December 31, 2002

Ex Libris Reviews

The January Issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now up.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:07 PM | Comments(0)

December 30, 2002

The Great Purge Continues

I'm still (slowly) going through the book collection; here are some more of the victims.

How to Live with a Neurotic Dog, by Stephen Baker. Funny book; we no longer have a dog.

A Treasury of American Anecdotes, edited by B.A. Botkin. A friend gave me this many years ago, rightly guessing it's something I'd find interesting. Unfortunately, the cover is more interesting than the contents; once was enough.

This is True: Deputy Kills Man With Hammer, by Randy Cassingham. "This is True" was, and perhaps still is, a sort of proto-weblog dealing with odd news items. I bought the book because I used to work with Randy Cassingham.

The Long Valley, by John Steinbeck. I went through almost all of Steinbeck some years ago, and I've concluded that when he's being funny he's really, really good, and when he's being serious, he's really, really serious. This is one of the serious ones.

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, by Joan Ryan. The world remembers Nadia Comeneci, Kim Zmeskal, and Dominique Dawes as truly outstanding gymnasts. They were also the product of a training system that tested hundreds of little girls to physical destruction to produce that one star capable of a perfect 10. This is an expose about that process in elite gymnastics, and the related (though less severe) problem in elite figure skating. I read it with interest when it was new. But it's a little too strident to be pleasant reading (even if the topic lent itself to that); and besides they've adjusted the age limits upwards precisely to discourage this kind of abuse.

Previn, by Helen Drees Ruttencutter. I think we inherited this book from my parents.

Sam Walton: Made in America, by Sam Walton with John Huey. I don't think we bought this one; perhaps it was a gift?

Shakespeare's Insults: Educating Your Wit, by Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen. Some things are simply better in theory than in practice, and this is one of them.

Children First, by Penelope Leach. This book is subtitled, "What our society must do--and is not doing--for our children today." Jane and I will take care of our own children, thank you.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. A lot of people are very fond of this book. I do not understand why. I'll grant you, the writing is good, and there are some funny bits. But on the whole, this is one rollercoaster I think I'll skip next time.

The Citadel of the Autarch, and The Urth of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe. I went through a real Gene Wolfe phase many years ago; it was an era when I confused obscurity with depth. Wolfe is an amazingly gifted writer, but he no longer floats my boat. Plus, these are hardcovers, and they take up too much space.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:19 PM | Comments(0)

Blue at the Mizzen, by Patrick O'Brian

So it ends. After nearly two years, reading approximately one volume a month (and skipping a couple of months), I've finally come to the ultimate conclusion of O'Brian's twenty-volume saga, reading this book for the first time ever just this month. I began it with some trepidation, given that its predecessor was only so-so; some of my fears were justified, but not all.

Jack does a lot of hurrying hither and thither in this book, more or less in clandestine pursuit of Chilean independance from Spain; some of the action is to the point, and some of it seems like filler. Stephen's romance with Christine Wood blossoms; I thought the sequences dealing with that topic were among the best in the book, which surprised me considering the cheap and sleazy way O'Brian got rid of Diana in the previous book.

O'Brian didn't know this was to be his last book; the reports of his death indicated that he was a chapter or two into a new Aubrey/Maturin book, and I think that's just as well. The closing pages of Blue at the Mizzen bring Jack the orders making him Rear Admiral of the Blue; and while Stephen's future with Christine Wood (a woman much more suited to him than Diana ever was) is by no means assured, there are promising signs. As this is the last book, I choose to believe that ultimately they are married, and live happily ever after.

And so they sail off into the sunset. What could be fairer than that?

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:11 PM | Comments(0)

December 29, 2002

Brother Cadfael's Penance, by Ellis Peters

Oddly, this isn't so much a mystery as it is a historical novel pure and simple. Sure, there's a murder...but what there really is, is a complicated political setup involving a civil war, some poignant family connections across the battle lines, and some of Cadfael's own past history. It turns out to be quite a good book, but the initial set up is brutally long, about fifty or so pages, before you can even understand who the players are. I suppose more of them would have been familiar if I'd been reading the series in sequence. Anyway, recommended--but don't think it's a typical Brother Cadfael mystery.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:43 PM | Comments(0)

December 28, 2002

Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett

This tale of Discworld follows shortly after Lords and Ladies and takes Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to Anhk-Morpork (Magrat Garlick is now a Queen rather than a Witch, and is therefore otherwise occupied). They are in pursuit of two things: Agnes (Perdita) Nitt, who might just succeed Magrat as one of the local witches; and the publisher of Nanny's cookbook (a collection of dishes with aphrodisiac properties) which has sold thousands of copies with virtually no recompense to Nanny. But that's only what the book's about; it's not what the book is.

And what the book is, is a parody of that great Broadway Smash of the 1990's, Andrew Lloyd Weber's most overblown production, Phantom of the Opera, a show which I have seen and which I personally cannot abide. (I might perhaps expand on that at a later time). Few of Pratchett's books are so narrowly targetted as this one, but it's very well done, with lots of excellent bits and wonderful lines; plus there are some walk-ons from some of the usual Ankh-Morpork suspects. The opera will never be the same.

Posted by Will Duquette at 12:48 PM | Comments(0)

December 27, 2002

Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett

This book follows directly after Pratchett's Witches Abroad, and concerns what happens after Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick return home. Highest among the scheduled event is the coming Royal Wedding; Magrat and King Verence have had an understanding for some while (if two people who can't talk to each other without getting tongue-tied can be said to have an understanding), and the great day is approaching. But there are troublesome currents among the young girls of Lancre. They are wearing black clothing and white makeup, choosing new names like Diamanda and Perdita (yes, that's right--they're Goths), and taking up the study of magic, much to Granny Weatherwax's disgust.

And to Granny Weatherwax's dismay as well, as it soon becomes clear that only Perdita Nitt (nee Agnes) has any talent in that direction at all. But the leader of the girls has been spending time near the Dancers, a ring of stones on a high meadow. The Dancers guard one of the entrances to Faerie, and Diamanda has been getting her power from the Faerie Queen.

This is not a good thing, for reasons that unfold during the tale. But the important thing to remember is that before J.R.R. Tolkien came along and redefined elvishness for ever, elves were called "the Fair Folks" and "the Lords and Ladies" and such like names for one simple reason--it simply didn't do to make them mad. Or to attract their attention, for that matter.

Along with all of this, you also get choice information about the Stick and Bucket Dance, Ancient Lancre History, what it takes to be the greatest blacksmith in the world, and the farrier's word--that secret word that allows the blacksmith to shoe any horse, no matter how spirited.

On the whole, I'd not say that this one's quite as good as its two predecessors....but I enjoyed it all the same.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:52 PM | Comments(0)

December 26, 2002

A Few More Words About Christmas

For the past couple of years, I've been singing with the praise team at our Church on Sunday mornings.

Looking back at it, I see that that statement doesn't have the air of absurdity on the screen that it has in my mind. Let me explain: I love to sing. I sing wandering about the house, I sing to the kids, I sing to Jane (usually silly made up lyrics to tunes I know). But as it happens, I have very little musical training. I sang in the Glee Club for part of a year when I was in third or fourth grade; I've taken a piano lesson or two; I've taught myself to read music and play the recorder middling well. I've had no training in choral singing whatsoever beyond singing in the congregation on Sundays. I might add, Jane was in choir all the way through Junior College--her best and oldest friends are mostly from those days--so I have some notion of what I'm lacking.

Now, our praise team. Our music director has sung with the a capella group Chanticleer; he also plays a mean piano. Among the other volunteers are folks who play flute, saxophone, cello, and bass professionally. The musicianship of these folks makes my mind boggle--or, more precisely, boggle is just what my mind would do if I had to deal with the changes and complications they take in stride. And then most (probably all) of the other singers have considerably more choral experience than I do.

And I get to sing with these folks! I feel rather like the smoldering wick of Matthew 12:20.

Now, I don't mean to say that I sing badly, so that it's an act of mercy to allow me to sing with the praise team; nor do I mean to say that somehow, miraculously, I sing with such natural talent that I can perform at their level. Frankly, I have no real idea how well I sing. Adequately, apparently. But it's a real blessing for me to be able to sing in church in this way, worshipping God, and nowhere has this been more apparent than this Christmas.

This is the first year since I--

A digression: Jane, David, and James are next door in the bedroom, singing, "No, no, no, no, yes yes, yes yes," to the tune of the Blue Danube Waltz. It's a moment I thought should be remembered.

This is the first time since I began singing with the team that I was available to sing at the Christmas service. It was a big time commitment, as there were lots of rehearsals, but when the service came around, we were good. Our service music is always a mixture of traditional and contemporary styles, and so we began with a traditional reading of "Joy to the World". We followed that with one of my favorites, a song called "The Hands That First Held Mary's Child". It's our music director's arrangement (and I think maybe his words too), to what he calls a "traditional Scottish tune" but which I know as the melody to the Irish song "Star of the County Down". It's got a rhythm that just about picks you up out of your chair. Then we did a rocking, swinging version of "Go Tell It On The Mountain" that begins quietly with a sax solo and grows until by the end the roof is practically coming down. And then a modern arrangement of "Angels We Have Heard On High" with that beautiful "gloria in excelsis". Later we did "What Child Is This", "Silent Night" (never my favorite, but it was still soft and lovely) and then the amazing piece of the night, a Latin seven-part Ave Maria. I sang bass, more or less. I don't know how we pulled it off, but we sounded really good, much better than we ever did in rehearsal. And finally, we ended with an arrangement of Mannheim Steamroller's version of "Deck the Halls".

In short, I spent more time preparing myself for Christmas this year than maybe I ever have; and more of that preparation time in plain worship than I would usually engage in either. And it shows. I can feel it. Christ is more present to me this Christmas than ever before.

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere!
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born!

Again, God bless you and your families during the coming year. Merry Christmas.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:11 PM | Comments(1)

December 25, 2002

Christ Our Lord Is Born Today, Alleluia!

May the Good Lord bless you and keep you and your family in health and happiness during the coming year!

Posted by Will Duquette at 02:20 PM | Comments(0)

December 24, 2002

Sweetness and Light

Jane just made some Christmas cupcakes, because, as she told David, "It's Jesus' birthday."

"How many years old is he?" asked David.

"About two thousand."

His eyes got wide: "Do we have that many candles?"

A few moments later he added, "How do we send a cupcake to Heaven?"

Jane's still wondering what to tell him.

Posted by Will Duquette at 01:44 PM | Comments(0)

The Great Purge

The Great Purge has begun. Moving my study has meant fitting all of our books into less space, which practically speaking means purging the collection of those books we no longer want or need. This is generally a traumatic experience--at least, it was the last time I did it--but time and the presence of three children have changed many things, and perhaps it will be easier this time.

In any event, I decided that I wanted to keep a list of the books I was getting rid of, so that in some future time when I'm looking for them I need not remain in doubt over why I can't find them on the shelves. And given that, I thought it would be fun to list them here, with the reasons why I'm getting rid of them. So here it is, more or less a collection of mini-reviews of books I not only didn't read in the last month, but may have never succeeded in reading ever:

Books I No Longer Want

The Great Ideas, by Mortimer J. Adler. This is an amazing book, a tome among tomes, the product of a truly frightening amount of scholarship and synthesis. I was introduced to it (truly, this is a book that needs an introduction; only the very bold would dare presume to strike up an acquaintance with it without one) by my friend Rick Saenz, a man whose opinions I respect. Alas, when I first attempted to make use of the book to research one of the "Great Ideas", I found that the book is an outstanding soporific, either as reading material or (due it its weight) as a blunt instrument. I think I'll take my ideas a little less highly refined in future.

Windows Millenium: The Missing Manual by David Pogue. I bought this when I got my present laptop with Windows ME pre-installed. Windows ME doesn't come with much of a manual, and I thought this might be helpful. Perhaps it was; I no longer recall. What I do know is that I've not had any reason to refer to it in the last two years.

Philosophical Explanations, by Robert Nozick. Nozick was, so I'm given to understand, one of the great philosophers of our time. I first heard of him when he died some time ago, and was inspired by an article about him to send away for this book. The article described it as playful, whimsical, interesting, a book not just for professional philosophers but for any thinking person. Indeed, one of the blurbs on the back cover says, "It is important for you, whoever you are, to read...this book." I have no idea what the ellipsis in the previous sentence represents, but I suspect that the full sentence was something like the following: "It is important for you, whoever you are, to read books of all kinds, except for maybe this book.

To be fair, I got through maybe a hundred pages of this difficult and abstruse book, and on that evidence I must say that Nozick was able to write with clarity and humor about difficult metaphysical problems, with no detail lost, no matter how small. But following him through the logic was exhausting, and I finally was forced to confess that I had far less interest in the questions he was addressing than he did.

Our Southern Highlanders, by Horace Kephart. I picked up this book six or seven years ago when a good friend of ours (now, alas, deceased) was doing a Great Purge of her own. Since then I've looked at it on the shelf any number of times without the slightest temptation to open it and read its contents.

XML Elements of Style, by Simon St. Laurent. XML is something every technogeek needs to be familiar with these days; I've tried to make use of it several times, only to founder on the same rock--what I've been doing instead of XML has been easier and more convenient for me. In any event, this book didn't add notably to my understanding.

Politics in the Ancient World, by M.I. Finley. Cambridge University Press has an imprint called "Canto", which they use for books they think might reach a wider audience. I've bought quite a few of them now, and some of them are very good. This one, however, was too dry for words. As a history buff and as a sometimes-aspiring author, I thought a discussion of how the Greek city-states governed themselves would be interesting, enlightening, and stimulating: good source material for some future novel. And perhaps it could, in theory: but in practice I was disappointed.

The Penguin Guide to Ancient Egypt, by W.J. Murname. I got this after reading a spate of books set in Egypt ancient and modern. I thought it might lend some perspective. In practice, it sat on the shelf unregarded.

Undaunted Courage, by Stephen E. Ambrose. This book details the Lewis and Clarke expedition, and was quite popular a few years ago. I've read it. I've grasped the reasons for the expedition, which Ambrose explains cogently; these remain in my mind. For the rest, was interesting when I read it, but I can't picture myself reading it again.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, by Marcus Rediker. This is another book from Cambridge University Press's "Canto" imprint, and another that I shall discard without dismay. It's a history of merchant seaman, pirates, and the Anglo-American maritime world in the first have of the seventeenth century, an area to which I was led by my interest in Patrick O'Brian's sea stories. And reading the back cover, I can see why it sounded interesting. And there was some interesting stuff in it, but over the whole thing is cast the awful pall of Marxist Scholarship. Unfortunately the reddish tinge obscured more than it revealed. So long, Mr. Rediker.

The Naval War of 1812, by Theodore Roosevelt. Here's a book I do give up reluctantly, but only because I wish it were a different book. As a young man, Roosevelt (yes, that Theodore Roosevelt) discovered that all of the chief books about the War of 1812 were written by the British, and were horribly biased. In response he wrote a fair, balanced work, demolishing the bias of those who preceded him. It's apparently now considered "the" book on the subject by scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. It is also astonishingly dry for a book about war at sea. Sigh.

The Temple and the Lodge, by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. I reviewed this a year or so ago; you can find the review using the search box if you like. This is a book that attempts to link the Knights Templar with the Masons. It has some interesting things in it, but some of the statements strike me as being so credulous, so filled with wishful thinking, that I'm at a loss to know what part of it I can trust and what part I can't.

The Penguin Who's Who in the Ancient World, by Betty Radice. Again, this is reference book I bought thinking I might find it helpful. In the six or seven years since I bought it, I've never referred to it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 12:41 PM | Comments(0)

December 23, 2002

Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett

One of the main themes of Pratchett's Discworld books, especially the earlier books, is the power of stories. On the Disc, the power of the Law of Narrative Causality is nearly absolute. One noted victim was the evil witch Black Aliss, who took to turning princes into gingerbread and building houses out of frogs. She met her demise at the hands of a pair of young children she was planning to have for supper. It's dangerous to get too cozy with stories.

In the present book, which follows directly after Wyrd Sisters, Magrat Garlick inherits the fairy godmothership for a young girl named Ella, who lives in the far off exotic city of Genua. So happens Ella has two fairy godmothers, and the other one is determined that Ella, though oppressed by two evil step-sisters, will nevertheless wed the handsome prince and live happily ever after--no matter how many lives she has to torque out of shape in the process.

With the godmother's wand, Magrat inherits the injunction not to allow Ella to marry the prince, and in no case to let Granny Weatherwax or Nanny Ogg to help her with the situation. Naturally the older witches join in (which was rather the idea of the prohibition), and the three witches are off to "Foreign Parts". What follows is a hugely entertaining tale in which Pratchett rings the changes on just about every fairy tale you can imagine. It also explains New Orleans cookery.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:07 PM | Comments(0)

Politeness In All Things

We are raising very polite children, apparently. Yesterday David and James were playing with David's Star Wars Lego toys, and in between such comments as "We are evil!" (said in a low, gutteral voice), "I put the girl in the dungeon with the ogre." and "Where is the girl?" "The girl is in the box." were occasional statements like, "Thank you, Darth Vader," and "That was very nice of you, Darth Vader," (invariably said in a polite, sincere tone).

I suppose that if my two boys are feeding imaginary girls to imaginary ogres while pretending to be Darth Vader, I can at least be glad that they are polite while they do it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:42 PM | Comments(0)

December 21, 2002

The Big Move Has Begun

A couple of years ago, we turned the spare bedroom into my study. It was outstanding: plenty of bookshelves, a big comfy chair with an ottoman, a big desk, a phone, and a bed for taking a nap. Maybe a month later, we found that our little girl Anne was on the way, and that my study's days were numbered. Today, finally, the process of moving me out began.

There's actually no rush on Anne's part--she's been sleeping in a playpen in the living room for the last six months or so, her choice. (It's a long story.) But two things come together this week--time off work for me, and an impending visit from an old friend and his family. They will be staying with us for a week, and they need a place to sleep. My study doubles as the guest room--but being without the things in my study for a week would be difficult. So we're making virtue of necessity and taking the time to move most of the stuff before they arrive.

On top of that, we're getting rid of lots of stuff. I've dropped off four big bags of stuff at the local Good Will, and Jane's about to drop off three bags of books at the public library. And there's more to come, I feel sure.

Posted by Will Duquette at 02:56 PM | Comments(0)

December 20, 2002

Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett

This book continues the tale of Sam Vimes, Carrot, and the rest of the watch. As before there's a plot to give Ankh-Morpork a king rather than a Patrician--but this time the powers who would be behind the throne have realized that Carrot, rightful heir though he may be, has no interest in listening to them. Consequently, they are carefully researching (and constructing a lineage) for a most unlikely fellow. Meanwhile, Vimes and his men are trying to track down a fiendish killer--who just might be a golem.

This isn't one of Pratchett's better books, though it's nevertheless entertaining; I especially liked the bits about the consequences of painting coats of arms from live models.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:33 PM | Comments(0)

December 19, 2002

By The Great Horn Spoon!, by Sid Fleischman

Now this is an outstanding book.

I first read this, very reluctantly, when I was in third or fourth grade, at my teacher's suggestion. I went on to read it over and over, and then eventually I forgot about it. And then the other day, when I was at the bookstore looking for good books to read aloud to David at bedtime I happened upon it. Renewing my acquaintance with it has been one of the most pleasant aspects of the past couple of weeks.

Oh, and Dave liked it, too.

It's January, 1849. Young Jack's parents are dead; he and his two sisters have been living in the old family home in Boston with Aunt Arabella, and the butler, whose name is Praiseworthy. The family money has run out, and in less than a year Aunt Arabella will have to sell the house. Gold has been discovered in California, and Jack resolves to run away to the gold fields, strike it rich, and return with his fortune to save the family home. Praiseworthy discovers the scheme, of course--and thinks it an excellent plan. As the book opens, Praiseworthy and Jack are stowaways on the good ship Lady Wilma, en route to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn.

That's the premise; how they get to California and the gold fields, and what happens after, is the story. I won't spoil it by telling it all here. I'll just say that Fleischman is an outstanding story teller, and his prose is a joy to read aloud. More than that, without any lecturing he manages not only to tell Jack and Praiseworthy's story, but also to let us in on quite of bit of historical information about the Gold Rush, and the gold camps, and how gold mining was done. I learned a lot of what I know about the Gold Rush from this book, and while I've added to that information in the years since, the book is still striking in its accuracy. (For example--I've been to several of the gold towns Jack and Praiseworthy visit.)

This is a kid's book, sure. But if you're planning a trip to California's Gold Country you could pick a worse introduction. And even if you're not, it makes a heck of a good yarn no matter how old you are.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:17 PM | Comments(0)

December 18, 2002

Men At Arms, by Terry Pratchett

This one picks up some time after the end of Guards, Guards. Sam Vimes, still Captain of the Night Watch, is also engaged to marry Lady Sybil Ramkin, dragon-fancier and one of the wealthiest people in Ankh-Morpork. Carrot, watchman and rightful king of Ankh-Morpork, is now a corporal, and has come to know the city very well. This is a good thing, as the steady influx of trolls and dwarves to the city is fueling an equally steady rise in ethnic violence. The Patrician, Lord Vetinari, has responded by insisting that the Night Watch take on some new recruits: a troll, a dwarf, and beautiful woman who's also--but that's getting ahead of things.

One of the old writers of hardboiled detective novels--Raymond Chandler, or maybe Dashiell Hammett--once said that when your plot is stuck, introduce a man with a gun. And that's what Pratchett has done here. There's exactly one gun on the Disc, and it's in the hands of a man who thinks that Ankh-Morpork needs a king again. Will Carrot play along? Therein lies the tale.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:52 PM | Comments(0)

December 16, 2002

What Fun!

It's pouring down rain, and I will shortly be getting in a co-worker's car and driving to beautiful Ft. Irwin, California on a trip to Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex. What fun! :-|

With any luck at all I'll be back tomorrow, though possibly not in time to post anything.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:06 PM | Comments(0)

December 15, 2002

Guards, Guards!, by Terry Pratchett

Having just read about Sam Vimes' earliest days in the watch in Night Watch, I decided that I'd like to go back to the first book Pratchett wrote about Sam Vimes and work my way forward. And that brought me to Guards, Guards!.

When we first see him, Sam's drunk in the gutter. There are two reasons for that; one is that he's normally about two drinks more sober than everyone else, and needs a drink or two just to reach parity. The other is that he's a good copper at heart and there's nothing of any value for him to do but drink. When Lord Vetinari came to power he legalized thievery--chartered an entire Thieves' Guild in fact. The thieves are allowed a certain amount of larceny every year, in return for which they pledge to deal harshly with any unlicensed thieves. More than that, most well-to-do citizens simply pay the Guild a small fee every year, for which they are officially immune from thievery for the year.

So all-in-all, things have been pretty peaceful in Ankh-Morpork, and the Night Watch has become nearly obsolete. Where once it had many watch houses, now there's only one, and that houses only three watchmen. Captain Sam Vimes, Sergeant Fred Colon, and Corporal Nobby Nobbs.

But there are currents of change oozing down the River Ankh. Dwarves and Trolls have been moving to the city in record numbers, along with zombies, vampires, and werewolves. Inter-species violence is on the rise. There will be rioting in the streets if something isn't done.

And then there's an ambitious fool with a plan to give Ankh-Morpork a king again. It's been almost three hundred years since King Lorenzo got a well-deserved axe in the neck, but he had a son who escaped. What's more romantic, more proper, than the notion that the line of kings have bred in hiding all these years, disguised in humble garb, only to come save the city in its hour of need. All that's necessary is to summon a handy dragon to give the city something to be saved from.

And then, and then, there's the Night Watch's first new recruit in ages. Corporal Carrot, the dwarf. At least, he thinks he's a dwarf, although he's well over six feet tall. He was raised by dwarves; they found him when he was a baby in the wreckage of a wagon destroyed by bandits. The people with him were all dead. Hidden in the body of the wagon was a sword. And on Carrot's arm, there's a birthmark in the shape of a crown....

The tone here is entirely different than in Night Watch, which as I've said is hysterically funny and dead serious at the same time. Here Pratchett is simply having fun with the idea of the "City Guard", those poor sods (rather like the Red Shirts in Star Trek) who get called out in every fantasy novel just so they can get killed. And, like many of the Discworld books, Pratchett has a lot of fun with the idea of "narrative causality".

The Disc is a very magical place; it has to be, just to exist. It doesn't have much use for natural laws, but it does have things it uses for natural laws, and one of them is narrative causality--the fact that stories have power, and when a story is happening, certain things just have to happen in a certain way. Thanks to narrative causality, million-to-one shots can be trusted to come up nine times out of ten....

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:46 PM | Comments(0)

December 14, 2002

The Great Race

Last night was movie night at our house. My friend Dave came over to watch "The Great Race", one of my favorite movies of all time, which despite being a movie buff he had somehow never seen. It's only been on TV every year or so for the last couple of decades.

We got a VHS copy of "The Great Race" many years ago, which I watched occasionally; and then when our kids came along they took to it immediately. (Little Dave used to be Professor Fate when he went to bed, with Jane playing the role of Max. Later, when James was older, he got to be Little Professor Fate.) They still watch it occasionally, and I've certainly seen parts of it dozens of times. But it's recently come out on DVD, and last night was the first time I watched the DVD all of the way through.

If anyone tells you that pan-and-scan doesn't make a different, they are lying. The DVD was in the wide-screen letter box format--and the movie looks entirely different. Scenes that used to consist of alternating talking heads are now one long shot. Motions and gags that used to be cut out of the picture are now visible. Of course, on our 24" TV some bits of physical humor are almost too small to be seen. Ah, well.

Posted by Will Duquette at 01:14 PM | Comments(0)

December 12, 2002

Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett

This is Pratchett's latest novel; as usual when a new Discworld book comes out, I commenced to read it to Jane on the way home from the book store. It occupied our evenings quite nicely for the next week or so. It was a delight to read aloud, as is usual, it was sometimes sidesplittingly funny, as is usual, it was a good time all the way around, as is usual.

Sam Vimes is one of Pratchett's ever increasing cast of continuing characters. He first appears in Guards, Guards as the alcoholic Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch. Over the next several books in which he appears, the city grows over more diverse, and Vimes rises in rank. By the time of this book he is Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, and a power in the city. And (though no longer a drunk) still the same hardnosed irascible copper he started out as.

As a thunderstorm brews, Vimes' watchmen (and dwarves, and trolls, etc.) have run a silver-tongued psychopath named Carcer to ground atop the roofs of Unseen University. Vimes himself mounts the dome of the University Library to capture him, just as lightning strikes.

On the Discworld, a lighting strike is always accompanied by a strong magic field. And as anyone familiar with Unseen University can tell you, the last place you'd want to be hit by lightning and the accompanying magic field is any part of the University Library. Both Vimes and Carcer are thrown thirty years into past, into an incredibly busy and fraught week.

It's the week after Vimes first joined the Night Watch. It's the week that Mad Lord Winder's madness reaches its peak. It's a week of revolution in the streets. And thanks to the cheerfully murderous Carcer, one of the most important players during that week is dead-on-arrival to Ankh-Morpork. As Vimes soon discovers, he has to take on the dead man's name and role--or history will be changed, and he'll never get back to his own time.

So much for plot summaries. This book is markedly different than its predecessors. It's still funny, it's still well-written, it's still greatly entertaining--but at the same time, it's also dead serious. It's about cities and civilization, and about making things work; it's about being responsible for your own job and your own patch of ground and insisting that here, at least, Evil Will Not Be Tolerated.

It isn't Pratchett's out-and-out funniest book; but it might well be his best to date.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:31 PM | Comments(0)

December 11, 2002

Look To Windward, by Iain M. Banks

When Neil Madden reviewed Look to Windward last month, I was both pleased and disappointed. Pleased because it meant there was another Banks novel on the horizon; disappointed because I figured he was reading a British edition and that it might be months before it hit the shelves in the U.S. Much to my surprise, I found a copy of it the next time I went the book store.

I won't repeat the plot; Neil covered that in Ex Libris.

This is one of the more accessible Culture novels; and as always the scenery is gorgeous. Banks has an outstanding imagination. The story itself, however, is only so-so; some of his other books (notably The Player of Games) are much better. But I have to admit, the scenery is just about worth the trip. I wish I had Banks' gift for names; the "dirigible behemothaur" just about made my day.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:49 PM | Comments(0)

December 10, 2002

Running the Gauntlet

A while back I talked about playing GAUNTLET: Dark Legacy on our GameCube while my adoring fans, David and James, watch in awe as I slay fierce and evil villains. There have been new developments in the last week or so; Gauntlet is a cooperative game for up to four players. So we got some more controllers, and now David and James will sometimes play along. David's getting pretty good at it, though James idea of how to play is to run headlong into danger, opening as many treasure chests as he can and shrieking with glee when he picks up an object. He's not to clear on how it all works, so on those occasions when his character ("Green Dwarf") survives to the end of level he gives me a big adoring hug and says, "Daddy! You saved me!" (James is three, by the way).

Anyway, today marks a major milestone; my original character, playing alone, completed the last couple of levels, destroying the evil mage Garm and purging the Realms of his evil. David was very impressed. I was perhaps a little dismayed by the final statistics; over the last four of five months, I've spent almost 48 hours getting to the conclusion. And that doesn't count the time spent playing with the boys. If nothing else, I can honestly say I've gotten my money's worth.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:52 PM | Comments(0)

December 09, 2002

Lilo and Stitch

Lilo and Stitch came out on DVD last week, and when I got home from work on Friday we all (all five of us) sat down to watch it. 'Twas wonderful, I enjoyed it just as much as I did in the theater; I think it's the best thing Disney has done in years (the Pixar films not included).

If you've not seen it, Lilo and Stitch is the story of Stitch, an alien creature genetically engineered to be incredibly smart, amazingly destructive, and effectively indestructible. He's exiled by the Galactic Council, but escapes, ending up crashlanding on the island of Kuaui. Here he meets Lilo, a little girl who is also amazingly destructive, though in her case it's all down to nurture rather than nature. Lilo's parents died in a car crash when she was small, leaving her in the care of her older sister Nani. Nani means well, but things are not going at all well when Stitch comes into their lives, and with his destructive tendencies, they only become worse. Lilo and Stitch together wreak more havoc (almost all of it unintentional) than either do apart--they make a good team.

But here's the point I really like. Stitch is supposed to be smart--and he is. He soon realizes that's there's no future in being destructive. He's all alone; there are no others like him. If he wants to belong somewhere, his best bet is to make things work with Nani and Lilo, and eventually he does. This is a movie about family, and especially about making a broken, battered family work.

On top of that the movie is just a lot of fun. The opening hula sequence, featuring Pudge the fish and a peanut butter sandwich, is simply beautiful; I bought a copy of the soundtrack just for the song that accompanies it. Then there's the scene where Stitch destroys San Francisco; and the long sequence where Lilo, in an attempt to turn Stitch into a model citizen, tries to teach him to behave like Elvis Presley (it ends on the beach with a brief, though very understated, tribute to Frankenstein). And how can you not like a social worker who says things like, "So far you have been adrift in the sheltered harbor of my patience."

Anyway, two thumbs up here (both of mine, that is). If you've not seen it, and even if you don't have kids, buy it or rent it and enjoy.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:03 PM | Comments(0)

Sorry for the Interruption

I was working on one of my Tcl packages (Snit as it happens) on Sunday afternoon, and installed my development version for general use in order to test it with some of the other things I'd written. One of those things is the script that builds my weblog from a database of posts. And somehow (I've not chased it down yet) the result of my afternoon's work was that my database of posts got trashed (along with many other things). I keep frequent backups of everything I consider important, so I only lost of couple of days...but at the end of a long, frustrating afternoon it was especially annoying.

Anyway, I'll try to get the missing posts rewritten as I can.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:00 PM | Comments(0)

December 08, 2002


We had a technical glitch just now, and a couple of recent posts were permanently lost, which annoys me no end. I'll see if I can rewrite them later on this evening, but at the moment I'm too mad.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:12 PM | Comments(0)

December 05, 2002

Everyday Knitting: Treasures from the rag pile, by Annemor Sundbo

Knitting as a popular pastime seems to be making a comeback in the last year or two. By that I mean that other people besides the die-hard fiber enthusiasts are taking it up and the publishing industry is responding with really expensive books geared to the new knitter making faddish sweaters with ultra expensive yarns. Normally, I page thru the books, find every glaringly stupid design flaw they have included, sniff and spend my money on yarn. Badly designed sweaters on twig thin models aren't going to look good on the average lumpy body no matter how expensive that glitzy yarn is. I prefer to spend my book money on books about knitting history, fiber production and design techniques that work with more than a $35 dollar an ounce yarn. It really ticks me off when I see a new knitter struggling with difficult yarn and a badly written pattern that some shop owner sold her. Anyway, I found this book after hearing about it at my knitting group and quickly snapped it up.

Annemor Sundbo bought a shoddy factory in a out of the way corner of Norway as a way to finance her own fiber habit. "Shoddy", in the textile industry, is the word for recycled wool. It's drifted into the common language to mean "of poor quality" since the recycled wool is no longer fit to spin for knitted clothing. It's used, rather, as filler for quilts, for carpets and for weaving tweed fabrics which are rough and usually lined in the construction of garments. The factory Sundbo bought took castoff old woolen garments, and picked and ripped them into shoddy wool for Torridal Tweeds. However, as she was going thru the warehouse of old garments she found thousands of garments handknit in folk patterns dating back at least to the turn of the century. Some were earlier. Truly a treasure trove for a knitter and a lover of folk knitting. But the interesting part of the book is when she organizes the garments and then does historical research using old pattern leaflets, old paintings and photos and yarn company flyers to date and find the location of where they came from. She traces patterns to England, Iceland, Sweden, Latvia, and even Holland in her research. Some of the color designs have roots in Persian carpet elements. Norway had a healthy sea trade and all those sailors brought home gifts which were translated into design elements for sweaters, mittens, and stockings.

The book does have problems. It is badly written and even more badly translated. There were a couple of times I wondered what she was actually trying to say and did the translator really know English? Plus, she bounces all over the place in her organization of the book, making it difficult to follow the text and giving me a real appreciation of what a good editor can do for a book. All of that is completely and totally offset by the fabulous color plates of the sweaters, often placed next to the painting or leaflet she used to date them with. They were astonishing. Breathtaking. Inspiring. The pictures are worth the price of the book alone.

Posted by Deb English at 06:07 PM | Comments(1)

December 04, 2002

Recalled to Life, by Reginald Hill

This is yet another Dalziel/Pascoe mystery, and it's just as much fun as the others I've reviewed recently.

When Dalziel was a young detective, he was involved in one of the last "Golden Age" country house murders. A guest was murdered, and the lord of the manor and a young nanny were determined to be the murderers. The lord was hanged, and the nanny sentenced to life in prison.

It's now many, many years later. A TV documentary has raised doubts about the nanny's guilt, and after some cursory investigations by the Home Office, she is freed pending a full police investigation into the case. Early signs are that the result of this "full police investigation" will be a report blackening the name of Dalziels late friend and mentor, Wally Tallantire. Dalziel can't be having this, and despite being told to leave it alone undertakes an investigation of his own--and begins to realize that some of the other folks who were at that country house that deadly weekend are still very important people indeed.

It's not as good as the best of the series, but I enjoyed it thoroughly; also, it provides some of the long term background presumed by the later book Arms and the Women.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:21 PM | Comments(0)

December 02, 2002

The Strange Files of Fremont Jones, and Fire and Fog, by Dianne Day

After reading The Bohemian Murders, which was ok but not great, I went back to the beginning of the series to see if she started out any better. Not really. Day uses the conceit of the liberated, spirited young woman defying conventions alone against the world but it's been done before and done better as well. I just wasnít all that interested in Fremont or her typing service. And she isn't even a very good sleuth. She stumbles onto the solution to her little mystery rather than doing any good detecting. Fire and Fog had the San Francisco earthquake as its background and that was kind of interesting. Both these books would have been much better if she had skipped the mystery stuff and just kept it on the level of a romance. Her love interest, Michael, has many more possibilities for development than Day gives him. Unfortunately, I donít think I will read any more in the series.

Posted by Deb English at 07:00 PM | Comments(0)

December 01, 2002

Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe

I finished reading this book to David the night before last. It's one I hadn't read before; my sister bought it for Dave some months ago, because my niece had loved it once upon a time. I was initially skeptical: a vampire bunny that sucks the juice out of vegetables? But the name of the third Bunnicula book (The Celery Stalks at Midnight) encouraged me to give it a try.

Let's see: the Monroe family find a young rabbit at the movie theater (a showing of Dracula) and bring it home. The family cat, Chester, is concerned; the rabbit sleeps all day and gets up only at night, has fangs, and the family has been finding eerie white vegetables, sucked dry of all juice and color, on the kitchen floor. The rabbit is clearly a vampire! Something must be done! The tale is told by Harold the family dog.

The book read easily and well, though it's a real lightweight compared to what we've been reading together. There were a number of good lines, and a few nifty if offbeat references; Chester the cat, for example, is named after G.K. Chesterton. How many kids' books mention G.K. Chesterton?

So, bottom line: not my favorite, by any means. But David liked it, and I liked it well enough to pick up the next two books in the series.

Posted by Will Duquette at 02:38 PM | Comments(0)