Zelazny shorts are better than most current writers, and merely good Zelazny suffers only by comparison to his best.

This and the other five collections are available only from NESFA Press in these high-quality hardbacks at $29.00 each. Theyre well worth the price for acid-free archive-quality editions, and the matched set with overlapping dust-jacket illustrations looks as good on the shelf as they read in the hand. Recommended.

An Anathem for Neal Stephenson's Anathem (novel)

I enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s Anathem hugely the first time I read it. In some ways it was typical Stephenson, but the science-fictional setting and the more speculative ideas made for a more fanciful and more interesting story. On finishing the book, I mentally marked it for a re-read and put it away. Late last year I re-read his The Diamond Age, and that led to a re-reading of Anathem. Going into those re-reads my opinion was that those two are his best novels, and the re-reads did nothing to change that. If you’ve not read Stephenson and want something both enjoyable and representative of his work, Anathem and The Diamond Age are the places to start.

The second readings of both books were more leisurely and more attentive than the first ones. As such, they revealed more about the strengths and weaknesses of the story and of Stephenson in general. I’ll have more to say in a later essay about Stephenson in general; here I’m going to focus on Anathem.

Plot and background synopsis: On Arbre, mathematics and philosophy are the domain of the ‘avout’, the cloistered brothers and sisters of the Maths. There they preserve and extend knowledge of mathematics and philosophy, with few direct applications to the outside use of ‘praxis’ (technology). Fraa (brother) Erasmus is a young man in one the oldest ‘concents’, approaching adulthood and considering which specialty he will choose when the time arrives. He is a Tenner, one of a group that meets with the ‘extramuros’ (outside world) only a few days every ten years. Shortly after that ‘apert’, events occur which literally change the world, forcing the Avout and the the ‘Saecular Powers’ to work together to deal with the extraordinary circumstances that are arising. To say more would be spoilers, but this should give you a feel for where Stephenson is going both with the language and the background. The story itself hangs on both.

Like all Stephenson, Anathem is a novel of ideas. Unlike most other Stephenson, the ideas here are more speculative and more subversive. That subversion is improved and made more subtle by the vocabulary Stephenson uses. Aubre is not Earth, past or present. Its concepts and organizations have names that may lead you to think they are direct analogs to something in our world, but they are not. The title is a good example. On Aubre, the word is ‘anathem’ is a synonym both for ‘anathema’ and for ‘anthem.’ Stephenson doesn’t merge the two without reason, but saying more would push into the realm of spoilers. As such, the reader is never sure about the casual usage of a number of words which at first seem to be simple analogs for things we are familiar with, but underneath have distinct and often critical differences. The book comes with a glossary, but the meanings shouldn’t be taken any more literally than the rest of the book. Look for the context, listen to what Erasmus tells you, and bear in mind that he is very young and usually quite naive.

In Anathem the primary ideas presented are in mathematics, geometry, and philosophy. Stephenson present them in interesting but discursive discussions, and lectures. That makes Anathem a very talky book. There is scene after scene where two to many characters talk things over and argue about how the events may be related to the theories. Erasmus is a good viewpoint for this, as everyone seems to want to educate or persuade him in one way or another. If you find the topics interesting (and I did), you’ll enjoy these moments. If not, you might be tempted to skip over them looking for the plot. My advice - skim, but don’t skip. Anathem is typical Stephenson on this point. Some of the discursions are simply that, Stephenson teaching you a bit about geometry, mathematics and philosophy. He does that very well, and even the most discursive discussions are well-presented and interesting. But sometimes he actually laying groundwork for your understanding of critical points later in the book. If you skip them completely, you’ll find yourself completely lost about critical plot points. And boy, there are some big and fun plot points in there. The re-read made them clearer, and the novel hung together better the second time around.

But I won’t be reading it again, because the re-read also pointed up just how weak Stephenson is on some things. Erasmus is acted upon far more than he acts, and those actions often take place off-stage. In fact, many hugely important things take place off-stage, with Erasmus being told about them after the fact. Other things seem to have no purpose whatever except for Erasmus to wander around looking at interesting things. And yes, they are interesting things to look at, but could we get there in a less contrived fashion?

Finally, the characters are just flat. This is forgivable in that Anathem is a novel of ideas, but it’s downright painful at times. It’s a good thing that most characters have very distinctive names, because you’re not going to remember much about their personalities.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Eight Pounds

The 25th anniversary edition of John Crowley's Little, Big is a labor of love. It's a subscription project, where early supporters paid up front but don't get a copy until the project completes. I subscribed long ago and have been waiting mostly patiently since then. It is finally approaching completion, with publication expected late spring or early summer. There are still copies available, if you're curious.

Today I was rummaging through the web site for any status updates and noticed this data point: the finished edition is estimated to weigh just under 8 pounds. That seemed like a large number for a book of 750 or so pages. So I took a copy of Anathem and weighed it. That 1000-page hardback with reasonably good paper came to three pounds, 14.5 ounces. Little, Big will be eight pounds.

Eight pounds for a book about 3/4 the page count of Anathem.

Eight pounds.

I'm almost frightened.

Eight pounds.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

A brief parable on cloud computing.

Cloud computing. Was anything ever more attractively named? Nobody knows what it means, but it sure sounds modern. So vendors take their products, insert ‘cloud’ into the name, and make new sales materials. Look, we're up to date!

The customer execs think it's the wave of the future, because their fellow execs all read it in the trade press and the vendor materials. Hey, we should do that. Leave the details to the techies, what us leaders need to do is point the way. March into the clouds, folks!

The vendor salesmen love how undefined it is. Everybody sees what they want - fluffy bunnies, ponies, trees, and so fort. They're bright, and pretty, and out of reach. Don't see what you want? Wait a minute, it'll come along. Look, there it is! Quick, write a check.

Clouds cast big shadows, and everybody is affected by them. Periodically they rain, snow, and strike you with lightning. On hot days they disappear, and when they come back your fluffy bunny has morphed into a castle. Well, not a real castle - it won't really defend you from anything. Besides, in a few minute it'll be something else. But hey, you wanted clouds so you could enable rapid change, didn't you? Well, there you are! Not the change you wanted? Quick, write another check.

Migrating your applications to the cloud? Cool! Are they resilient? Do they recover from component failure by going to the next device of the right type? Oh, you'll have to change that. Here, write a check for one of our consultants.

Just move your existing applications? Sorry, the cloud doesn't support COBOL. Or fortran. Or any of the other languages your applications are written in. Or those special non-standard Oracle features you use. Yeah, you'll pretty much have to rewrite everything from scratch to move into the cloud. Train all your people in Java. Oh, they immediately moved to other companies? Go hire some Java programmers. Sure, they can learn your legacy applications and your business in a few days. Quick, write another check.

Performance is slow? That's because your data is all local, you should move it into the cloud. There, now all your data is now up in the cloud with the application. Somewhere. Mostly. If you paid for enough replication. And backup. Quick, write another check.

What, you're out of money? Hey, where did the salesman go? And why did our development staff quit, don't they have any loyalty in hard times?

Then from over the horizon, the sales and marketing guys spot someone else looking for a panacea. “Hey, mister, ever heard of cloud computing?”

Image shamelessly borrowed from SmallBizTechnology which has a nice little article on the topic here.

Monday, February 04, 2013

I have coined a phrase

John Scalzi has recently been poking fun at a racist sexist homophobic dipshit. A group mostly not familiar with either Scalzi or the RSHD heard of it and asked about the root cause. My two-sentence summary concluded by describing RHSD's rants as “pitiful logorrheaic seizures.” “Pitiful logorrheaic seizures.” That phrase is a keeper.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

In praise of Suckerpunch Spicy Ketchup

I’ve been in mourning for the loss of Blanchard Brothers spicy ketchup for years. Unfortunately specialty ketchups have been eclipsed by salsas the last few years, so the candidates for replacing Blanchard Bros have been few and far between.

Suckerpunch Spicy Gourmet Ketchup isn’t Blanchard and Blanchard’s chunky, but it’s pretty darned good. Thus far it has been a fine ketchup on burgers, black bean patties, fried potatoes and onions, and the ultimate test, tater tots. I’ve had this jar for about 2 weeks, and it’s over half gone. One reason is that it’s good enough I keeping making excuses to cook things which would be good with ketchup on them. Yeah. It’s good.

Suckerpunch is quite spicy without being more than mildly hot. After tomatos and green peppers, the ingredients list includes brown sugar, cider vinegar, onion, garlic, jalapeno, and lime juice, and the ever-informative ‘spices.’ You can directly taste all of them in the mix, but the manufacturer has gotten them to sing together rather than be merely an accumulation.

The ketchup itself is anything but chunky, and in fact is downright thin. That makes putting it on a hamburger an invitation to drip, and dammit, I don’t want to miss eating any of this. That thin-ness also means anything dipped in it doesn’t come back with very much ketchup. We’re talking tater tots here (mmm...tater tots), but the same would apply to french fries, onion rings and so forth. (Onion rings. Man, this would be awesome on onion rings.) I spoon the stuff across what I’m eating, but if you do the entire meal’s worth at once the last few items get a bit soggy. Thickening it up for dipping would be nice.

If the Suckerpunch folks are looking for other products, a more Blanchard-like chunky variant would be nice. Blanchard Brothers got a lot of their tang from the vinegar, and they augmented that with an array of spices that had a lot of punch but weren’t in any way hot. The small chunks of tomato, green pepper and onion made for both a nice texture on the tongue and a variety of tastes as you hit one chunk or another.

But that’s all mild carping, downright bland carping when you compare it to the taste of this stuff. Now I need to go to the grocery store and see if they carry Suckerpunch pickles.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reading and writing scorecard for January, 2013

I don't plan on doing monthly scorecards, but after reading and reviewing far more than expected in January it seemed worth an update. As of January 31, 2013, here's where things stand.

Progress towards goal: 9 books of 52 in just over 4 weeks
Books obtained: 3 (none previously read)
Books read: 9 (8 first reads, 1 re-read)
Short reviews written: 9
Long reviews written: 9
Net change to unread shelf: down 6

At the beginning of the year there were fifteen books on the intended list, of which ten were unread and in-house, four intended for purchase, and one a likely re-read already in-house. By end of January five of the ten in-house were read, two of the four intended for purchase had been both bought and read, and the intended re-read was still on the list.

Blog posts: a bit over 5100 words including these.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse (fiction)

After reading the massive third volume of Manchester's biography of Churchill, I needed something light and was in the mood for British wit and satire. Fortunately the perfect book was already on the shelf.

My Man Jeeves is a collection of six short stories by P. G. Wodehouse. Half are about upper-class British twit Bertie Wooster and his brilliant butler Jeeves, the other three not. All are funny, but Wodehouse was at his best with Wooster and Jeeves. The writing is marvelous, the situations absurd yet believable, and the dry wit is still an example to which many aspire but few even approach. At only 124 pages this is a collection you can toss off in a couple of evenings or lunch hours (I did). Well worth the time, and given that it's available free from Project Gutenberg you can't go wrong. Bertie can be quite wearing in large doses, but these short bits are a fine way to get introduced without having to commit to an entire novel. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm by William Manchester and Paul Reid (biography)

In 1984 The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory was published, the first volume of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill. Volume 2 (Alone) followed in 1989. Manchester stepped aside from Churchill to write A World Lit Only By Fire, then intended to return to and finish Churchill. But his health began to decline and it became clear he was not going to be able to finish. Fortunately he turned the project over to Paul Reid before his death, and Reid has completed the work. While it doesn't quite live up to two decades of anticipation, it's nonetheless a fine book.

These volumes are both history and biography, and it would be fair to call them a history of the British Empire as lived by Winston Churchill. It covers the Empire from its peak to its essential dissolution, focusing on how Churchill lived through and influenced huge swathes of it. In the first two volumes Churchill grows up, aims high, stumbles and falls, and recovers admirably. Volume 2 closes with Churchill returning from the political wilderness to become Prime Minister just as Hitler begins to move against Britain.

Defender of the Realm shows Churchill to be the right man at the right time. His public face inspired Britain to hang on during the years they held the western front alone. His private one was more pragmatic and realistic, but we come to understand there was less difference between them than it seemed at first. Churchill knew instinctively that to hold out would require convincing the population that the war could and would be won, but that doing so would be a horribly difficult, painful and prolonged task. Once one see the forces arrayed against them, his classic "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" becomes almost an understatement. The common man would have to bear the brunt of suffering and fighting, and Churchill understood that. In spite of being an aristocrat to the bone, he managed to cross the class divide and make a direct connection with the working-class public. The authors present him heroically in this, and that's as it should be.

The book is not a paean to Churchill. He was often rude, sometimes treated staff and family with casual cruelty or volcanic anger, and never apologized. He bubbled over with ideas, most of them impractical. He wasted huge amounts of his and his staffs time with details that should have been left to others. He was at his worst after a success, flying off on new projects that would prevent the consolidation of a success. One of his aides later published a quite damning memoir of his dealings with Churchill. That publication (which the authors quote from frequently) included both an apology to and an appreciation of Churchill obtained in retrospect. The assessment of Churchill at the time is accurate, as is the appreciation in retrospect. Churchill was a flawed and complex man, and the biography reflects that honestly.

One particularly enjoyable point is the wit. Churchill was famous for some of his comments, and they were broadly displayed in the first two volumes. They are not as prominent here, but that's largely because there was less time for repartee and fewer British opponents to spend it on. In volume three the authors spend more time on the words of others, and they manage to slip in a few of their own. A couple of my favorites:
  • The authors on Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to England: “. . . [Churchill's daughter-in-law] was certainly taken with him, and within a few weeks, taken by him.”
  • Evelyn Waugh on Randolph Churchill having a biopsy for suspected lung cancer: “It was a typical triumph of modern science to find the one part of Randolph which was not malignant and remove it.”
There are plenty more, but I'll leave them for your enjoyment.

On a personal level, I wanted deeply to love this book. The first two volumes were wonderful, and by comparison this one seems a bit flat to me. There are two reasons for this, neither of which is the fault of the authors.

The first is Churchill himself. By 1940, Churchill is in his 60s and fully formed in both his virtues and his flaws. Both are fully displayed here, but we don't see the growth that was so interesting in the first two volumes. This is to be expected, but it makes him a bit less interesting as a person.

The other is the reader (me). All three of these volumes are both history and biography. The first two covered periods I wasn't particularly familiar with, and as such were of interest on both fronts. By the time Defender of the Realm was published I was already very familiar with World War II in Europe, and didn't learn much from the book that I didn't already know. Fortunately, seeing the war by looking over Churchill's shoulder was a fine new viewpoint, and it gave me a better appreciation of the whys of the political and military events. I read the 1050+ pages in about a week, and it wasn't an effort.

Overall I recommend this book, but with warnings. You should definitely read the first two volumes before this one. And if you're already up to speed on World War II in Europe, be prepared for a lot of material you're already familiar with, but presented from a different and interesting point of view. Still, though, strongly recommended -- especially if you start from the beginning.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis (novel)

Warren Ellis' first novel, Crooked Little Vein, had problems. It was somewhat confused, the descriptive prose had problems, and it kind of petered out rather than having a climax. But the dialog was great, the characters involving, and overall it was good enough that I said I'd read the next thing he wrote. That was a good decision, because most of the things I complained about are much better in his second novel, Gun Machine. The things I liked about Vein are also better in Gun Machine. How much better?

I started it about 4:00 this afternoon and finished in under three hours of reading time. Yeah. Better.

The non-spoiler plot summary: Police are called to investigate a naked man with a shotgun in a New York City apartment. Things go very badly. As part of this, the police break into an apartment and find it's full of guns. Hundreds, maybe thousands of guns. Each one seems to have been used in an unsolved homicide, one apiece. They're not just lined up, they're carefully arranged in some clearly incomplete pattern.

Some of the guns are over a century old.

Ellis handles all of this cleverly, sensibly, and coherently. There are apparent red herrings everywhere, yet each turns out to be either literally true or completely fair. Point builds on point logically and compellingly. The resolution is satisfying and self-consistent - something I didn't think he (or anyone else) would pull off given the situation lain out.

The pacing is brilliant. After a bit of scene setting, the action slowly ramps up to a huge climax that several times had me going "no, no, he's not going to do that" followed by him doing exactly that - but not always in the way expected, or for the reason expected.

Ellis fills this book with a fascinating and varied cast of characters. Even the minor ones are fully realized. One doesn't expect a lot of character development in the course of a single relatively short (310 pages) police procedural, but some of the major ones progress in interesting and believable way. The dialog is excellent, and with the exceptions of a few Britishisms, it all rings true.

This isn't to say there aren't problems. Ellis' descriptive prose is weak and sometimes clumsy, possibly because he's mostly been writing comic books (really really good ones) and has been able to rely on the artist to provide that sort of description. But given the improvement from Vein to Gun Machine, I suspect we'll see further improvement in his exposition as well. Hell, for all I know that exposition got better as the book went along and I was just too wrapped up in the people and plot to notice it.

How much did I like it overall? I wish his next book would be published tomorrow. Strongly recommended.

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone by Ian McDonald (novel)

I bought Ian McDonald's Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone because of the cover. Usually this results in disaster; this time was a happy exception. I picked it up in paperback in 1994, and that's the cover you see below. The story has been sticking in my head for years, and after the clunker that was my previous read, something quick and tasty was called for. This was a good choice.

Scissors is a very short novel, only 136 pages.  Loosely, its the story of a man on a pilgrimage to a variety of sites in Japan, with looks back at why he is making the pilgrimage and how those events still follow him.

In someone elses hands this might have been an action-story brick of a book. Instead McDonald pares the past events to their bare essentials and focuses on their meanings. It's a pretty chilling backstory, and reading it in linear order would have made for an entirely different book.

The good parts? There are interesting characters, well-done parallels and non-parallels between past and present events, and some wonderful prose. The story carries you along quite nicely, with enough foreshadowing to keep you digging for the next nugget and with rewarding reveals when you do.

On the other hand, parts of this story have not aged well. The resolution was as plausible as the premise in '94. In 2013 the premise is a bit harder to swallow, and some of the more important parts of the resolution simply wouldn't work. If this had been my first exposure, those plot issues might have overshadowed the books virtues. But if McDonald were writing this today, he'd probably have chosen different mechanisms to reach the same resolution. I am glad to have re-read it, and still appreciate it as quality prose and construction. If those qualities are high on your list, you should forgive what time has done to the plot and enjoy it as what it is.

Helluva cover, too.

Mathematics and the Loss of Certainty by Morris Kline (science)

When setting out the goal of reading and reviewing 52 books this year, I had to deal with the problem of bad books. I'm no longer one for killer reviews, reviews in which a book is eviscerated for the entertainment of those reading the reviews. Conversely, it's not fair to simply say "this book is bad" without saying why. So please, bear with me as I attempt to describe this most disappointing book without devolving into rant. Please do give me feedback, as I've recent encountered another book which is likely to get a bad review.

Morris Kline's Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty is a failure. It attempts to describe how the belief that mathematics and mathematical reasoning were complete and correct fell apart and why. Instead it is a disorganized history of mathematics, geometry, and proof across the ages. Kline never adequately describes the nature of geometric proof, nor the alternate geometries which shattered it. He dwells to no particular purpose on 1,500 years of irrelevancy during which algebra et. al. were developed and used without proof and without quest for proof. When he reached the 18th through 20th centuries, he jumps backwards and forwards discussing the changed feeling about proof and provability of mathematics, but leaves the causes of those changes for later chapters. In short, what should have been a fascinating history of mathematics and treatise about the nature of mathematical proof is a rambling mess. He focuses on nits, glides over critical but admittedly difficult items, and winds up leaving even this educated reader frustrated and uniformed.

In summary: not recommended.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent (history)

This was actually the first book I finished in 2013, and it may wind up being the best book of history and politics read this year. Yes, that's even with the competition from Adam Goodheart's 1861: Civil War Awakening, which I've already praised lavishly.

Good histories bring you an understanding of the times, forces, and people of the period. Great histories do the same and link you to how the events of the past continue influence the present. In this, Last Call succeeds in spades. The epilogue opens with this statement:

In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure. It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocracy. It deprived the government of revenue, stripped the gears of the political system, and imposed profound limitations on individual rights. It fostered a culture of bribery, blackmail, and official corruption.
In those four sentences, Okrent sums up Prohibition and what it did to the U.S. What is presented more strongly in the body of the book is how those events changed the nature of American politics and fostered the single-issue movements that have polarized Congress and society of today. It shows plainly the process by which a well-focused single-issue minority can override the will of a majority. For Prohibition, that process created a group of shock troop voters who subordinated every issue to one, regardless of how well a candidate did or didn't represent the rest of their interests. With some additional complexity, one can clearly see it in the US politics of the election of Ronald Reagan.

This is not to say that the time of Prohibition was identical to ours. There were a number of significant differences. In particular, during the period that Okrent covers we did not have the extreme division of Congress that we see today. Instead, politicians clustered more towards the middle and every race was more competitive. Under those conditions, a single dedicated group of single-issue voters could and did make a difference, strongly determining which candidates were elected. Even incumbents who didn't toe the line were regularly turned out of office if they did not vote the right way on the issue. The supporters of Prohibition exploited that ruthlessly. It was and is a model for litmus-test politics, and Okrent cites modern pols who pay homage to it.

The final section covers the combination of events that culminated in the unlikely passage of the 21st amendment. This is the only section that I'd really like to have seen more on. One can read between the lines and infer how the death of some of the major figures combined with their overreaching to splinter the movement, but it doesn't show enough about how the supporters of repeal managed to get it past some formidable hurdles. In particular, there's not enough presented to really see how repeal got passed enough of the more dry states to actually become the 21st amendment. There are probably some interesting histories out there on the topic; I'd love to see Okrent return to it.

In conclusion: highly recommended.

The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde (novel)

The Woman Who Died A Lot is the latest of Jasper Ffordes Thursday Next books. There's a lot of good to be said about it. Fforde restricts his scope by having little or nothing to do with the Bookworld in this book, and that tightens the story wonderfully. The focus on the 'real world' (whatever that means in a Thursday Next novel) gave Fforde more scope for satirizing England and the world we live in today, and in that it does well. The plot is strong and coherent: Ffordes plotting continue to improve even after 10+ books, which is an excellent sign. Fforde has allowed Thursday to grow and age, and in some areas to actually decline. Overall, it was well-written and quite engaging. 


This book was good, but not great. If it sounds like praising with faint damns, yeah, that's what it is. Fforde has set the bar so high with some of this other work that I approach each new books with huge expectations. Woman was a lot of fun, and reading it was time well-spent. But IMHO the series is getting a bit stale, and it may soon be time to let Thursday go into that great Library in the . . . well, wherever the hell it is. While another Next novel is in the queue, I'm looking forward more to his next Nursery Crime novel and the next two in the Shades of Grey series.

Overall, The Woman Who Died A Lot is worth reading for any Thursday Next or Jasper Fforde fan, but you might want to wait for the paperback.

Counting The Piles, A Scorecard, and A Plan

When I first did the exercise of reading and reviewing 52 books in a year, one of the goals was to reduce the number of unread books in the house. That secondary goal still applies and was freshened by the recent arrival of three books:

  • The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde (novel)
  • Gun Machine by Warren Ellis (novel)
  • The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm by William Manchester and Paul Reid (biography)
The observant reader will note this leaves me one book further behind than at the beginning of the year. Fear not; I have two completed books that have short reviews posted elsewhere with full reviews to be finished up here. Be patient; I'm not being lazy or otherwise falling behind.

All of these are specific goals and eminently countable. So here's the scorecard for 2013 to date:

Week#: 2
Books obtained: 3
Books read: 4
Books reread: 0
Short reviews written: 4
Long reviews written: 2
Net change to unread shelf: -1
Books started but not yet finished: 2

It all looks good until you consider that the Manchester and Reid checks in at 1173 pages. It's been nearly two decades since the second volume was read, and I'm seriously considering rereading the first two before starting the last. They come to 1500 pages or so, which would take some time. On the other hand, they count towards my reading and reviewing goals and I'm already two weeks ahead of the reading schedule. So I'll read the first few chapters of Lion and see if my memory needs a refresh first.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

1861: CIVIL WAR AWAKENING by Adam Goodheart (history)

Last year I heard a fascinating interview with Adam Goodheart about this book. He and the interviewer discussed an incident very early in the war when three slaves building fortifications for the army of Virginia fled to the nearby Union fort, Fortress Monroe, arriving Thursday May 23. The commander at Monroe was Major General Benjamin Butler, a lawyer with little military experience. When a representative of the owner came on Saturday to claim the slaves, he had to make a tough decision. Under Union law, he was obliged to return them. This went against his grain for a number of reasons, and with the help of a little military law he found a middle course. Since the slaves were being used to construct Confederate fortifications, they were lawfully seizable as military supplies. He declared the escaped slaves contraband of war and declined their return. Thus he avoided returning the slaves, damaged the Confederate war effort, and stayed on the correct side of all Union laws and most Virginia law. The owner did not press his claim further, Butler informed Washington of his actions, and it all seemed to be over. On the next day, a Sunday, more slaves fled to Fortress Monroe. By Wednesday, one soldier wrote home "Slaves are brought in here hourly." By the end of May, it was happening all across the Union/Confederate border. The South was in a serious conundrum - lose your slaves on the front, or take more men from home and leave homes undefended against the slaves. The impact on the war was profound.

This anecdote, with far more detail and breadth than I've provided here, is Chapter 8 of 1861. Each chapter follows the same general mode. It focuses on a few people, some well-known, some not, and how their actions during the first half of that year shaped the war and the politics of the time. The reader comes away with an understanding of how everyone's thinking and actions affected the national sentiment for and against the war, for and against slavery, for and against equality. In particular, it made me understand how the Great Compromise that preserved the Union for so long led both sides into a trap of double-think about slavery and equality. The thought of breaking up the Union was anathema to many, and many subverted their own thinking rather than consider the long-term result of either action or inaction. After reading it, I have a much better understanding of how the issues could simmer for so long in the face of what seem obvious final outcomes.

This book is about people. The events are important, but they are both the result of the actions of people and the framework that impels people to the next events. With this presentation, it shows how people thought during that time and how that thinking changed. Each event narrowed the path and made the war more likely. But when choices were removed, things that could not have been considered before became thinkable, then possible and then real. Butler's decision above is a fine example, but the book is full of them. There are nine chapters covering nine groups; Butler and the Fortress Monroe contraband are only one. All were interesting, most were moving, all were an education about the time, the events, and the country of 1961. Recommended.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

PLANETARY by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, et. al. (graphic novel)

The Planetary series consisted of 26 regular issues and three specials. Together they form one of my favorite extended graphic novels; nearly all of it is still in print. The regular series is available as four trade paperbacks at very reasonable prices. None of the specials are required to follow the story. I loved these on first encountering them, and am wonderfully happy to have them in longer-lasting trade editions.

The background: the Planetary Organization finds secrets and keeps them. It has compiled a history of how things really happened. The secrets are revealed only to few, and for purposes that vary with the people involved. If you need to know, you'll be told. It's not conspiracy theory and revelation, although there are certainly echos of that. It's about keeping things from getting lost until we are ready for them, or need them, or both.

Ellis and Cassaday take this notion and run with it brilliantly. The first few issues introduce the main characters and lay out a few mysteries. We get we get a series of revisits to things which the world considers fictional - Doc Savage, Japanese monster movies, Tarzan, "Them!", and so forth. Names are changed to avoid copyright lawsuits protect the innocent  but you'll usually know within pages who is meant. We learn the truth behind each, usually in self-contained issues that work well as chapters in the collection. These stories are loving homages to the original material both as story and as visual art. They explain away things that we now know couldn't have possibly been true, show why we don't know about them, and do so in a manner that builds a consistent and coherent backstory.

Don't be misled by the fairly independent stories of the first part of the run, it's a series that demands and rewards reading in the original order. Skipping the second collection and reading the third would be a major mistake.

By the middle of the second collection the backstory comes more and more into the foreground. Even as it does, the series continues to revisit tropes and stories we've known and loved, though less often. The long-form story concludes in a satisfying series of events, and an additional story serves as both epilogue and emotional resolution.

Through the entire run Cassaday displays a pretty amazing ability to incorporate the style of bygone artists and authors while giving the reader something that does not jar visually - except, of course, when it's supposed to jar. (The Batman crossover is especially good on that point.) Similar attention to detail and swings in style are accomplished by the colorists and letterers.

Cassaday and Ellis clearly know their material, and wrap the old and new together in a way that resonates visually and emotionally for the reader. A chunk of the fun is seeing their take on these stories, and yes, if you don't know what they're riffing on you might not enjoy that segment as much. But even the ones that went by me on first read were enjoyable and coherent, and since them I've found much of the original material. On this re-read I enjoyed them even more.

In short, I highly recommend PLANETARY. Buy the first trade paperback; if you're not hooked at that point you're not going to enjoy the other three. If you are hooked, you'll probably want the Batman crossover Night on Earth. With respect to reading order Night on Earth and the other specials carefully presented such that it could take place pretty much anywhere after the first trade collection. Night on Earth was and is one of my favorite "done in one" comics and is still in print. The other two specials are not, and for good reason. In missing them, you're not missing much.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Musical Revue of 2012

Last year I didn't do any music reviewing, and thus don't have a pool of old reviews to look over. But a few minutes with iTunes turned up everything added in 2012; here are the highlights.

From my old favorites:
  • Tom Waits, Bad As Me. Tom Waits is a frigging genius, but for a long time he seemed to be making his music as inaccessible as possible.  Lately he's stepped back from that but without sacrificing either his edge or his talent. Bad As Me is an occasionally difficult disk to listen to, but well worth the effort. The standout cut: "Hell Broke Luce", which is about the troops in the Middle East.
  • Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball. IMHO, pretty much the best thing he's done in ten years. Yes, a couple of the songs could use a good trim, and a couple of times he lets his politics lead him into pathos. Still, this disk rocks, and even the flawed songs are damned good. The title cut and "We Take Care of Our Own" are standouts.
From the Samplers: I am a sucker for free samplers. After a few years of grabbing them from Amazon, I'm getting a feel for which will match my taste and which will not. This year gave me a number of new artists to follow.
  • Maria Taylor/Azure Ray: Azure Ray is Maria Taylor and Orinda Fink.  Taylor had a song "Bad Idea?" on the Saddle Creek Summer 2012 Sampler (recommended) which I liked so much I immediately picked up her new CD Overlook. It did not disappoint. That lead me to Azure Ray and the disk Drawing Down The Moon. The latter occasionally fades into background music, but as soon as you pay attention you find real substance. Both are recommended, but hey, try the samples first.
  • Barnaby Bright: This as well as a few others came from the various Mishara samplers. Thoughtful, nicely melodic mondern singer/songwriter stuff, observant and sensitive without falling into twenty-something angst.
  • Ike Reilly: His Digital Collection on Amazon is some great rock-n-roll/pop. I liked or loved nearly every cut. My Xmas gelt went partly to picking up five of his other disks, which ought to tell you how much I liked him. Haven't listened to them yet; they're still trickling in by mail.
  • Two Loons For Tea: Another Mishara artist; I found their song "Monkey" to be sly and charming. Every time it would come up on my 'recently obtained' list I'd perk up and really listen. Their disk Two Loons For Tea is pretty darned good, and Nine Lucid Dreams should arrive any day.
  • The Mynabirds, Another one from the Saddle Creek sampler. The song "Generals" rocks and has been a staple on my list since hearing it. The CD of the same name isn't quite as strong, but What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood is damned good.
Rediscoveries: Rediscoveries are artists who I liked but for various reasons didn't have on CD. Sometimes I'd be appalled at what I used to like, but other times it turned out I'd only scratched the surface and needed a much deeper dive. For 2012, the clear winner in that category is Harry Nilsson. His disks Nilsson Schmilsson, A Little Touch of Schmillson In The Night, and Ariel Ballet show astonishing breadth, amazingly understated vocal skills, a beautiful hand with melodies, and lyrics than range from the sublime to the hilariously ridiculous  If you have to get just one, go with Nilsson Schmilsson. Avoid the various greatest hits collections, as they pretty much universally leave off his quirkier side. And if you want to learn how subtle and understatedly difficult his vocals are, just try singing along with him in "Coconut." It sounds repetitive on the surface, yet almost every line is different.

Biggest Disappointment: Brian Wilson, Smile. It's not horrible, but it's mostly mediocre. We waited 35 years for this?