When you're spending around twenty hours a day there, your hotel is extremely important. And though it pains me to say it, the Embassy Suites in Sacramento didn't measure up.
They got all of the big things right. The location is just about perfect: it's on Capitol Mall right next to the Sacramento River. The state capitol building is about ten blocks away down Capitol Mall, in plain sight from the front of the hotel. Across Capitol Mall is "Old Sacramento", the historical district, which contains the old waterfront and train station, and also the California State Railroad Museum, which is a truly nifty place. Capitol Mall continues across the river over the Tower Bridge, which is a draw bridge. The center section lifts up between the two towers that give it its name. When I add that our hotel room looked out over the river and the Tower Bridge, you'd think that our joy would be complete.
But the devil is in the details, and the details weren't right, especially not for a family of five. Now, we expected there to be rough spots--Monterey is a big tourist destination, whereas Sacramento is a seat of government. It would be unreasonable to expect the Embassy Suites in Sacramento to cater to families like the one in Monterey does, and we didn't expect it. But the following gripes would affect anyone who stays there:
So it's with regret that I find that I can't recommend the Embassy Suites in Sacramento.
All that said, we still managed to have a good time.
The kids rushed through the Railroad Museum far more quickly than I'd expected, which was sad; I was thinking that it might take two days, like that Aquarium, but they were done in an hour and a half.
The next day we went to Sutter's Fort, which turned out to be much better than I'd expected. A bit of background for my non-Californian readers: John Sutter came to California in the 1830's or so, and built his fort in the middle of what's now Sacramento. It became the leading trading post in central California during the 1840's. And then, in 1848, Sutter arranged to build a sawmill some considerable distance away. His man on the spot, John Marshall, found gold in the millrace--and the California Gold Rush was on.
I've been to Sutter's Fort several times, and this was the best visit yet. I expected we'd be through it in half-an-hour, but all this summer they are doing a living history program there. So we spent time listening to a variety of folks doing their jobs in various parts of the fort. The two best were a trapper (equipped with a wide variety of skins) who talked about the fur trade, and the blacksmith, who was demonstrating how to make nails (the fort's blacksmith made 1500 a day!).
But the real highlight of our stay in Sacramento were visits to a couple of old favorites. A good friend of ours (she reads this blog, and she knows who she is) lived in Sacramento for several years, during which we visited her several times. Among the places she took us were Tower Books, a truly excellent bookstore, and Chevy's Mexican Restaurant. This was maybe ten years ago, and although Chevy's is now a well-known chain we'd never previously heard of it. There are Chevy's in Los Angeles now, and we've been to a couple of them, and though we like them, the food has never seemed quite as good as at the Chevy's by the river in Sacramento a hop, skip, and a jump from where our friend lived. So naturally we went there for dinner our last night in town.
We got there just after five o'clock on Thursday. What we hadn't realized is that this particular Chevy's is one of the major happy hour spots in that part of town. It was jammed. (According to our waiter, the only Chevy's that does more business is in Times Square, NYC.) The hostess estimated 25 minutes for a table. I looked at our three little kids, and said, "You don't want our kids cluttering up your lobby for twenty-five minutes...can you do anything to get us seated more quickly?" They could, and did. It took some figuring out, but we were seated in five minutes--by a window, with a clear view of the river. The service was outstanding, and the food was every bit as good as we'd remembered; maybe better. We were so pleased that on the way out Jane got a hold of the manager and thanked him warmly.
So: Sutter's Fort, Tower Books, Chevy's good; the Sacramento Embassy Suites, mediocre at best.
I have tried to read other books by Marsh with little success. I was browsing the bookshelf culling the unwanteds for space and put most of them in the sell back box but this one I hung onto. And it caught me.
Peregrine Jay is directing "MacBeth" at the Dolphin theater in London, hoping for a smashing success and a long run. The first half of the book is the telling of his casting of the characters, the initial rehearsals with blocking and choreographing the swordfight. Everything is perfect, right down to the reproduction swords and claymore used on stage. Unfortunately, someone has taken the curse of MacBeth seriously and fake MacBeth heads made as props for the end scene keep turning up in the wrong places. And on opening night, the real MacBeth's head ends up dripping from the pike as the curtain falls, stunning the cast.
Thank heavens, Inspector Alleyn was in the front row. And thank heavens the killer confesses since Alleyn is nowhere close to solving the mystery as the book closes. In fact, I don't think he had a clue. Which was exactly my problem with the rest of the novels; they just sort of wander around. This one just happened to have the wonderful lead up of the play to catch and hold my attention. And the use of a Maori guy as one of the witches. But I won't be buying anymore. Sigh.
I've just released version 1.0 of Notebook, my personal notebook application. If you've not taken a look at it, you might like to; it's a great way to manage all of those notes you don't know where to keep, with links between them. It's like having a personal website on your desktop, only much easier to edit and maintain.
I've just posted Chapters 12 and 13 of my novel Through Darkest Zymurgia!
I've received reports that the background color has been coming out bright yellow on some people's browsers; it's supposed to be a muted parchment color. So I've tweaked the settings a bit, and for now Zymurgia will have a plain white background. So much for atmosphere.
At bedtime, Jane asked James (our almost-four-year-old) whether he enjoyed our vacation or not.
He said he really loved our vacation, and he really loved Australia.
Hmmm. Dad leaves home to go to Australia. James leaves home, why, he must be going to Australia too!
For the record, we drove to Monterey, California, where we spent three days, and then to Sacramento, California, where we spent three days, and then we came home. You can't drive to Australia.
Monterey was very nice. The Embassy Suites hotel in Monterey isn't really in Monterey; it's just over the border in Seaside. But we could see the ocean from our window, and the road that passed in front of the hotel took us to straight to Fisherman's Wharf, Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
I have to hand it to the Monterey Embassy Suites and its staff--they've got families all scoped out (and there were lots of families staying there). The breakfast was good every morning, they had a special kid-friendly buffet in the evening (which we didn't take advantage of), and there was a flier in our rooms telling us about all the local events that would be fun for kids, including the Harry Potter parties the night before.
Mostly, we went to the Aquarium. The concierge set us up with special tickets--good for two day's admittance at the same price as normal tickets. Given the kids' capacity for two hours' worth of excitement a day, that turned out to be an outstanding deal. I'd thought we'd covered most of the Aquarium the first day, and that we were just going back to see some odds and ends. It turns out that they'd added a whole new wing since we were there seven or eight years ago, dedicated to the life of the Outer Bay. It was filled with exquisitely displayed jellyfish, really quite shockingly beautiful (pun not intended), and also a massive tank filled mostly with tuna, along with a couple of sea turtles, a hammerhead shark, and a few other things. It was gorgeous, and Jane and I just stood there wondering at it for at least ten minutes, while David and James kept trying to pull us away.
Do you have any idea how big tuna really are? I think of fish as being rather flat in cross-section, but tuna are big, fat suckers, like scaly dolphins.
On the Monday afternoon, we hired a babysitter from a service with an office at the hotel, and went to walk around Carmel, just the two of us, feeling dreadfully and joyfully extravagant. Carmel has changed a bit, and the neat bookstore in the complex at the top of Ocean Street has gone, but it was fun to walk around the galleries, admiring some things and laughing at others.
On the Tuesday, we did the pretty part of the 17 Mile Drive, from Pacific Grove to Carmel (with David asking, "Where's our new hotel?" every fifteen minutes), and then headed toward Sacramento. State highway 68 to US 101 north to state highway 156, which passes through the little town of San Juan Bautista, home of the mission of the same name.
I'm not sure I'd ever been to San Juan Bautista before, despite having driven within fifteen miles of it on any number of occasions; but Jane had suggested Mexican food for lunch, and I saw a sign for a place called "Dona Esther's". We went, and it was outstanding. I had a shredded beef enchilada and a big tamale, with the best Mexican rice and beans I've ever had. It wasn't a fancy place, and it wasn't fancy food, but darn it was good. I'd gladly go back. Then we walked over and looked through the Mission, to which I'll give a mixed review. The grounds and the Mission museum are looking pretty ratty. I don't think there's a whole lot of money coming in. But the sanctuary itself was well-maintained and spotless (and beautiful), and there were other signs that the parish is alive and healthy.
And then we drove on to Sacramento. But that's another post.
Now the story can be told.
It so happens that what was keeping me busy over the last week was being on vacation with my family. (But you were posting anyway! Have laptop, will travel. But that's a later post.) I have a certain delicacy about announcing to the world at large that my home is going to be unguarded for a week, which is why I didn't say anything previously.
But anyway, I spent the last week vacationing with my wife and my three little kids. One of the big questions Jane and I had going in was how much we should plan on doing each day; now I know the answer: about two hours worth.
Except for the first day and last day, when we were driving most of the day, our vacation days went pretty much like this:
And that's how pretty much every day went. For the kids it was exciting enough just being away from home, staying at a hotel, and getting to go swimming. The nifty things we planned were mostly secondary. Go figure.
James Lileks, he of the "Bleat" and the well-turned phrase, has a wife, and his wife has just lost her job. (As assistant attorney general of Michigan, for goodness sake.) We like James Lileks; we like his writing, and we want him to keep writing. He's got a tip jar over on his site; as Iam Hamet said this morning, why not go put something in it?
Update: Minnesota, I meant Minnesota, I really do know the difference between Minnesota and Michigan. Sigh.
WARNING: Possible Spoilers Ahead! Proceed at your own risk.
OK, I stayed up until after midnight last night to finish this, and I went away well-satisfied. It was great--the best Potter yet. Jane's reading it now, and it's taking her far longer to get up than usual. The kids are too young to care, and of course are completely oblivious to the whole thing.
For once I have to disagree with Ian Hamet. In my review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I said that I was dissatisfied with the character development in book; in his comment on that review, he said I'd probably be similarly dissatisfied with this one. Not so! All of the major characters do a certain amount of growing, there are many more minor characters, and we get a much better sense of them. I was especially impressed with yinny Weasely and Neville Longbottom. As Deb said, the kids are finally beginning to act like teenagers, as we see with Harry and Cho Chang. But not only are the hormones raging, they are also beginning to take responsibility--the establishment of Dumbledore's Army is a case in point, and a juicy one.
And then there's Professor Umbridge--what a delightfully evil creation she is. Not for her the deed grandiose; instead, she's a master of bureaucratic evil, of the death of a thousand cuts. Rowling understands that evil can be most effective when it is small, stupid, and just plain mean, especially when it is cloaked with righteousness and respectability. I'm thinking of Professor Umbridge's detention punishment: writing sentences with a pen that painfully draws blood from the back of your hand.
But Umbridge is not only arrogant, she's also stupid. By alienating the faculty as well as the student body she assures her downfall. And wasn't it delightful to watch Professor McGonagle give Peeves hints on the proper way to unscrew a crystal chandelier from the ceiling?
Indeed, there were so many wonderful moments that I hesitate to list them all: the organizational meeting for Dumbledore's Army; the moment when Dumbledore announces that he's found a new Divination instructor; the way the students and faculty of Hogwarts join forces against Professor Umbridge; the battle at the Ministry of Magic; Malfoy's final comeuppance on the Hogwarts Express.
The one thing I disliked was the lack of any kind of redemption or forgiveness for anybody. For example, Harry's supposed to be great-hearted; but he isn't great-hearted enough to forgive Snape, even after learning the root of Snape's dislike. He's unhappy at having his image of his father darkened, but he has no sympathy for his father's victim. It's likely that Snape would have rejected any advances of friendship or reconciliation that Harry might have made...but I do think Harry should have tried.
Richard Dawkins, the well-known scientist and apologist for the theory of evolution, has recently written an article entitled "The Future Looks Bright", which I found via Craig Ceely's blog. In it, he tries to raise our consciousness about atheism:
Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, of Sacramento, California, have set out to coin a new word, a new "gay". Like gay, it should be a noun hijacked from an adjective, with its original meaning changed but not too much. Like gay, it should be catchy: a potentially prolific meme. Like gay, it should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright.
Bright? Yes, bright. Bright is the word, the new noun. I am a bright. You are a bright. She is a bright. We are the brights. Isn't it about time you came out as a bright? Is he a bright? I can't imagine falling for a woman who was not a bright.
A "bright" is someone who subscribes to "a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism." I'm writing about this, because it's a word that shows signs of catching on here in the blogosphere. And because it's a word that (quite unlike "gay") was purposely chosen to be insulting to those who (like me) espouse some kind of religious faith.
Apparently, because I am a Christian and believe that Christ died on the cross that my sins might be forgiven, I am not a "bright". In fact, I must therefore be "not so bright". Or perhaps even "dim".
Like gay, it should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright.
One might add "arrogant". If "bright" didn't have the prior connotation of "intelligent", with the implication that non-brights are unintelligent, Dawkins and his ilk would never have chosen it. The word "gay" carries no such freight.
I'll be very curious to see if Steven den Beste weighs in on this. Steven is an atheist, as he discussed recently in a series of posts; he's also a gentleman.
In the meantime, for any of my readers who might self-identify themselves as "brights", you might wish to consider whom you're insulting by so doing. For most of you, it's probably a larger group than you think.
Update: Rude, that's the word I was looking for. Rude, ill-mannered, uncouth, discourteous, take your pick. Of course, if that's how you want to be perceived....
This is the third and most recent in Farland's Runelords series; there's has to be at least one more to finish the story. It follows directly after Brotherhood of the Wolf, which ended on a really down note, and mostly continues the bleak mood.
Not a lot happens that's conclusive: King Gaborn and his crew continue to harry the reaver army they defeated at the climax of the previous novel; Averan, a young girl introduced in the previous book, becomes the apprentice of Binnesman the Earth Warden, to no one's surprise; Gaborn sends agents to various other kingdoms; Raj Ahten returns home to Indhopal, where he's faced with a number of threats to his rule, including a bigger, nastier reaver army; Binnesman's "wylde" continues to grow in power and intelligence; the Darkling Glory summoned by Raj Ahten in that last book is (possibly) revealed as something much nastier still; in the end, nothing at all is settled.
In short, Wizardborn carries the saga along adequately well (I enjoyed reading it) but doesn't have much of an ending and provides no real sense of closure. It does, however, set a number of interesting trains in motion; I'll be curious to see them all collide in the next episode.
Lynn Sislo has just posted the third installment in her Beginner's Guide to Classical Music. Good stuff!
As all the world knows, June 21st was Harry Potter day throughout the English-speaking world. I've not yet managed to get a copy of the latest tome, but in preparation I re-read Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire, which I'd only read once before, when it in turn was brand new.
I liked it better this time. I'm in a lazier mood, maybe, but recently I've been tending to read books at their own pace, slowly, rather than rushing through them as fast as I can. Read slowly, I found it more entertaining, especially the scenes toward the end. It's a good yarn.
The character development is a little lacking, except for the major players. Harry spends a good bit of the book, we are told, fascinated by Cho Chang, who plays on the Ravensclaw quidditch team. We aren't told much about why he finds Cho attractive, just that he does. (Of course, looking back on my years as teenage boy, perhaps that's realistic.)
Anyway, I'm looking forward to the next one...when I can find a copy.
I've got an extremely busy week just ahead, so posting might be sporadic. Or it might not; we'll see. Everything should be back to normal by the end of the month.
I've just posted Chapters 10 and 11 of Through Darkest Zymurgia!
If you've come in late, it's a ripping yarn of adventure, exploration, and potable beverages. Try it, you'll like it!
One of the how-to books my wife bought suggested a boombox in the maternity room, with quiet music that helped you "center." Something with flutes or aeolian harps or zithers played with feather dusters. I brought some Beethoven. Bring that kid out to the strains of the fifth! I also brought some nebulous new-age stuff I'd purchased in the 80s. It all sounded like music suitable for glacier races. It wasn't any help at all - it just trickled out from the speakers, like the faraway sighs of a lovely zeppelin slowly deflating. At sunset. Near a lake. With swans.
This is the sequel to The Runelords, which I've just read for the second time. It continues the tale of King Gaborn's dual fight against Raj Ahten on the one hand, and the reavers on the other, though the reavers play a much larger roll. I've not much else to say about it, except that I enjoyed it more than I did the first time; perhaps I was in a bad mood. It's a middle book in an epic fantasy series, and it does an adequate job of continuing the story. I'll be getting around to the third book, Wizardborn, in the next week or so.
I picked up my daughter at the library after work tonight. She is spending one day a week there during the summer months helping out with shelving books, story hour and the young adult book group the librarian is trying to garner interest in. I got chatting with the librarian, a very nice woman with virtually no knowledge of the kids market in books or even what young folks like to read. Of course, being the type that will recommend books to anyone who even remotely looks interested, I left her with a list of decent fiction that kids ages 10-14 might enjoy reading. No more "MaryKate and Ashley go to Hawaii" for this crowd!
One of the books I recommended is Fox's "One-Eyed Cat." It's a Newberry Honor book, one of the few lit awards that actually seems to award good writing and not good publishing. The story is fairly simple. A young boy has a father who's a preacher and a mother crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. His dashing Uncle comes to visit for his birthday and brings him a hunting rifle which his father promptly confiscates and banishes to the attic. Curiosity takes over and the boy sneaks up to the attic at night, gets the gun and goes out to do a little target practice. He's startled by a noise, reacts and shoots something. Later, he sees a cat with its eye shot out wandering the neighborhood and realizes he was the one that shot it.
That is a very bald precis of the plot. The father is well portrayed as a heartbroken man with a sick wife struggling to care for her and his son. The mother is realistically depicted without being melodramatic about her pain or illness. And the young boy finds a friend in an old man down the road who takes in the cat and nurses it back to health. When I read the back cover, I worried that here was yet another anti-hunting novel along the lines of Bambi--something not well thought of in my family of avid hunters--but really it turns into more a tale of responsibility and consequences, guilt and repentance than anything else. And it reads really well. Definitely a must read for my daughter.
I've not been a fan of the Emperor Napoleon since I began reading Patrick O'Brian and found out what he'd put Europe through. Arecent biography agrees, according to the always interesting Cronaca; be sure to click on through for Victor Davis Hanson's review.
The other night we were having dinner, and James, our going-on-four-year-old, had been given a corn muffin and a dollop of corned beef hash. A small dollop, as he was unlikely to willing to eat much of it, and while we wanted him to taste it, we didn't want to waste it either.
So James gobbled up the corn muffin, and asked for another. We told him he needed to have some hash first. We repeated this several times, as required, and went on with dinner, until a couple of minutes later when we realized that James was acting strangely. (He still hadn't touched his hash.)
He had both arms raised with his hands in front of him at about shoulder level, and he was shaking his arms so that his hands flopped about. I looked at him, and he said, "I can't control my hands, Daddy."
"You can't control your hands?"
"No. Hash make it I can't control my hands." And he kept shaking them.
"Hash makes it so you can't control your hands."
"Uh-huh. Hash make it I can't control my hands." Then he stopped shaking them, just held them still in the air. "But with corn muffin, I can control my hands. See?" And he smiled at us as broadly as he could. Then he stopped smiling and started shaking his hands again. "But hash make it I can't control my hands."
I had to agree that he couldn't eat anything with his hands shaking like that, but in the end it availed him naught. Still, Jane and I had to agree that it was a valiant effort.
I still have no idea where these things come from.
This is the first book in a series, and I'm following the usual pattern--each time a new volume comes out, I end up re-reading the whole set. By the time I read the Nth book, I've read the 1st book N times. This was the third time for this particular book, and rather surprisingly I was pleasantly surprised. I liked it the first time I read it; was rather unimpressed the second time; and this time I rather liked it again. I think it's partially because the second time I was rushing through it; this time I took it easy.
The world of The Runelords is based on elemental magic. The world is out of balance; Fire is becoming too powerful, and as a result the insectoid "reavers" are pouring out of the earth and slaying humans right and left. Prince Gaborn val Orden is chosen by the Earth to be the "Earth King"; it's his job to try to preserve a remnant of mankind from the reavers. His success is by no means guaranteed (except by narrative causality...); in similar circumstances, older races have perished.
There's a hitch, of course. Raj Ahten, a king from the lands to the south, is trying to conquer the entire continent. His stated goal is to unite the continent under his rule, to better handle the threat from the reavers. But in fact, he's fallen in love with the destruction and humilation he's causing everywhere he goes; the reavers are secondary. Gaborn must somehow save himself and those he loves from Raj Ahten, while not neglecting the reavers.
That's the overall conflict, but it's obscured by the most unusual characteristic of the world Farland has created. Given a magical branding iron called a forcible and someone who knows how to use it, one can "take an endowment" from another person. That is, one can borrow the other person's wit, or their brawn, or their hearing, or any of a dozen other qualities. It's a permanent loan, lasting until the death of either party. And, naturally, the person who gave the endowment no longer has the use of it. Those who give brawn are to weak to move; those who give metabolism sleep as if drugged; those who give wit become stupid; those who give glamour become ugly.
Farland's taken this simple idea, and worked out all the logical consequences. The noble class--the Runelords--take endowments as a matter of course. It's not uncommon for a King to be more powerful than any of his knights, simply because he's taken more endowments. But every king has counsellors, knights, soldiers, scouts, and so forth who have taken endowments as well. Thus, the central keep in any castle is the Dedicates' Keep, where those who have given endowments live and are cared for. Kill a King's dedicates, and you've hamstrung him.
On first reading, this was the bit that I focussed on. It wasn't until this time around that I realized that although endowments are a central fact in this world, they aren't the point of the story.
This isn't a truly classic high fantasy series, but it's good fun. I'm looking forward to the next book.
My going-on-four-year-old made me a card at preschool. The teacher asked him some fill-in-the-blank questions, and wrote down his answers, which I present herewith. The questions are in italics, and his answers in normal type.
My Daddy's name is Daddy.
He is I don't know years old.
He has green eyes and black hair. [Brown hair, really. Mostly brown, these days.--ed.]
He likes to eat dinner, breakfast. That's what he likes.
He likes to watch actually, commercials on TV. [I do? --ed.]
When he goes to work, he works at work.
I love my Daddy because I do.
It's good to be Dad.
Wow! Michael Blowhard says that I'm one of the most civilized culturebloggers. Who knew?
Chapters 8 and 9 of Through Darkest Zymurgia! have been posted for your reading pleasure.
...and I'm tired, and I haven't finished reading anything to review. So hie thee over to Cronaca where there's a whole bunch of interesting stuff.
This is yet another book of Jeeves and Wooster stories, old favorites all of them. It's notable for having two unusual stories: the tale of how Jeeves first came to be Bertie Wooster's valet, and a tale (the only one, so far as I know) told from Jeeves' own point of view. I remember when I first read that one--it's funny, but it's also a bit of a shocker. You get to find out what Jeeves really thinks about his employer, and the lengths to which he's willing to go to maintain the status quo. He really doesn't have Bertie's best interests at heart.
This book is the predecessor of David Weber's The Excalibur Alternative, which I reviewed some months ago. In brief, in Roman times the galaxy is already populated by many advanced civilizations. A galactic law prohibits the used of advanced weapons on primitive populations--and the advanced races have little experience of primitive weapons and aren't particular interested in acquiring any. One trading cartel gets a bright idea: they go to Earth, and steal the best army they can find: a legion of Roman soldiers. And then they deploy them to fight battles on planet after planet. They are given advanced medical treatment, so that they don't age; after battles, any injury (up to and including death) that doesn't involve irreparable damage to the spine or brain is treatable. After a battle they are allowed to rest and carouse on board ship until everyone's healed up, and then they are put to sleep until they reach the next planet. It's a hell of a life.
It's interesting to compare this book with Weber's, and the different reactions of the ancient Romans and the medieval Britons. The Romans are, frankly, not at all equipped to know what's going on. In particular, they have no notion of planets in the modern sense, of different "earths", or of space travel. They have no idea how any of the things on board the ship work; they simply learn to take them for granted.
The Britons, on the other hand, are in some degree better educated. Their leader grasps fairly quickly that they've travelled to other planets; and they are much better at making sense of what they find. And I'm wondering, now...is this realistic?
It might be. I've read that Western science arose from the notion of certain Christians that God plays fair...that the phenomenal world will follow rules, and that those rules are understandable by the human intellect. This is not a Greek point of view; the Greeks thought that the noumenal or ideal world was the true reality, and that the phenomenal world was but a semblance. (Archimedes was, obviously, an exception.) And the Romans who followed inherited much of the Greek world view.
So...would the medieval Brits really be better equipped, by means of their world view, to cope with such an outlandish situation? Or is Weber just blowing smoke?
But getting back to Drake's book...it's got a lot of gritty, hard-hitting scenes of warfare, death, and destruction, very little humor, and not much to recommend it unless you really like military fiction. Drake's done much better. Of course, it is one of his older books...
The problem with doing moving reviews is that I'm not a movie buff. This is especially a problem when I like a movie. If I dislike a movie, I can always find lots of reasons. But if I liked it, all I can say is whether I liked the movie or not, and mention a few bits that were good. I don't know what it is that makes a movie great instead of just good, or good instead of adequate. I don't know the terminology or the techniques they use.
Now, I loved Finding Nemo. I see only a few movies a year, and I'm quite satisfied that Finding Nemo is one of them. But as I said, I rate it below Monster's Inc. and the Toy Story movies. Why? I dunno. If pressed, I probably would have said something about the open ocean not having a lot of scenery, that is, it all tends to look the same. And in my memory, the movie seems kind of slow--which is ridiculous, because it sure didn't feel like that when I was watching it.
And now Ian Hamet has come along and said the things I would probably have said if I had known then what I know now, and if I knew what was I talking about. I can sum it up in one word: pacing. Or two words: comic timing. In Monsters Inc. and the Toy Story flicks, the timing is perfect. In Finding Nemo, it's off. And now that Ian's pointed it out, I can think of bunches of examples (the scene with the whale, for example, dragged, especially the interiors).
And so they achieve most excellent goodness...but not greatness.
This is Wodehouse, so you already know I think it's the most wonderful thing since sliced bread. The book includes a number of short stories set at Blandings Castle, including the first appearance of that majestic pig, the Empress of Blandings (I especially like "Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend"); a Bobbie Wickham story I'm not sure I'd read before; and Mr. Mulliner's Hollywood stories.
Every so often I try to explain why Wodehouse is so good, and what makes him so funny; I don't believe I've ever done him justice. So I've decided to let him speak in his own words, with a few short extracts from this set of stories:
Lord Emsworth could conceive of no way in which Freddie could be of value to a dog-biscuit firm, except possibly as a taster; but he refrained from damping the other's enthusiasm by saying so.
It sounded to Lord Emsworth exactly like a snarl. It was a snarl. Chancing to glance floorwards, he became immediately aware, in close juxtaposition to his ankles, of what appeared to be at first sight to be a lady's muff. But, this being one of his bright afternoons, he realized in the next instant that it was no muff, but a dog of the kind which women are only too prone to leave lying about their sitting-rooms.
His recovery was hastened by...the spectacle of his son Frederick clasping in his arms a wife who, his lordship had never forgotten, was the daughter of probably the only millionaire in existence who had that delightful willingness to take Freddie off his hands which was, in Lord Emsworth's eyes, the noblest quality a millionaire could possess.
Now it has been well said that with nervous, highly-strung men like Montrose Mulliner, a sudden call upon their manhood is often enough to revolutionize their whole character. Psychologists have frequently commented on this. We are too ready, they say, to dismiss as cowards those who merely require the stimulus of the desparate emergency to bring out all their latent heroism. The crisis comes, and the craven turns magically into the paladin.
With Montrose, however, this was not the case. Ninety-nine out of a hundred of those who knew him would have scoffed at the idea of him interfering with an escaped gorilla to save the life of a child, and they would have been right.
As you know, I recently decided to self-publish my first novel here on my website. It's a decision that took a long time to make; I do think that Through Darkest Zymurgia! is good enough to be published through the normal channels. The fact is, though, is that so doing is a royal pain.
There's a lengthy and interesting comments thread, too.
Plans to build the world's largest offshore wind farm on the site of the Battle of Trafalgar sailed into controversy Monday after claims they could destroy archaeological evidence and desecrate a war grave.Hmmm. If they built such a wind farm, how many kilowatts of power could you generate from Admiral Nelson spinning in his grave? The article also notes that all of the complaints have come from Great Britain, i.e., from the victors.
Pixar is way cool--five movies under their collective belts, and every one so far has been a winner. Not only are they making money, I understand that their distribution deal with Disney is one of the few things keeping Disney afloat these days.
But I digress.
Last Thursday, I took the afternoon off from work, my mother-in-law came to watch the baby, and Jane and I took our two sons to see Finding Nemo. David has been to the movies with me a number of times, but it was James' first time--and I can tell you, he was enrapt the whole time.
It's the story of Nemo, a young clownfish with a gimpy fin, who gets collected by a scuba diver; and of his loving but over-cautious and over-protective father Marlin who has to leave the safety of the reef to find him. (I'll note that Marlin has every reason to be over-protective.) Along the way, Marlin has to brave just about every hazard of the sea, including sharks, jellyfish, currents, horrors of the deep, pelicans, and seagulls--I loved the seagulls. Meanwhile, Nemo is learning many of the same lessons on a smaller scale.
The story is simple: dad discovers hidden reserves of courage and skill, and learns to let his son stand on his own; son learns new respect for Ahis dad, and learns to stand on his own. And, as always, Pixar's story-telling is flawless and delightful.
So how does Finding Nemo stack up against its predecessors? I'd say it ranks fourth, above A Bug's Life, but below Monsters, Inc. and the Toy Story movies.
Oh, and Jane would want me to say that she really liked the turtles.
The bookstores around here have been pushing Colfer's "Artemis Fowl" juveniles pretty heavily recently; I keep seeing those little cardboard displays with a compartment for each book in the series. From the blurb they looked like they might be amusing, and so I picked up the first one so that I could read it, and see if it might be something Dave would like to have me read to him.
Having finished, I can say "Absolutely not." Or rather, he might like me to, but I'm not gonna.
It's about a twelve-year-old super-genius and master criminal named Artemis Fowl. He's the heir of a long line of super-genius master-criminals. And he's hit on a scheme. In addition to the legendary pot of gold, every leprechaun (he's Irish) has a Book that they carry always that contains all of the rules and regulations that govern life as a fairy. He manages to get access to a copy and translate it; he then plans a caper to piles of fairy gold.
It had its moments, but I didn't like it much.
To begin with, it's only so-so as a book. The whole time I was reading it (and I was predisposed to enjoy it), a little voice in the back of my head kept saying, "Well, there's another stupid thing I'd better not think about too much." For example, there's a scene in Fowl's computer room that was ludicrous. Authors should either get technical details correct, or leave them out altogether. Vagueness isn't the key to timelessness, but it helps. Obsolete products in a supposedly up-to-date computer lab (as of the publication date) are just silly.
Second, many of the characters in the book are Fairies, and yet the nature of Faerie seems to be completely opaque to the author. This is a fantasy, but it's written in a science fictional manner.
Third, most of the characters (fairy or otherwise) are rude, obnoxious, cynical, double-dealing, corner-cutting, and they'd probably be foul-mouthed and oversexed if Colfer could get it past his editor.
Let's face it, my kids are too young for hardboiled detective novels.
I've just discovered a blog called Cronaca, which seems to be slanted towards history and archaelogy. It's fascinating. Just in the last few days, he's posted on the as-yet unexcavated burial mound of the first emperor of China, the possibility that Pat Garrett didn't actually kill Billy the Kid, but in fact shot somebody else instead and covered it up, and reports that certain brands of salami sold in English stores contain horsemeat.
I've just posted today's installment (chapters six and seven) of my novel
Through Darkest Zymurgia!, which so far has gotten rave reviews from the two or three people who have read it. Take a look!
The Independent has just published a list of books loathed by various celebrities....ugh, that is, folks who are celebrities in England. Most of them I hadn't heard of. But I had heard of many of the books they mention, and I found it fascinating.
J.R.R. Tolkien comes in for the worst punishment, with three of the fifty celebrities ragging on the Lord of the Rings:
Anything about Gandalf, and those little things with hair between their toes. I hate that sort of portentous, phoney, medieval-magical way of writing. -- Sir John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole
In what way is Tolkien's writing "phoney", or "magical-medieval"? I'd have thought that it was normal transparent prose, rather than any attempt to sound like something from another era.
There have been many contender [sic], but for inspiring life-long loathing and contempt, nothing beats The Lord of the Rings. The childish storytelling, the valetudinarian mythologising, Tolkien's lack of any feel for language, description, landscape, emotion or confrontation, the desire to garotte Pippin and Merry in a dark alley how can so many readers have put up with such codswallop for so long? -- somebody named John Walsh
In what way is the storytelling childish? I suppose there isn't enough sex in it. And I can't see how Tolkien lacks feel for landscape or description. And as for emotion, well...I suppose there isn't enough sex in it.
I've never understood the point. It's strange, weird and frightening, and makes me feel like I'm on the sidelines of a joke I don't understand. -- Alain De Botton: Author and philosopher
I think this last quote really points out the problem--they just don't get it. Poor souls.
Then, J.K. Rowling comes under the gun:
I think they are absolute shit, just terrible, worse than Enid Blyton. I have discouraged my children from reading them. They are not particularly badly written I don't mind bad writing it's the smugness and the complicity with the reader that I dislike. It's like they're written by a focus group. JK Rowling is the sub-literary analogue of Tony Blair. -- Somebody named Jonathon Meade
Now, I'm the last person to insist that the Harry Potter books are the best thing since sliced bread. Isn't this a bit strident? And what is "complicity with the reader"? I admit, the tone is perhaps a bit familiar--but it's written for kids. I've seen much, much worse in my time as a father. Perhaps he's jealous?
And finally, for Deb English, a few words about her latest book, Posession, by A.S. Byatt:
It's a kind of schmaltzy Mills & Boon romance dressed up with cod Victorian poetry to make it seem more profound, but there's no emotional depth in it at all. It's incredibly shallow and trivial. -- Somebody named Joan Smith
The phrase "Mills & Boon romance" comes up a couple of times in the list; apparently, it's a horrible thing to be. Would anyone care to enlighten me?
(via Boing Boing)
Modesitt writes two kinds of novels: those that follow his normal formula, and experiments. I usually like the former, though I confess the formula's beginning to get old; I usually like the latter as well, but, alas, not in this case.
Archform: Beauty is set a couple of centuries in the future. Most consumer goods, and even most food, is assembled by nanomachine. The big thing is "resonance": the use of sound engineered to produces specific responses. "Rez" is used in pop music and in advertising; non-rez music is a dying art.
The book is something of a mystery novel, mostly involving a power grab by an organized crime family. The family is mostly organized as a bunch of corporations, and almost everything the family does is above board. The rest is the kicker.
I've got a number of complaints about this book. To begin with, it's got too many viewpoint characters: a music teacher, a reporter, a senator, a crime boss, and a detective, and maybe a couple of others I'm not thinking of at the moment. Each character has his or her own distinct voice and concerns, none of which really overlap in any obvious way as the book begins. Consequently, you have to get quite a ways into the book before you find out what it's all about.
And that's my next complaint. The book doesn't know what it's about. It ought to be about "rez", and the tension between the "rez" and real music; it's clearly supposed to be about the importance of beauty. And these things are discussed to some extent, but the plot doesn't hinge on them. You could pull "rez" and the music teacher out the book with little effect on the story.
On the whole, I was disappointed. Usually, a Modesitt novel grabs me and won't let go until I'm done. This one I had to push to get through.
Having just slammed poetry in general, I feel like I should acknowledge the poetry that I do like. I do like some poems. My tastes are fairly pedestrian, I suppose, and I don't pretend to get everything out of the poems that I could, but there it is. Actually, I'm kind of curious to see if there's anything the poems I like have in common.
I've decided to start with Keats and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", for no particular reason except that I've been talking about Faerie a lot recently. Here 'tis:
"O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.
"O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.
What on earth are you doing out here, you idiot? It's freezing cold, there's nothing to look at, and even the birds have gone south for the winter. It's not like you've got any business out here, even the squirrels have called it quits.
"I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever-dew.
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too."
You look like hell, too--pale and clammy, and you're losing the color from your cheeks.
"I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautifula faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
You met a girl, and she bewitched you.
"I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look'd at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
You gave her sweet nothings, and she gave you everything in return. (And you're the one complaining?)
"I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery's song.
You were completely besotted, and she did her damnedest to keep you that way. She led you around by your little finger (or, rather by the reins of your horse). (Or perhaps it's mettyphorical, as Nanny Ogg would say...but not being Nanny Ogg, I'm not going to go there.)
"She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild and manna-dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
'I love thee true.'
And you believed her? Who's hunting who here?
"She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sigh'd full sore;
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.
She's just playing with you, you idiot.
"And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dream'dah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill's side.
No dreams since then, huh? Not getting much sleep, are we.
"I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all:
They cried, 'La belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'
Today we'd call this an "intervention". Well, at least you're in good company. You're not the first, and you won't be the last. (This is my favorite verse, by the way.)
"I saw their starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here
On the cold hill's side.
She used you up and threw you away.
"And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing."
Well isn't this pathetic. Are you here because you stand to go home--or worse, are you hoping she'll come back for you?
Now, I have no idea whether Keats meant to write about this poor sod of a night who's taken advantage of by the Queen of Faerie, or whether he's simply romanticizing every poor slob who falls for a scheming woman. My preference is clearly the former, and I think he does a marvelous job of telling the story. From the first line he takes us back to the days of the knight errant, and from there 'tis but a step to the Land of Faerie; why else would so many fantasy novels have a vaguely medieval flavor? And there's just something wonderful and fantastic about the Pale Kings and Princes. And finally, waking from his glamour to find himself lying on the hillside instead of in his lady's bower is a typical fairy tale kind of happening.
So why do I like it? It tells a story, and a story that caters to my taste in literature, and moreover it sounds neat when read aloud.
The Miyazaki film festival continued last Friday night with Kiki's Delivery Service. I was both impressed and disappointed. But first, a word about the story.
Kiki is a thirteen-year-old girl whose mother is a witch (a word which should probably be translated as "village healer who happens to be able to fly on a broom"). She's been raised to be a witch herself, and has just embarked on her training. Quite literally--a witch begins her training by flying off on her broom, by herself, and finding a witch-less village or town, where she must survive on her own for a full year. It's clear from the beginning that Kiki's going to have some trouble; she likes the idea of being a witch but hasn't paid much attention to the skills needed. She can fly on a broom, but that's about it. Being as spunky and resourceful as all Miyazaki heroines, she starts an airborne delivery service to make ends meet. She also meets a variety of people, some she gets on with, and some she doesn't, and does a mess of growing.
I was impressed, as always, by the quality of the artwork and animation. The town Kiki settles in is a beautiful place, and the flying sequences are breathtaking and hilarious by turns--Kiki has a way of ricocheting from trees and buildings as she gets started. He does rain remarkably well, too.
I'm equally impressed by Miyazaki's storytelling skills and his pacing. It's a heartwarming story, well-told, and I enjoyed watching it.
So why am I disappointed?
For a movie about flying on a broomstick it was a little...pedestrian. It has none of the action or gee-whiz moments of Castle in the Sky; despite being about a witch, it has none of the magic of Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. Not once did I feel transported somewhere else, as I did with the others.
To be fair, I had fairly exalted expectations when I put the DVD in the player. And I really can't fault the movie, either; it's exactly what it's supposed to be, and what it's supposed to be is simply different than the other ones. It's not about a human being in Faerie; rather (to the extent that childhood is a different country than adulthood, and a large town a different country than a small village) it's about a resident of Faerie having to make her way in the Mortal Lands. It's not Kiki's fault that I'm used to living there all of the time.
During my last knitting group get together, we were chatting about books. It's a common topic since most knitters I know are also readers. Mysteries seem to be the most popular genre with Miss Marple, Brother Cadfael and the Judge Dee books the most popular. Why this is so, I have no clue, though we have had chats about the precise techniques for knitting while reading. Perhaps it's some primal need to multitask that I never inherited. I do know I have never gotten the hang of it, the book keeps flopping closed or I drop a stitch or I forget to knit and just read or whatever. So I must divide my time.
Anyway, Byatt as an author came up and I mentioned that I had tried 3 times to read Possession without success and had given it up as too obtuse or modern for my sensibilities. Another member of the group suggested I give it another go, staying with it for the 1st hundred pages or so before tossing it into the trade in box for the used bookstore. And of course, she was right. The story kicked in somewhere around page 70 or so and I was hooked for a week.
I mean, really hooked. I read it at work on breaks, while cooking, before bed, waiting for my dinosaur computer to boot, etc., etc. I even delayed knitting on a sweater I've been dying to work on to finish it. I got a little anxious when I realized that I only had about 20 more pages and the book would be over. Sort of anticipatory separation anxiety. This happens rarely.
The plot is more complex than this but essentially it's a mystery. A young, unemployed researcher of an obscure British poet runs across a draft of a letter by the poet to a woman. There is no known documentation that the two had ever met except for a brief reference to the woman at a dinner party he attended. She, however, had written an epic romance that the feminist camp had rediscovered recently so he takes himself over to the leading scholar of the woman's work to see what he can find out. She, of course, is brainy, beautiful and interested...in the relationship between the two poets. From there, it is the bit by bit unraveling of the poets' story thru letters, journals and literary detective work and the building of the relationship between the two modern researchers. It was entrancing. Byatt writes with a command of the language that is breathtaking. Some of her descriptions I read two and three times just to enjoy them again. Her use of color was so interesting I was noting them on post it notes to see if I could find the pattern. There is one, but I will leave it up to you to discover. A rare, fine read. And she has other books she's written to be discovered and read.
This book makes an interesting companion to Mac OS X: The Missing Manual. Rather than trying to cover the entire operating system and desktop environment, the book focusses on 100 "hacks" -- which is to say, 100 advanced topics. It's really a cookbook full of recipes for doing interesting things with your Mac, and throws light in a number of dark corners. I'm glad I bought it, and I expect that I'll refer to it regularly.
That said, the book suffers from being...well, from being a book. The Mac OS X scene is evolving rapidly, and many of the hacks are to some extent out of date. As just one example, there's a section on how to install a MySQL database server; it appears to be a terribly involved process. And yet, even though the book was just published in March it's already out-of-date; there's now a version of MySQL for the Mac that can be installed as easily as any shrink-wrapped software. More easily, in some cases.
I've never been a big fan of poetry; it's an acquired taste, I think, and perhaps I simply have never taken the time. It may simply be that after so many years of reading and writing technical documentation I value clarity and precision too highly; many poems seem to me to be the literary equivalent of the entries to the annual Obfuscated C competition.
Consequently, I'm not the person to try to distinguish good poetry from bad poetry. But even I can tell when the emperor is naked, and so I found this article both enlightening and entertaining.
When I reviewed With the Lightning, I nearly accused Drake of channeling David Weber, and suggested that Honor Harrington fans would love it. Somewhat surprisingly, my wife Jane is a big Honor Harrington fan; she latched on to Weber's books shortly after I brought them home, and now has read them several more times than I have. She's not reading much fiction these days--no time--but when a new Harrington book comes in, everything stops until she's done with it. I told her a bit about With the Lightning, and she picked it up, and everything stopped for a couple of days until she finished this one, too. So I seem to have hit that nail on the head.
But in another way, I was mistaken. The obligatory Hornblower comparisons on the back cover notwithstanding, Drake is channeling neither C.S. Forester nor David Weber. Instead, he's channeling Patrick O'Brian. The parallels are so blindingly obvious that I should have noticed them immediately. Here are a few:
Jack Aubrey succedds on luck, determination, and pure good seamanship. Lt. Leary succeeds on luck, determination, and pure good spacemanship.
Stephen Maturin is suspected of disloyalty because he was tangentially involved in an uprising in Ireland. Adele Mundy is suspected of disloyalty due to a conspiracy for which her parents were executed.
Jack Aubrey is a womanizer. Lt. Leary is a womanizer.
Aubrey and Maturin's first meeting is marked by a serious disagreement out of which friendship is ultimately born. Leary and Mundy's first meeting is marked by a serious disagreement, out of which friendship is ultimately born.
Surprisingly, for a physician, Maturin is a skilled duellist and a first class shot (and also a dab hand with a sword). Surprisingly, for a librarian, Mundy is a skilled duellist and a first class shot.
When Maturin goes to sea he is much beloved by all the crew for his undoubted skills, despite being clumsy and no seaman at all. When Mundy goes to space, she is much beloved by all the crew for her undoubted skills, despite being clumsy and and so spaceman at all.
Jack Aubrey makes his name when his sloop Sophy captures the much larger frigate Cacafuego. Lt. Leary makes his name when his corvette....
Well, you get the idea. There are more parallels, but I won't get into that.
It's not a perfect match, by any means; except for a few minor elements, the plots are entirely different. And in some other ways it doesn't quite work. Aubrey and Maturin are tied together by a great love of music; there is no such shared interest between Leary and Mundy. There is cause for mutual respect, but no real cause for great friendship of the kind we see developing.
But all of these comments are really beside the point, which is that, like its predecessor, it's a ripping good yarn and a lot of fun.
Welcome to the new home of "A View from the Foothills". I've decided to stop rolling my own blog, and go with a package called Movable Type. There are some advantages and disadvantages to the change--for one thing, this blog will no longer be quite as easily integrated with the rest of my site. On the plus side, though, you folks can now leave comments if you like.
Over the next few days I intend to migrate all of the old weblog archives over to Movable Type's database; they will also stay where they are, so that the old perma-links will remain valid.
And then will begin the tweaking, to make the weblog look the way I want it to.