I first started listening to NPR during the opening days of the Gulf War. Our local NPR station, KPCC, abandoned its regular programming and had war news on most of the time. It was like CNN, only I could listen to it in the car. The normal programming returned over the next few days, and I made some pleasant discoveries. Bailey White, an occasional commentator for All Things Considered, was chief among them.
I believe the first spot I heard detailed Bailey's discovery of how to teach first-graders to read: maritime disaster. Teach a kid that a book can tell him something horrible, and you've won the battle. And then there was the bit about Bailey's mama and roadkill recipes; and the story about the Evil Bed in the guest room.
I don't listen to NPR much any more, and I haven't heard Bailey's voice in years. But I happened to open Mama Makes Up Her Mind the yesterday (a friend returned it to us), and got hooked all over again. It's a book of short sketches, two or three or five or six pages long, a form that is never completely satisfying in book form; it's like trying to satiate yourself on carrots and iceberg lettuce. And some of the sketches aren't nearly as interesting the second time around, like when Bailey's mama saw the flock of bicyclists from the bathtub on the back porch.
But then there's "Midnight Cowboy", and "Dead on the Road", and "The Bed", and "Scary Movies", and "Memorizing Trollope", and "Maritime Disaster", and "The Dance of the Chicken Feet"--oh, there's more than enough here to be worth the price of admission.
Sunday is Nap Day around our house. Sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast, go off to church, have a simple lunch and then it's nap time. We don't plan it that way; it's just that Sunday is a day of rest and come Sunday afternoon we feel like resting. Jane and I feel like resting, I mean; the kids often require some encouragement. That's become my definition of adulthood: that age when naps suddenly start to sound like a good idea.
Today was exceptional only in that David went off to a birthday party for his new kindergarten friend Max. Max just turned six; and apparently when you're six it's no longer cool for your friends' parents to hang around for the party. So there was one less child needing encouragement, and as Anne (the littlest) had fallen asleep right after church I took James off on an errand. He fell asleep in the car, and after I sent him up for a nap it was my turn. I had a blissful time until David came home and wanted to show me the prizes he'd won at the party (a couple of small Lego toys, including what looks like a Martian driving a swamp boat; heaven only knows where he'd find a swamp to drive it in). Ah, well. I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.
The October Ex Libris Reviews is now up.
What happens when the Empress of a good bit of the known galaxy treats her third son like a mushroom (e.g., keeps him in the dark and, well, you get the idea) from his childhood until he grows to adulthood because he resembles his treacherous father a little too much? You get Prince Roger MacClintock, good-looking, bored, possibly disloyal, unskilled (except at a few things he genuinely likes) because he's never been trusted to do anything important.
You get Prince Roger MacClintock, possible tool of the Empress's enemies. You get Prince Roger MacClintock, obnoxious, ill-tempered, and petulant, the burden of the Bronze Battalion of the Empress' Own Regiment. They'll keep him alive, die for him if necessary, but that doesn't mean they need to respect hiim--and they don't.
And then the ship that's taking Prince Roger and his bodyguard to show the flag on a remote planet is sabotaged. Prince and bodyguard have no choice but to land on Marduk, an extremely unpleasant place with only one starport where they can find a ship back home. And because that starport has just been taken by the forces of the neighboring star empire, they have to land in secret halfway around the planet or risk getting blown out of the sky.
This is a war novel, of the sort for which both David Weber and John Ringo are already known; it's also a coming-of-age novel. Bravo Company is going to have to do considerable fighting to get the Prince safely home; but the Prince is going to have to pull his weight and earn the respect of his troops. Roger's growth through the novel adds some needed depth to what would otherwise be a fairly shallow (if exciting) science fiction adventure.
I feel kind of like Deb English felt last month: I'm not at all sure that this is a good book, but gosh I had fun reading it.
March Upcountry takes Roger and the gang half the way home; the story is continued in March to the Sea, which is now out in hardback (I think). I'll wait for the paperback, but I'll definitely buy it when it comes out.
Oh, and my thanks go to my brother Chuck, who passed this one along to me.
Today was David's fourth soccer game of his first AYSO season, and his team, the Blue Tigers, scored two goals against the Mighty Dragons. These were, I might add, only the second and third goal the Blue Tigers have ever scored, and the only goals of the game. That doesn't mean that the Blue Tigers won--they don't officially keep score in the five-year-old league--but still, there was great rejoicing. We won't talk about the Mighty Dragon's goalie or the fact that David was in a brown study for most of the game.
It was a surprisingly vicious game, the most violent I've seen to date. I don't know who started it, but there were kids falling over each other all over the field. In some cases it was benign--one kid falls, and the next kid, who's really nowhere near him, falls down in sympathy--and in some cases it was accidental, like when one kid went to kick the ball just as the goalie fell on it, and ended up doing a header over the goalie's back. But there was a lot of pushing and shoving going on as well.
David, I'm proud to say, had no part in the pushing and shoving...but given his general air of detachment during much of the game, that's not particularly noteworthy.
I had to come up for a breath of air after reading Stowe so I searched around on the bookshelf for a likely looking mystery. The David Small "Rabbi" series have been around for quite a while and, my friend the local bookstore owner had recommended them to me a while back so I thought, what the hey, I'll give this one a try. Rabbi and detective are two words I normally don’t associate in the same thought so if detectives have a "gimmick" and they usually do, then this sounded at least unique.
Rabbi Small is a young rabbinical scholar serving as Rabbi to a small congregation in Barnard Crossings, a small town in Massachusetts. The synagogue is fairly new and serves Orthodox, Reform and Conservative believers, giving Rabbi Small a thin line to tread when dealing with the politics of the congregation. On the eve of Yom Kippur, a man is found dead in his garage of carbon monoxide poisoning. His wife, a Gentile, wants him buried in the Jewish cemetery with Jewish rights since he had been raised a Jew. The police have ruled it accidental death due to the alcohol content of his blood, but the insurance company comes sniffing around making noises about suicide and the suicide clause in his policy. And if he had killed himself, his burial in the Jewish cemetery would make the rest of the land "unclean" which really ticks off an elderly Orthodox Jew who's wife is buried there and who is also about to donate a pile of money for a new chapel addition to the synagogue. It gets much more convoluted and complex from there but the upshot is that Rabbi Small must figure out if it was suicide, accidental death or murder. And he uses Talmudic logic to work his way thru the puzzle.
I whipped right thru this one. The reading is easy and the story moves along fast enough to keep the pages turning without losing any detail in the process. I found the details about the Jewish faith and customs to be interesting as well and was amused to find that Synagogue politics and Church politics, as depicted by Trollope, are not all that different. I may have to look for more of these to keep on hand when I need a good, light book.
I didn't post anything yesterday because I was watching Monsters, Inc. with Jane instead. It was delightful the first time I saw it, by myself last December, and it was delightful the second time I saw it, with my boy David, also last December, and it was delightful this time on DVD, even if the screen was too small.
The more I consider how much time George Lucas has spent on digital graphics in the last two Star Wars movies, and to such little effect, the more impressed I am with Pixar. Their technology is just as cutting edge, and yet they never forget that the story comes first. And they consistently do an outstanding job.
This is the story of a young nobleman named Andrej Koscuisko. He's a member of the nobility on one of the planets of a star empire called the Jurisdiction. As the name implies, power in the Jurisdiction is held by the judiciary rather than by an executive or legislative body. The Bench's decisions are enforced by the Fleet. Trial for criminal wrong-doing is by inquisition, accompanied by torture; the point of the torture is twofold, to elicit confessions and to deter other criminals. As a result, the Jurisdiction is always in need of skilled inquisitors.
Due to the practical difficulties involved in using torture as a way of gathering information, it's required that all inquisitors have medical training. It so happens that our hero recently graduated first in his class from the best medical school in the Jurisdiction. His father (for reasons that are never explained) has insisted that he go to Fleet Medical Orientation Station, there to learn how to be an inquisitor/torturer. The book covers the time he spends in training.
I have mixed feelings about this book. It kept me reading, and there are many interesting, well-drawn characters; Andrej's personal development through the course of the book is particularly well described.
But.... there are many extremely unpleasant scenes. This is not a book for the squeamish. Only my concern for the characters kept me reading.
But.... The folks in charge of the Orientation Station are portrayed as being kind, thorough, decent men and women who truly care about their charges, low and high...and yet they have dedicated their lives to training torturers. Why?
But.... after chapters of extremely painful material, the book just kind of ends. There's no satisfactory resolution; young Andrej simply goes off to be a torturer.
In short, I fail to see the point of this book. It was undeniably interesting, but after putting up with all the pain I had hoped for a better payoff. Matthews is an author to watch, but I can't recommend this particular book. Unless, that is, you like to read detailed descriptions of blood and gore.
This is the other early Heinlein novel I picked up for this trip. It's one of Heinlein's so-called "juveniles", and I can barely remember having tried to read it when I was eleven or twelve. The hero is a school kid named Jimmy Marlowe; he gets treated very badly by the school's headmaster, and I found it so unpleasant that I put the book down and never picked it back up again.
The book is both better plotted and less inclined to lecture than Beyond This Horizon, which was written seven years earlier; still, I found it less satisfying. I don't think it's just because it's a juvenile, either, as many of Heinlein's juveniles are first rate. Perhaps the editor's hand was a little heavier on this one.
All-in-all, I found it interesting mostly as a precursor to Stranger in a Strange Land. I don't believe that it's set in precisely the same universe, but the Martians we see only from afar in Stranger in a Strange Land are clearly very much like the ones we meet up close in Red Planet. It was interesting to get a closer look at them.
I tend to enjoy long series of novels with complex plots and varied characters. Dorothy Dunnett and Sharon K. Penman's historical series are two examples. But 19th century British literature is also full of long, complex books that can totally wrap themselves around my imagination and allow me to live in the story while it lasts. This novel is roughly 900 pages long. It ties together the previous novels in the series so tightly that if you haven't read them you will miss much of the richness of the story and the subtle references made to the past. It's long and involved and very Victorian.
With that said, I barely could put it down long enough to eat or get some sleep. The essential storyline revolves around Rev. Josiah Crawley's indictment on theft charges for allegedly stealing a check and using it to pay off bills. Crawley is a perpetual curate in a Hogglestock, a small village on the periphery of Barsetshire. He and his wife and kids are near starvation and crushed under the shame of poverty--shame that is made much, much worse by the fact that he was raised a gentleman and is highly educated. But he has a fatal flaw. His gentleman's pride makes him refuse any help and his personality is so prickly with it that he puts off anyone wanting to help him. He even refuses a lawyer for the trial since he doesnÂ’t have the cash to pay for one and won't take the charity of his friends. And he has become depressed to the point of being nearly psychotic.
That's the skeleton that Trollope fleshes out with the love story of Grace Crawley and Henry Grantly, the adventures of Conroy Dalrymple and Clara Van Siever, the broken romance of Lily Dale and Johnny Eames and the marital relationships of Archdeacon Grantly and his wife and Bishop Proudie and his wife. Mrs. Proudie is absolutely the best female character I have read in a long time. She's an interfering, prideful, domineering, sneaky woman who so totally overwhelms her husband that she, in fact, is the real Bishop of Barsetshire and he only a figurehead. Everyone, including her husband, hates her with a passion. I did too. Her fate in the end is wonderfully apt. Trollope puts some hysterically funny episodes in this novel, including a scene where Johnny Eames, a minor character, has to escape the clutches of an admiring woman on the make for a husband by crawling out a window because her mother has locked him in. But when Trollope made Mrs. Proudie, he pulled out all the stops.
This is a heavily-edited collection of O'Rourke's columns over the last five or so years; the conceit is that he's pontificating to the various folks who happen to pass through his house, and they get to make smart-aleck remarks back at him. It works fairly well, and the material is typical P.J.: serious subjects treated humorously, irreverently and sometimes profanely--but only after considerable thought. He's undeniably flippant, but it's still Humor from Knowledge rather than Humor from Ignorance. It's funny, thought-provoking, and occasionally chilling, as when he says, "Smoking crack is a way for people who couldn't afford college to study the works of Charles Darwin."
The only discordant note isn't really O'Rourke's fault. The essays span the end of Clinton's presidency and the beginning of Bush's, but the book was published prior to 9/11/2001. As a result, he spends a certain amount of time fulminating about topics that no longer seem quite so important, and ignoring others that now seem crucial.
But anyway, I liked it.
I was scrounging around the local Borders for books to take with me on my trip, and found a couple of old Heinlein titles I'd never previously read. I picked up this one when I got through security at the airport, and finished it about two hours later, just before it was time to board the airplane to Seattle.
I enjoyed it, but, bluntly, this isn't Heinlein's best work. The plot meanders here and there; the real climax of the book occurs about two-thirds of the way through, and the material after that just goes on to the end of the book without any real action.
On top of that, the book's dated, and not in a good way. The book's about a future utopia in which economics and gene selection are solved problems. There are lengthy lectures about Mendelian genetics, mostly stuff I learned in elementary school, which were probably interesting to science-fiction fans in 1942 but which I found merely tedious. Then there's the unintentionally funny scene in which a mathematician balances the national economy perfectly (something which probably isn't even possible) using a mechanical computer made up of rods and cams.
But even Jove nods, and this was one of Heinlein's earliest novels; and it nicely filled the two hours I sat in the terminal at Burbank airport.
There was one interesting plot device: nearly everyone in this Utopia (well, all the men anyway--it was 1942) carries a sidearm. As Heinlein puts it, an armed society is a polite society. When you know that being rude can get you challenged to a duel and possibly killed, you're unlikely to be rude. I bring this up because one of my friends keeps making the same point over lunch, if not as stylishly. (He knows who he is....)
Yesterday was a long day, spent mostly at airports and on airplanes. The final session of the Tcl conference was yesterday morning, and it was the best so far; Kevin Kenny presented a particularly good paper on optimizing Tcl code. Then Michael Cleverly and I and the big guy from Washington D.C. whose name completely eludes me had lunch at the McDonalds at the Pacific Center Mall, and went off to Vancouver Airport.
You can fly from Vancouver to a number of U.S. cities, so to make things easier you go through American customs in Vancouver instead of at your destination. This is nice, as it gets it out of the way when you're not in a rush, i.e., when changing planes in Portland. On the other hand, once you check in you're stuck in a tiny little gate area without many amenities. As I'd gotten to the airport well in advance of my flight on the theory that I'd rather spend my time walking about the airport than walking about Vancouver with a heavy suitcase, this was an unpleasant discovery. On top of that, all of the electrical outlets were dead, so I couldn't even pass the time writing weblog entries on my laptop.
But I'm home now, and I can honestly say that all of the airport security people I encountered, both coming and going, were polite, efficient, and no more intrusive than necessary. And, shower curtains to the side, the Crowne Plaza Hotel Georgia was an extremely pleasant place to stay.
Actually, I've been posting all week, I just couldn't upload the posts. You can scroll down...or, if you'd like to read things in order, you can jump to the archive page for the first page in the set and start reading from there.
This is simply the funniest thing I've encountered in years. I tried--tried--to read bits of it to Jane at the bookstore and nearly busted a gut. I literally had to stop and lean on the the bookshelves and catch my breath.
As the story goes, in 1962 Lileks' mom was given a cookbook entitled Specialties of the House; it was a product of the North Dakota State Durum Wheat Commission. His mom wisely consigned it to a remote closet where Lileks himself found it 1996 and was astounded by the nauseating pictures and absurd recipes. The Gallery of Regrettable Food is the result.
It's not, as you might think, a compendium of food which was once popular and is now frowned on; rather, it's about food which was never appetizing at any time, and recipes that no one with any sense ever made. It's a collection of photographs, graphics, and copy from cookbooks of the last century, along with Lilek's own snide (and often distressingly funny) remarks.
Learn how Spry shortening makes everything better, and how to use 7-Up to brighten up your casseroles. Read about the dark side of jello molds and appetizers and the Man who Hated His Spinach. But perhaps not just before dinner.
You can get some highlights of the book at lileks.com.
This is, of course, Keillor's ode to Jesse (The Body) Ventura, and to my surprise (given the public acrimony between the two men) it's not nearly as mean-spirited as I expected. To be truly mean-spirited, a work of satire needs to hew a little closer to the truth than this one does.
At least, if the Jesse Ventura's life was anything like Jimmy Valente's, the world is a much strange place than I thought.
So much for satire; so how was it as a book? If you're a Keillor fan you've probably already read it, and if you're not a Keillor fan, there's probably not much point. It's an extended yarn of the kind he likes to spin once in a while, it's incredibly silly, and it kept me reading until the end. I laughed every so often. But Lake Wobegon Days it ain't.
The rest of yesterday went pretty well, all things considered, though I had a hard time staying awake for all of it. Between the last paper and the conference dinner I walked a couple of blocks to "London Drugs", where I got some more Tylenol and cough syrup. With their help I stuck out last night's Birds-of-a-Feather sessions and finally crawled into bed about 11 PM. I felt a lot better this morning, if not yet 100%. The shower curtain and I agreed to disagree.
We had six more papers today, and impromptu "Works In Progress" talks (10 minutes each) and "Application Show and Tell" talks (15 minutes each). The "Works in Progress" sign-up list was looking pretty empty this morning, so I signed up to talk about Snit for 10 minutes and whipped up a little presentation in Notebook.
All I've got tonight is another couple of Birds-of-a-Feather sessions; then some more papers tomorrow, and then I fly home.
I let the shower curtain win this morning, as it was too much effort to fight with it. I could tell when I woke up that I was coming down with a cold, and so my first act after showering and dressing was to buy some Tylenol and cough drops at the gift shop in the lobby. The morning session of the conference was a bit of a trial.
I don't want to give the wrong impression, though. Despite ill-timed colds and overly friendly shower curtains I'm having a ball. It's neat to get a chance to meet people I've hitherto known only by name.
This is my second Tcl conference; the previous one was five years ago, in 1997, when I was just getting started with Tcl and no one present had any reason to know who I was. This time it's been very different. I'm a relatively small fish in the Tcl pond, but I'm definitely a resident. Since 1997 I've written some Tcl tutorials that have proved popular, and a couple of open source software packages that use Tcl; on top of that I wrote a paper for this conference ("Automated Testing of the Deep Space Network's Uplink Subsystem", don't ask unless you really want to know). I really haven't had to worry much about introducing myself to anybody this time around.
I presented my paper this morning, and apparently I was lucid despite being mostly on autopilot. When I know a topic backwards and forwards you can just wind me up and I can expound at length (Jane can testify to this), and it probably saved me. I just hope I'm not too dopey the rest of the day.
The shower curtain won another round this morning. I thought that maybe I had it licked. It's one of those setups with two curtains, a plastic inner curtain and a separate outer curtain for looks. I thought that if I adjusted the outer curtain so that it no longer dangled into the shower that maybe the inner curtain wouldn't billow quite so much. And I was right. The billowing was definitely less pronounced.
But because the outer curtain didn't hang fully in the shower, I wasn't able to close the inner curtain quite all of the way. And so when I pulled the curtain aside, I found a wet bath mat and a puddle extending half way across the bathroom floor. I had to pull down one of the unused bath towels to mop it all up. And then, of course, as the towel had been used to wipe the floor and moreover was sopping wet, there was no way I was going to hang it up on the towel bar and use it again tomorrow so I had to leave it on the floor like a slob, well aware that the hotel staff were going to have to waste water washing it.
Other than that, it's been a good day. There was another Tcl/XML tutorial in the morning and a Tcl/database tutorial in the afternoon, and I spent a good bit of time chatting with other attendees in the hall and wandering about the immediate vicinity of the hotel.
After the tutorials were over, Michael Cleverly and I wandered over to the nearest decent bookstore (The Granville Bookstore, at 850 Granville--about three blocks from the hotel) where I found a Sharyn McCrumb novel I'd not read, and a biography of Sir Richard Burton. That's Sir Richard Burton the Victorian explorer and adventurer, not Sir Richard Burton the actor. More about him when I've read the book.
On the way back we were accosted by a short, seedy, bearded fellow who clearly wanted some money from us but seemed to think it was necessary to give us value for money by explaining why he was down on his luck. During the brief time we spoke to him, we discovered that he was a singer and comedian, a criminal, and had boxed professionally for many years--had trained under a famous heavyweight boxer. And he told us about the time he visited Los Angeles, went "down town" (which could mean any number of places), and found himself in a bar in a heavily black part of town, where he stayed until midnight when (fortunately for him) one of the locals escorted him to the bus stop.
At that point we gave him our change and left him to his own devices.
Tonight is the conference reception at ActiveState. ActiveState is the company that's currently sponsoring Tcl open source development (and this conference); it's about two and a half blocks from here, across the street from the local McDonalds. Should be fun.
I've discovered that I can't, in fact, dial in to Earthlink from up here in Canada; the local dialup won't accept my password. So I'll keep writing 'em, but they'll all get uploaded to the server at once when I get home.
Hanging from the towelbar in the bathroom of my hotel room is a paper card imploring me to reuse my towels. It's a water conservation thing, apparently, and I can readily believe that they are serious about it. I knew they were serious from the moment I stepped into the shower this morning.
Don't get me wrong--it's an attractive shower. Green marble tiles on the floor, white marble on the walls, and yards of plate glass, and you could eat off of it, it's that clean. The water pressure is no worse than usual. No, their fiendish plot doesn't become clear until you step into the shower, and you realize that there's no room to move. More than that, it has one of those shower curtains that like to billow into the shower and make love to you while you're trying to wash. This is less pleasant than it sounds.
The card ends with a fiendish twist of the knife: "Please hang up towels if you wish to participate in the program--if not, simply leave them on the floor." That's right--if I'm so abandoned as to willingly waste water, I might as well break my poor mother's heart by being a slob, too. I don't think so.
After the shower, the rest of the day went pretty well: Two tutorials on Tcl's XML processing libraries, and some good conversations with other folks at the conference. I'm back in my room again this evening instead of being social, which seems a little silly...but there's a reception scheduled tomorrow evening, and Wednesday and Thursday evenings there will be "Birds-of-a-Feather" sessions until nearly midnight. I think I'm wise to rest while I can.
I am currently ensconced in a nice room at the Crown Plaza Hotel Georgia in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. It's not very large, but it's got a window (that opens!) overlooking the downtown street scene, and if I sit in the one reasonably comfortable chair and put my feet up on the bed I can look out on the street as I type. There's an upscale mall next door (translation--no book stores) and an art museum across the street with a Georgia O'Keefe/Diego Rivera/Frida Kahlo exhibit that ran from July 15th until precisely eleven minutes ago. I guess I won't be seeing it. I did manage to find a bookstore on the other side of the mall, but it was one of those remainder stores. I got a copy of The Pickwick Papers to read during dinner.
The voyage here from Los Angeles was less unpleasant than I expected. Except that I had to take my laptop out of its case and put it in a large plastic bin with my wallet, keys, and so forth, the security check-in wasn't much different than I'd encountered pre-9/11. Of course, I was at a small airport at 8 AM on a Sunday morning. It wasn't conspicuously crowded. The flight to Seattle was uncrowded, as was the hop from Seattle to Vancouver. The Airporter bus brought me straight to this hotel, and now here I am with nothing much to do until registration opens for my conference tomorrow morning at 8 AM.
Update: Score one for terminal stodginess. It has started to rain; if I were more adventurous I'd be out in it. And I'm a Southern California kid--I didn't bring an umbrella.
It was undoubtedly a dimwitted thing to do, but I began posting to this web log just half a week before leaving on a week-long business trip. I might post some more today, and I might not; if not, see you on the 21st!
A couple of months ago I read van de Wetering's Amsterdam Cops mystery The Streetbird, and found it to be very strange indeed. My correspondent assured me that most of the books in the series were not quite that peculiar, so I ventured to try him again.
Hard Rain follows after The Streetbird, possibly immediately after, and involves a crisis in the Amsterdam police department. The old Chief Constable (equivalent to our Chief of Police) has retired, and his successor is incompetent at best, and probably crooked with it. His appointments and personnel transfers have been in keeping with this.
When the bad cops come in, the good cops have to be disposed of, naturally; in this case that means our heroes Grijpstra, de Gier, Cardozo, and their boss the commissaris (that's his rank; we never learn his full name, though his wife calls him Jan). So the commissaris is being investigated for corruption, murder cases are being closed improperly, cops are being paid off, and behind much of it is a crook who was once the commissaris' boyhood friend.
Hard Rain still has much of the ethereal, philosophical, whimsical atmosphere of The Streetbird; if you're looking for gritty, hardboiled police procedurals, this isn't the place. Although, that might be a misleading statement--I don't want to leave the impression that van de Wetering's Amsterdam is a suburb of Disneyland, either. The city is rife with drugs, prostitutes, and murder--but the writing is somehow detached from it all.
I read the book with interest, but I'm not at all sure whether or not I liked it.
My five-year-old just showed me a fortress he'd made out of Lego Bricks. "It's for killing good guys!" he said. "Good guys? I'd rather it was for killing bad guys," I said. In his most crushing voice: "Dad, it's just a Lego toy."
Back in the days when I read rec.arts.sf.written (the USENET science fiction news Starship Troopers would trigger a major battle of words. One can (a little unfairly) state the political philosophy of the book in one sentence: only those who have shown that they are willing to put their nation's good before their own good through military service should be entrusted with the right to vote.
This led to endless discussion as to whether Heinlein was right or wrong, and little of it was to the point, which is this: Heinlein wanted to write a coming-of-age story about a spoiled rich kid who learns discipline, maturity, and responsibility through military service. He needed a world in which such a kid might reasonably choose to enlist without being drafted, and without the threat of war (the war begins after Johnny Rico enlists) and so he needed a carrot to entice Johnny and his peers into taking the oath. In Johnny's case he provides two: the franchise, and a beautiful young lady of Johnny's acquaintance who chooses to enlist at the same time (she eventually becomes a pilot). Callow youth that Johnny is, it's the desire to impress the girl that really does the trick.
All else follows from that. Having created this world, Heinlein needed to justify it--to provide verysmellitude as Michael Cantrip would say-- and he does this through the courses in "History and Moral Philosophy" that Johnny is made to take. Heinlein was fascinated by ethics, and he loved to play with ideas. To find out what he really thought about these matters, one would have to look elsewhere.
But although the ethical side is interesting (and, in some cases, compelling), it's not the heart of the book. This is a boot camp story; it's a trial by fire story; it's an adventure story. It's the story of a kid getting over himself and getting on with the job--"getting shut of doing things rather more or less". Plus it's got some really cool gadgets. Powered armor has become a stock prop these days, but I was blown away by the idea when I first read it. So what's not to like?
Or, why they are confiscating nail clippers at the airport: The Chinese have a long history of building walls. The first set was built of rammed earth by the near-legendary Emperor Qin, first emperor of China; the last set, the Great Wall of China, was built of stone over a thousand years later by the emperors of the Qing dynasty. In every case the walls had the same purpose: to keep the barbarians in their place. So prevalent has wall-building been in Chinese history that some claim that it's an innate tendency of the Chinese mind. In fact, nothing could be further from the case.
Let's start with the barbarians: the nomadic Mongol tribesman of the northwestern steppes. We think of nomads as being rootless wanderers, independent and fierce, needing nothing of civilization, and to some extent that's true. Sure they were born on horseback. Sure they could ride all day without tiring. Sure they could use a slab of meat as a saddle and grill it on a hot iron plate for dinner. But where did they get that hot iron plate?
It turns out that even barbarian nomads have some use for the things of civilization. And realistically they have just two ways of acquiring them. They can trade for them; or they can raid for them. Despite their reputation for fierceness, the Mongols often preferred trading to raiding; it was less hazardous. But often they weren't given the choice, and therein hangs the tale.
Because of the geography of China's northwestern frontier, the nomads remained a permanent threat which every emperor in every dynasty had to deal with one way or another (save possibly the Yuan--that's when ol' Genghis climbed onto the throne). And always his advisors were divided into two factions: those who favored trading with the nomads, thus creating a more stable, settled border, and those who thought that treating with barbarians was beneath the Emperor's dignity. These were usually in favor of military expeditions and attempted genocide.
In some reigns, one voice predominated, and there was peace on the border; in others the battle was carried to the nomads. And then were the reigns in which the two factions were perfectly balanced, and in which neither could put its policies into place. Open battle was two expensive; trade with barbarians too demeaning. And yet the Mongol raids continued. It was necessary that the Emperor do something. It was necessary that the Emperor be seen doing something. And it was at times like this, when something had to be done and nothing useful could be done, that the Emperor ordered the building of walls.
Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of peasants died building those walls; and they offered little protection, for the nomads on their swift ponies were usually quite able to ride around them. But the Emperor had taken action, and that was the important thing.
The need for the Authorities to be seen taking action is hardly unique to the Chinese. It happened all over this country after 9/11/2001. It's still happening at every airport in the land. Every time an airport screener confiscates a pocket knife, a pair of nail clippers or (it happened!) a baby bottle full of breast milk, it's just another brick in that Great Wall. It's not good for much, and it's not all that pretty to look at...but at least the authorities are taking action.
Have a nice flight.
It's not unreasonable to ask why they hate us. But it is unreasonable to assume that it must be our fault.
This is the story of an ordeal--a tale in which physical endurance against the harsh elements and wild beasts is key. Man against his environment. And the thing about ordeal stories is that it takes endurance to read them. I've always liked Cherryh's books, but I've always had to be in the right mood.
The main character, Marak Trin Tain, is a great warrior. His world, a desert planet settled by humans in the distant past, is but sparsely populated. There are the tribes, nomads who live in the deep desert; the villages, each centered around its spring; and the holy city of Oburan, where dwells the Ila and her ministers amid riches of water. The Ila, somehow, is immortal; she is apparently one of the "first descended" to this planet, and she has made it and its people in her image.
Until recently, Marak Trin Tain has been leading his father's men in rebellion against the Ila. The rebellion failed, and to buy peace his father has sold him to the Ila. He is taken to Oburan with one thought in his heart: to kill the Ila. He doesn't manage it, of course; it would be a short book if he did. Instead, she sends him to seek out the source of the Madness that has come upon many of the people of the Ila's world--a madness that has come upon Marak himself, and which draws him to the east.
And then the ordeal begins.
Cherryh has crafted an interesting world with a unique history, and a unique premise--at least, I've not encountered it before. A culture which possesses the secrets of both nanotechnology and genetics may well use them to make war. And the fiercest battles may not take place across nations or continents, but instead within the confines of a single human body.
I was in the right mood; I liked it. And it's the beginning of a series (though it stands alone perfectly well), so I'm looking forward to the next book.
This is one of those books that everyone knows about and has heard of but no one actually reads anymore. It was so wildly popular in its day that the reputation and ripoffs of the book have become the accepted story line and the text itself is hardly known. And it's the book that supposedly started the Civil War, even though it was published in 1852, years before the actual conflict began. Which is unfortunate, because it's a good story with exciting passages, interesting characters and plot twists that you just can't believe are happening. The scene where Eliza escapes the slave hunters by jumping from ice floe to ice floe over the Ohio river, clutching her baby, is so dramatic I had to put the book down for a while. And the final scene with Uncle Tom is so sad it was unbelievable that it was actually happening. What amazes me is that I was able to get a degree in literature from a major university and was never required to read it in a single course. What a pity.
The basic story is about Uncle Tom, a deeply religious black slave who is sold away from his wife and young children when his owner falls into debt. Uncle Tom is not a shambling, "aw shucks massa" character but rather a Christ figure whose horrible fate is caused by the accepted institutions and laws of the land. He's a young, intelligent man with more conscience and grace than any of the white people in the book.
That's what I never realized about the book. Stowe is writing a book for and about white people and their own rationalizations that allowed slavery to continue and even be politically tolerated by the non-slave holding North. Uncle Tom and the other black characters in the book are a mirror that reflected back on the white readers their own prejudices. They are archetypes, not real people. Over time the image has changed and "Uncle Tom" has denigrated to an epithet. If it is keeping people from the book, that is a shame.
They say that memory is the first thing to go, but I find that aging is more easily measured by the things that arrive. Like today, when we took delivery of the first reclining chair I have ever personally owned. I've always felt that buying a recliner would be the final step in giving in to couch-potato-hood, a state I find it too easy to enter as it is. But there it is, and here it is. I'm sitting in it as I write. It's a quintessential "daddy chair", a big wingback on stout wooden legs that reclines until it takes up three times as much space. Even Nero Wolfe would be comfortable in this chair.
But the fact that we bought a recliner is nothing next to a more insidious change: we're starting to buy decent furniture. No longer does "furniture shopping" mean picking up a couple of cheap bookcases at Ikea. Instead, it means spending three hours looking at fabric samples and still having to flip a coin to make the final choice.
Of course, I can still remember when furniture shopping meant going to lumberyard to pick up some cinder blocks and particle-board to make bookshelves.