Not only that, but thanks to Jaquandor's review the worthy Michelle, a blogger I'd not before encountered, has also now read it and has some delightful comments on Hughart and Chinese history. Neat stuff.
During the Summer Olympics many years ago, there was a series of ads that showed scenes of people with a wide variety of products. And in each scene, the people smiled and said, "We're Beatrice!" Apparently Beatrice was some sort of conglomerate, and wanted a little name recognition. I've not heard of them since, but I guess the ads worked...whenever I go check out this website I think of those ads.
It's not fair, of course; this Beatrice is not a conglomerate but a literary web log. Go check 'em out.
My referrer logs indicate that I got thirteen incoming links from the 2 Blowhards yesterday. I usually get two or three, but thirteen is unusually high--and I can't see anything on the Blowhards' blog to account for it.
Well, howdy, anyway!
Update: Oddly, I'm also getting a bunch of referrals from something called www.webbuffet.com. When I go there it looks more like a commercial site or something, and it seems to take forever to load. Would anyone care to enlighten me about what it is?
Oh, and how come every day I've got two or three or four links coming in from the Reverend Anti-Christ Pizza's weblog? I've gone and looked at it a couple of times and although I never see anything there that links here, it's been in my logs every single day for months.
I first read The Lord of the Rings the summer I turned ten. My elder siblings had all read it, and I wanted to know what it was all about. I remember spending one entire afternoon and early evening sitting in a lawn chaise on our patio, continuing to read as the sun went down and it got darker and darker, because I was in a hurry to finish and find out what happened.
Bang! That was it; The Lord of the Rings was officially my favorite book. And it has remained so.
I first read my siblings' copy of the trilogy--the Ballantine Books edition with the weird psychedelic covers. Oddly, I still have it. Later, my mother gave me (for Valentine's Day, which was not usually an occasion for such things) a boxed set of the trilogy in paperback. That was the one with a big photograph of Tolkien's head in profile on the back of each volume and Tolkien's own paintings on the front. I no longer have this set; I wore it out.
Over a period of several years Mom got me my own hardcover editions of The Hobbit (the green edition with the tooled binding that comes in a matching green box) and The Lord of the Rings (the boxed set with the Eye of Mordor on the spine of each volume); and later, when they came out, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales as well. That's one of the things about my Mom; she didn't like that kind of fiction, and was rather inclined to think it was probably garbage--but she knew what I loved.
I took the whole set off to college with me, reasoning that at some point in any given year I was going to want to re-read the whole thing. I find it hard to remember precisely, but I expect that I probably re-read the trilogy at least once a year from the time I was ten until after I graduated from college.
In the last fifteen years that rate has slowed down considerably. I last read the trilogy in December of 2000; this December, I watched Peter Jackson's version of The Return of the King. And though it was a grand spectacle, it just wasn't right somehow; it didn't satisfy. And though in the ordinary scheme of things it would probably have taken another year or two, the movie prompted me to pull The Fellowship of the Ring down from the shelf. Late last night, I finished The Return of the King (reading large snatches of "The Scouring of the Shire" to Jane. And I was happy.
What first attracted me to Tolkien was, naturally, Bilbo's and Frodo's adventures. What kept bringing me back was my realization that Tolkien had created an entire world, with its own history and literature and languages, a world nearly as complete and detailed as our own. And that was cool!
In his essay "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien talks about the creation of such a fantasy world as "subcreation," as the activity in the exercise of which we are most clearly created in God's image. By that time I knew just what he was talking about--because I'd seen him do it.
The way I read the The Lord of the Rings has changed over the years. I remember racing through the first half of The Two Towers, and the first half of The Return of the King as fast as I could, because I wanted to get to the part about Frodo and Sam. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli got short-shrift. By the time Frodo and Sam got to the Cracks of Doom, I was going so fast I completely missed what happened with Frodo and Gollum and the Ring. And the Scouring of the Shire was a horrible shock--endings were supposed to be happy. Let's face it, I wasn't a very careful reader in those days.
The last two or three times through the trilogy I've made it a point to read slowly rather than quickly--to savor the fine details and the bits of landscape and the shadings of emotion, and the things that are present simply because that's the way Tolkien's world is. When Tom Bombadil escorts the hobbits on the way to Bree, he sees a hill that makes him sad, though he won't speak of the cause. We don't know what memory the hill evoked in Tom's mind; it doesn't come into the story.
Why does Tolkien tell us about Tom's sadness? We think of history as chronology, as a time line, but history is also geographical. Every hill and every valley has its memories. And Tolkien knew that at that place was a memory to sadden even the mercurial Tom Bombadil, and to have left it out would have been to lie.
These days, ironically, I find that the chapters I cherish are precisely those I skimmed on first reading: Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas chasing the orcs across the fields of Rohan; the passing of the Grey Company through the Paths of the Dead; the seige of Minas Tirith; the parley before the Black Gate; the celebration on the Field of Cormallen; the Scouring of the Shire. Some I read with laughter; some I read with tears; all I read with great joy.
Of the books of my childhood, The Lord of the Rings stands alone. Most of the books I loved as a child I've outgrown. A few I remember with great fondness. Fewer still (notably the Narnia books) I continue to read and enjoy. But only Middle Earth has grown with me, deepening with every passing year.
I just went and counted the books I read and reviewed in 2003. I came up with a nice round number: 150.
I'm with the good Captain--"Slackers!"
I didn't post last night because yesterday I took my four-year-old, James, to Disneyland for the first time.
If there's anything neater than taking a sweet, well-rested four-year-old to Disneyland for the first time, I don't know what it is. And he was definitely well-rested, because he didn't know I was taking him anywhere until yesterday morning, and he didn't know we were going to Disneyland until we got there.
But what about the other kids, you ask? Well, we took David to Disneyland for his fourth birthday; James was too little, and we left him with a sitter. And since David had gotten to have his own day at Disneyland we thought it was only fair to do the same for James when he got to be old enough.
Anyway, we had a blast. James is always good-natured and sweet when we're out together; he has a real willingness to be happy that just can't be beat. Plus, he's one brave little kid.
That is to say, he wanted to go on the Matterhorn rollercoaster.
Even after he'd seen it, he still wanted to go on the Matterhorn.
Even after he'd realized how big it was, and how fast the cars went, he still wanted to go on the Matterhorn.
So we went on the Matterhorn, and he loved it.
Did I mention that he's just 4 1/2 years old? I think I was six or seven before I went on the Matterhorn, and I was considerably more apprehensive--I seem to recall whimpering for help as we went down the mountain.
We got to the park when it opened at 10 AM, and we didn't leave until after 4 PM, when James was finally and completely worn out, and ready to go. He scored only one whine for the entire day, and simply couldn't have been a more pleasant companion.
Go take a look.
Ian notes that Opportunity, the second Mars Exploration Rover, has landed successfully, and that Spirit has been resurrected and is talking regularly with the MER flight controllers again. Huzzah!
All of which I knew, of course, but only because I go look at the JPL Website just like everyone else.
For those of you who've met me personally, and who thought, just maybe, just possibly, that you might have spotted me on TV in the back of the crowd of leaping, rejoicing, cheering folks in the control room at JPL....well, nope, I wasn't there. You either had to be on the MER team, or be a big wig of some kind to be there. Arnold Shwarzenegger was there. So was Al Gore, which possibly disproves my point, but there you go.
Nevertheless, I do work at JPL; I'm one of the software engineers for the Deep Space Network--specifically, on the Uplink end of things. Consequently everything I do is multi-mission, that is, it supports all of the spacecraft tracked by the DSN rather than just MER. But I do feel a small touch of pride at the current goings-on on Mars, because every time they talk to one of the rovers, my software is involved. But even then, I work on just one system of many that are needed for successful communication.
Tracking and operating planetary spacecraft is a big job, and it takes a big team; and everybody on the team has to do everything right. And most of them have been quietly getting it right for so long that we tend to forget what a difficult service they are providing. So...here's to everyone involved!
Congratulations to the MER development and flight teams: you done good! Congratulations to the Deep Space Mission System folks who developed the ground data systems used to generate spacecraft commands and process telemetry. Congratulations to the Navigation folks. Congratulations to the DSMS operators who keep the data flowing. Congratulations to the operators and engineers and maintenance folk at the DSN's Deep Space Communications Complexes in California, Spain, and Australia.
When I first went to work on software for the DSN, my then boss (who was trying to talk me out of it) said, "Will, there's no glory in ground systems." And he was right, of course. But if there's no glory, there's a great deal of quiet satisfaction.
Ian's recently lamented that if moving to Shanghai was a ploy to increase his blog stats, it hasn't worked. I've got a solution for him.
Dude--you've just moved to Shanghai. But you're posting, what, every couple of days? Sometimes only once a week. If you want to get your stats up, start posting every day!
I'm not talking about lengthy, detailed, analytical posts, mind you. You're out and about every day in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia, a place where the truly bizarre (from my point of view) is commonplace. If each day doesn't provide you with some small but noteworthy observation or anecdote about life in Shanghai, you're not paying attention. At the very least, I'm certain that the Assistant to the Copy Boy is committing unavoidable faux pas three or four times a day (you've got to start keeping a tighter rein on that kid).
So tell us what's going on. I, for one, would be fascinated. Anyone who wouldn't can go talk to Churchill's Parrot.
He mentions a number of my favorites, including Patrick O'Brian and P.G. Wodehouse, though he says he doesn't like Wodehouse' short stories as well as his novels. I have to question whether he's ever read "Uncle Fred Flits By", one of the best (perhaps the best) comic short story I've ever read. And he mentions a number of other authors I might take a chance on.
But the one that floored me was Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. I've heard lots of people rave about it, but I read the first three books (it's a twelve-novel cycle) and frankly I can't see it. The narrator is a non-entity, a mere observer, and the folks he's observing are simply not that interesting. It's the Eight Deadly Words: I Don't Care About Any Of These People.
So tell me, Terry--what's the attraction?
This is the first book of "The Chronicles of Prydain," a five-book series intended for younger readers which I first read in high school, and which I'm now reading at bedtime to my almost seven-year-old, Dave. (In fact, I'm reading it to him from the same copies I bought then.) He's eating it up.
A boy named Taran lives on a farm called Caer Dallben. He has no mother or father; he's being raised by Dallben the wizard and Dallben's assistant Coll. He's not learning to be a wizard; he's not even learning the manly art of swordfighting, which is a great trial to him. Mostly he's learning how to grow vegetables and make horseshoes and tend to Dallben's pig, Hen Wen, none of which is terribly exciting. He yearns for adventure, and to be a hero. Instead, he's stuck being Dallben's Assistant Pig-Keeper.
Adventure has a way of seeking you out in books like this. Hen Wen is no ordinary pig, but an oracular pig capable of telling the future. For this reason she was once stolen by the dark lord Arawn, Lord of Annuvin. Now Arawn is plotting once again to take over the land of Prydain through his servant the Horned King, and he needs Hen Wen to be sure of victory. As the Horned King approaches Caer Dallben, Hen Wen runs away in fright. Taran chases after, and is soon lost--and has two conflicting missions: he must find Hen Wen, and he must warn the High King at Caer Dathyl that the Horned King is on the move.
I hadn't read [btitle "The Book of Three"] in years, and never aloud (It reads quite well aloud, I might add), and it's been interesting to revisit it. It's much more clearly a juvenile series than I remembered; Taran begins the series as an impetuous and foolish (if stout-hearted) boy, dealing with the kinds of interpersonal problems boys are heir to; much of the book is about how he learns to deal with these problems, and thereby grows up. Indeed, the book hovers just on the edge of being preachy without quite crossing the line--several of the other characters have no compunction about rebuking Taran if he does something foolish or inconsiderate, while others appear to be there mostly to serve as moral exemplars (both good and bad).
Thus, the aim of the story is partly didactic: if Taran is to grow up to be a virtuous, wise, and considerate man, he must first learn how--and despite all the fantasy elements, growing up is the real story here. But though didactic, the author isn't heavy handed about it; and it certainly won't do Dave any harm to watch Taran mature into a decent human being.
Meanwhile, Dave is simply thrilled. It's got a hero he can identify with, and a villain with horns on his helmet, and sword fighting, and amusing companions who say funny things, and lots of excitement, and a pretty girl. We finished it up the night before last, and last night nothing would do but to start the second book in the series. More on that in a few weeks.
Because I often review books that are out-of-print, I've never worried about linking to Amazon.com or the like; but I begin to wonder. Would it make my reviews more useful if I provided on-line bookstore links?
If you've got an opinion, add a comment!
Bill Walsh is the copy desk chief at the Washington Post's Business Desk, and this is his book on proper style, which a friend gave to me for Christmas. I always enjoy reading books on style, if they are engagingly written, and this one surely is. Whether I actually learned anything from it is unclear.
Now, here's a book with something for everybody--or, at least, everybody who's likely to be reading this review in the first place.
If you like mysteries, you'll like this book. Lord Darcy is the Chief Investigator for His Highness the Duke of Normandy, and is kept quite busy investigating one murder or another, with the occasional jaunt into counter-espionage.
If you like fantasy, you'll like this book, for Lord Darcy's right-hand man is a forensic sorceror named Sean O Lochlainn. It's his job to preserve the victim's corpse until it has been fully examined, to determine whether a bullet was fired by a particular gun or not, to determine whether the death was from purely physical causes or due to black magic, to recreate aspects of the crime, and so forth.
If you like science fiction, you'll like this book, for Master Sean's sorcery is a science rather than a art, in accordance with the magical laws of Similarity, Contagion, and Relevance. Garrett has a deft touch; the Laws of Magic are developed clearly enough that we can believe in a magical "science" yet concisely enough that we avoid boredom. Moreover, the mixture of magic with physical technology is a hoot.
If you like alternate history, you'll like this book, for the major premise (other than the efficacy of magic) is that Richard Coeur-de-Lion does not die young but rather returns to England to rule wisely and well and found a dynasty that will last until the present day. In the 20th century the Anglo-French Empire is the dominant power, directly controlling England, France, and the Americas (fetchingly called New England and New France), and indirectly controlling much of the rest of Europe.
The amazing thing is that Garrett manages to combine all of these elements into a single book and make it work--this is topnotch police procedural of the classic English kind as well as topnotch fantasy. I kept picturing Lord Darcy as a mixture of Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn.
The book is collection of short stories with one novel, Too Many Magicians; the latter contains a Nero Wolfe pastiche that's especially choice (Ian, are you listening?). Garrett wrote these classic tales in the 1960's and 1970's; the indefatigable Eric Flint has collected them in a single volume, and I suggest you buy it. My only complaint about it is that it isn't longer.
Robert L. Glass is an old-timer in the field of software engineering; this book is founded on decades of experience. Moreover, his discussion of any given topic is based not only on his own experiences but also on any relevant studies that have been done in the area (if any). As a software engineer myself, I found his observations a refreshing change from the usual sort of thing one hears: "If you'll just look at things my way, and follow my process, then all of your software engineering problems will go away!" I found much of what he had to say to be useful and timely.
The book isn't perfect. In a number of places he makes observations and then doesn't follow up on their obvious corollaries; he has a touching faith in ten and fifteen-year-old studies that have never been replicated; and his attitude toward the Unix programming community is almost patronizing at times, which is annoying.
On the whole, though, the book serves as a useful reality check, especially for those who want to elevate the process over the people involved.
I've got three kids (soon to be four); the oldest is just shy of seven years old. I've got a full-time job. And yet I've got a web log; I write open-source software in Tcl; I've written a couple of (unpublished) novels. (And my wife is still speaking to me!)
And, far from neglecting them, I spend a lot of time with my kids. How do I have time for all of this?
Partly, it's because Jane's mostly a housewife these days. A lot of household chores get done while I'm at work, and that gives us both more time in the evening. (And may I say, both Jane and I are grateful that we can afford to live this way.)
But the main reason is that we've never accepted the notion of quality time.
Quality time, so far as I understand, is all about making up for the fact that you don't have much time to spend with your kids. Since you're short of time, make the most of the time you have! Make it time of high quality! On the face of it that's a fine thing--for some definition of "high quality." What people usually seem to mean is "making the child the center of your attention."--by playing a game together, say. Or reading a story. And that, by itself, is also a fine thing. Put them together, though, and you've got a problem. More to the point, you're depriving your kid of what I call "quantity time."
Quality time is about spending your time doing things with your kids; quantity time is about making space for your kids in the things you do.
For example, I spend a lot of time sitting in a comfy chair in my study with a book or my laptop. I share my study with a playpen, several small chairs, a Nintendo GameCube, and a fluctuating population of Lego, K'Nex, and sundry other toys. And if the kids are awake, I'm often sharing it with one, two, or all three of them. They get my attention when they want it--say, to separate a pair of Lego bricks, or answer a question, or sometimes just to sit in my lap for awhile. My little girl Anne has been in my lap twice just in the twenty minutes I've been writing this.
A digression: I recently installed Mac OS X 10.2.3, code-named "Panther", on my laptop. And one of the new features of Panther is called Expose. And the neatest feature of Expose, from my point of view, is that I can press a single key, and all of the windows on my screen fly off to the sides, almost completely exposing the desktop. A second press, and they all come flying back. And this is neat because I've got a picture of David and James as my wallpaper, and almost every day little Anne walks up to me and says, "Where David? Where James?"
And I push F11, and she smiles and points and says, "There David! There James! There Scooby!" (David is wearing a Scooby-Doo T-shirt.) And I nod, and she smiles, and then I push F11 and go right back to what I was doing.
Though I know you couldn't tell, I just took a break to tell bedtime stories to David and James. (I'm reading Dave The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander.)
I don't often take the kids out just to spend time with them; but if I go out to run errands, I usually have one or two of them with me.
When I wash the dishes after dinner (that's one chore that doesn't get done while I'm at work), I make David come help me. He doesn't always want to; he often has other things he wants to do. But that's another side of quantity time--it's not always fun. The night before last, consequently, David and I had a long conversation about making the best of it--about how to be cheerful even when you're doing something you don't want to do.
And that's really the key: quantity time teaches kids amazing things. Because I'm doing my own things, they learn that they aren't the center of the universe. They have to amuse themselves, so they learn to be self-reliant. On the other hand, they know that I'm there if they need me, so they learn trust. They get to see me doing whatever I'm doing, whether I'm shopping, or paying bills, or washing dishes, or writing software, or just sitting and reading a book--and that's how they learn how life is lived.
And sometimes, of course, I spend time just playing with them, because that's part of life too.
This the third and (to date) final volume in Hughart's tales of Number Ten Ox and Master Li Kao. There won't be any more as Hughart got little support from his publishers and gave up writing novels in disgust. This an extreme pity, as he'd originally planned on writing a series of seven books. Agony!
This particular story begins in Peking, where a vampire-ghoul interrupts a public execution and causes the official headsman to miss his stroke, thus losing his chance to break the standing record for the longest run of consecutive clean kills. So sad, especially as it led to a temporary reprieve for Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu, a loathsome murderer and gourmand. The vampire-ghoul leads Master Li to yet another murder, a series of strange encounters with ancient demons, and a dragon boat race on whose outcome the fate of the world rests.
Stylistically, this one is close to its predecessor, The Story of the Stone; it's both interesting and funny, though for different reasons. Overall I think I prefer it.
The only thing that saves him from a fate worse than being badly dressed is that he relies on the Master's own words.
This is the first sequel to Bridge of Birds, Hughart's delightful tale of Number Ten Ox the peasant and Master Li Kao, the sage with a slight flaw in his character. This book takes place a few years after its predecessor; one gathers that Ox has been living with Li Kao in Peking and that they've had a number of adventures in the meantime.
In this book, Master Li and Number Ten Ox are summoned to a distant valley which centuries ago was the home of the fiendish and sadistic Laughing Prince. A monk has been found dead, apparently of fright, strange sights have been seen, and the local abbot is afraid that the Laughing Prince and his followers have returned.
Like its predecessor, The Story of the Stone is a skillful mixture of Chinese life, legend, and myth, well-leavened with humor. I've never thought it quite as good as its predecessor, and on this reading I set out to find out why. It turns out that there are three related reasons.
The first reason is a difference in structure. Bridge of Birds is essentially episodic in nature, though the episodes are joined by an over-arching narrative. Moreover, all of the episodes share a single narrative and comic structure. The Story of the Stone is much less episodic, and the storyline is rather more complex.
The difference in structure has two effects, my second and third reasons. The first effect is that while there's much to laugh at in The Story of the Stone, the comedy is incidental rather than essential--it could easily have been left out without changing the story significantly. The second effect is that the book is much less fun to read aloud--which is how I first tried to read it. (Bridge of Birds reads aloud marvelously.)
And that's what left the bad taste in my mouth--I was expecting a delightful, joyous read-aloud, and I didn't get one.
This time around I resolved to just let the book do its thing, without comparing it to its predecessor, and I've decided that it's really much better than I'd given it credit for--that it's a good, well-crafted tale. It still isn't the book Bridge of Birds is; but then, few are.
Michael Blowhard raised one of his usual ruckeses recently by posing the following hypothetical: one guy goes to a Black Sabbath concert; another goes to hear Maurizio Pollini play Chopin (which, I might add, Pollini has been known to do quite well--I've got the CDs to prove it). Afterwards, both say they had a "great" time. Michael then asks a number of questions for discussion; all focus on whether the two guys can reasonably mean the same thing by "great".
Michael architects his posts to generate open-ended discussion; consequently, I was amused to see Aaron Haspel bat out a set of clear, concise, definitive answers.
Go read Michael's hypothetical, and then read Aaron's answers.
Something over a year ago, I started a complete purge of my library. Some books got put into boxes for a while, while others I decided to get rid of completely. But as things go when you've got three kids in the house, I didn't finish the job. I finally got around to working on it this afternoon. I suspect that there's more purging to come, but at least I've gotten through all of the mass market paperbacks, along with a few others.
The following books I'm getting rid of only because for one reason or another I have duplicate copies.
These books, on the other hand, simply didn't measure up.
The Spirit Rover has been making head-lines recently; an interesting site I found today points out that Mars is ahead of Earth 20 points to 16.
That's a relatively forgiving score, by the way. The author gives Earth a point just as long as the spacecraft manages to send back some amount of science data--even if it crashes immediately afterwards. If he granted Earth a point only for missions that were indisputably successful, the score would be much worse.
It began to seem like I'd been reading this book forever.
Don't get me wrong; I like Harry Potter. It's fun stuff. But when David insisted that I read him the second Harry Potter book as his bedtime story I was reluctant. I wasn't in the mood for it, and anyway I'd read it to myself late last spring in preparation for the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It was simply too soon. On top of that, Dave already knew the basic story very well, from watching the movie.
When you've got an adult who's reluctant and a kid who already knows what's going to happen, there's no real tension, and thus no incentive to read a book quickly. And so I read it to him a few pages a night, taking three or four days per chapter instead of one. And let me tell you, read that slowly this book is a real dog.
Reading a book aloud word by word casts a bright light upon it, and all of its flaws and imperfections spring out. It's a dangerous thing to do. I had an entire series of books by a guy named Craig Shaw Gardener that I summarily disposed of after a failed attempt to read the first one aloud to Jane. So long as I could read them at speed I was able to ignore the lack of substance, but let the harsh light of slow and careful reading be once cast upon them and my enjoyment ceased.
This book, fortunately, is not that bad. The first Harry Potter read aloud adequately (though not superlatively), and I've no doubt this one would have read aloud adequately as well under better circumstances. I do confess, by the end of the book I'd started editing Rowling's prose, omitting needless adjectives and adverbs here and there.
I haven't quite decided what to make of this book. For a story so deceptively simple, the more I think about it, the more complex it becomes.
On the one hand you can read it as a very simple children's fairy tale with giants and good guys and pirates and bad guys and, of course, The Girl Who Need Rescuing. But Goldman then goes and sticks all those personal comments in about himself and the original manuscript and his first experience of the story and things just get more and more murky. And interesting.
I have to read it again when I have time to think about it more as I'm reading and not just to get the plot down. In the meantime, if anyone cares to enlighten me on what to look for, I would be appreciative.
Now, I read Soul Music so I could go on and read this one.
As you'll recall, Susan Sto Helit is Death's granddaughter. She's also the Duchess of Sto Helit, but as she has philosophical problems with being a non-working drone she's currently supporting herself at the only job deemed appropriate for young unmarried gently-born ladies--that is, she's a governess. And she has a problem. Her predecessor was a believer in the "bogeyman" school of discipline, i.e., "If you don't stay in bed, the bogeyman will do thus and such!" Reality is thin on the Discworld, and the result is that after dark the nursery is regularly infested with one kind of bogeyman or another.
But Susan copes admirably and dispassionately; as a believer in the "iron rod" school of discipline she simply applies an iron rod--specifically, the fireplace poker--to all and sundry bogeymen....and then lets them go, to spread the word that her nursery is To Be Avoided.
Meanwhile, for reasons I refuse to explain, Death is standing in for the Hogfather this year. The Hogfather? You know--the Hogfather. Jolly old fellow in a red suit, says "Ho, Ho, Ho," rides in a sleigh pulled by four giant pigs, and fills stalkings with sausages and blood pudding and toys every Hogswatchnight. Him. For good and sufficient reasons, Death is filling in for him this year. Consequently he's having to shirk his usual duties, and so Susan gets pulled in to take care of them--and Susan Is Not Amused.
This is a book that answers a great many interesting questions, including one great and abiding mystery: just what does the Tooth Fairy do with all those teeth?
I picked this book up for two reasons. One is that having read a great deal of the literature from the Victorian period in British history, I have never read anything about the actual monarch who lent her name to it. The other is that I spent an entire summer reading the diaries of Virginia Woolf once and Lytton Strachey figures prominently in the Bloomsbury group she was part of. His writing piqued my curiosity.
This is a nice little précis of the life of Victoria. It dwells on the personal side of her life and touches on the political less than I could have wished but all in all I found it enlightening. He also brings to the front the importance of Albert in British foreign policy and suggests that had he not died just on the eve of the American Civil War, the British policy towards the war may have been significantly different. His emphasis on the personal loneliness of Albert, an intellectual man married to a non-intellectual woman who adores him was also new to me. I had never given much thought to Albert as more than the man Victoria mourned for over half her life.
The book read well also. I was surprised at that since my take on the whole Bloomsbury group is that they were well above the general level of rest of us and wrote for themselves and Art as an abstract rather than for general consumption. To find a little gem like this was a treat. Now I have to go find a biography of Strachey to find out more about him than Virginia Woolf's sometimes catty observations in her diary.
This site went down some time today; I'm not sure when. I noticed it this evening about 8PM--I couldn't access Movable Type, and the entire site appeared to be gone.
My web hosting service is DreamHost.com. I went right to their support page, and submitted a problem report.
Around 8:30 I checked my e-mail, hoping that I might at least have gotten some kind of automated message saying that they were going to look into my problem. Instead, I got an e-mail message from a real person saying that they had just fixed my problem. And indeed, they had.
Now, that's service. 30 minutes from problem reported to problem solved, at 8PM at night--for a tiny little customer like me.
I signed up with Dreamhost three years ago; I heard about the company through a banner ad at Slashdot--the only time I've ever responded to a banner ad. I've never regretted choosing them.
When I first signed up with Dreamhost, they offered to host my domain for $9.95 a month--a price they promised would never increase. It hasn't. For that price, they would host my domain, host a website at my domain, give me reasonable amounts of disk space and bandwidth, and redirect e-mail. Since that time, they've added many new services. I now have full shell access, CGI-scripting, MySQL databases, mailing list administration, and a bunch of other services I've not even used yet. And I'm still paying just $9.95 a month.
In all that time, I've only had my site go down twice (that I'm aware of). The second time was tonight; the first time was due to a credit-card/billing screwup which was entirely my fault. In both cases, the problem was resolved quickly and painlessly as soon as I noticed it.
Every so often I read about people having trouble with their ISPs or hosting services, and I just smile.
This is one of several books I read before Christmas that got put aside and forgotten for a time. Mysteries are the type of book I read but don’t retain well which means if they aren't reviewed quickly, they get passed over for more recent fare. This one, however, stuck.
It takes place in a small village in England. Years before the neighboring village had been evacuated and abandoned because a dam had been built, after much local political wrangling, and the village was on the site of the reservoir below it. Just before the villagers leave, little girls begin disappearing. The bodies are never found and the snatchings stop when the village is drowned. The police, including a young Dalziel, never catch the kidnapper though the main suspect is thought to be a slightly touched boy from the village who also disappears after the village is flooded. Then, after years of relative calm, the snatchings begin again. And an older, wiser Dalziel and his partner, Pascoe, are brought in to try to figure out who and why.
There were several things that interested me about the book. One was the mystery within the mystery. In order to figure out the modern crimes, Dalziel must recreate and solve the old crime. The major characters from the previous crime scenes have either died or grown up or moved away and he is working against time and lack of evidence to figure out the mystery. Not to mention that the crime scenes have been under water for years.
The other is the use of diary entries by a young women from the village interspersed into the narrative action. Her story becomes a secondary plot line that weaves it's way into the main criminal investigation. And in the end, how she figures in the whole situation was a complete surprise to me. I didn’t see it coming, at all.
It's always a delight to find a new author who writes mysteries with the emphasis on the detection and the puzzle and not on the gory details of the crime. This is one of the latest ones Hill has written and I am doubly delighted to have more to look forward to. I gather there is a long history of cooperation and partnership between the two detectives, Dalziel and Pascoe, that has developed as the books were published. Hopefully, they are all still in print.
I didn't really want to read this book, except that I wanted to read Hogfather, and I needed to refresh my memory.
But first, some history. Way back when, in the fourth Discworld book, Death took an apprentice named Mort, who eventually married Death's adopted daughter, Isabelle. (Trust me, it all made sense at the time.)
In this book, we meet Mort and Isabelle's only daughter Susan. Susan's a strange child, as befits Death's granddaughter. She has little patience for fools (they suffer her, rather than vice versa), and she has a tends to be hard to see when she wants to be left alone. And when Death takes a holiday, as he is occasionally wont to do, it's Susan who must pick up the slack. Susan plays a major role in Hogfather, which is why I needed to re-read this one first.
But that's another review. So what's this one about?
Death, and Rock-and-Roll. You can be the greatest musician in the world, one that they'll talk about forever, but there's a price--you have to live fast, and die young....
So why didn't I want to read it again at the moment?
The wonder of the Discworld is that it's a whole world; Pratchett can satirize anything he likes, and make it work on the Discworld. But Rock-and-Roll just doesn't seem to fit quite right, just as Hollywood didn't seem to fit quite right in the earlier Discworld book Moving Pictures. Also, there's a bunch of foolishness with the faculty of Unseen University that seems to be neither here nor there so far as the plot is concerned. It's filler.
But hey, I enjoyed the book anyway.
I still think he's Looney Tunes--but then, I like Looney Tunes. The question is, is he Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck?
This, finally, is the ninth and latest volume in the story of Vlad Taltos, and it's a doozy. During the previous books we've occasionally heard about a mysterious race called the Jenoine who seem to have had something to do with the creation of the Dragaeran Empire. Apparently they are really bad news--in fact, Morrolan and Aliera have gone missing, and Sethra Lavode believes they've been captured by the Jenoine. Vlad, she thinks, might be able to find them.
I don't want to say too much about this one, as I don't want to spoil it; suffice it to say that the Issola of the title is Lady Teldra, Morrolan's hostess, and that we finally find out what she's really like.
Theoretically there should be nine more of these books, one for each of the remaining houses of the Dragaeran Empire. I'm looking forward to them, because I have absolutely no idea where Vlad goes from here.
In this, the eighth book of the tale of Vlad Taltos, Brust once more steps back from the main narrative to fill in some of Vlad's history. Ever since Jhereg we've been hearing bits and pieces about the Battle at the Wall of Barrett's Tomb. We've also been told that Dragons are natural military commanders, though it's not always been clear who the enemies are supposed to be. In this book we find out about both of these things.
Barrett e'Lanya, a great and respected Dragonlord, dies suddenly, leaving behind a large collection of weapons. Our old friend Morrolan e'Drien is given the honor of safeguarding Barrett's estate, but another Dragonlord conspires to steal one of the weapons. This touches Morrolan's honor, of course, and the only thing that will do is a carefully planned and fought war--held away from settled lands, of course, so as not to be too destructive. Vlad comes along for the ride, mostly because Morrolan's opponent insults him grievously and he wants revenge. And thus, he finds out first hand what it's like to fight in a Dragon army. Just what he always wanted.
This is a fun book, having more of the happy-go-lucky flavor of Jhereg and Yendi, and yet it serves a serious purpose--it's providing background we need for the following volume, Issola, which will continue with Vlad's main narrative. To wit: where do Great Weapons like Morrolan's Blackwand and Aliera's Pathfinder come from? And what's with the golden chain, Spellbreaker, that Vlad's been carrying around for the whole series?
You won't find these things out from me, of course.
Mitford stories are always great fun. I always feel just happy after finishing one and I've looked forward to a quiet afternoon to read this book for a time.
This time around, it's October and Father Tim has come across a dilapidated old plaster nativity scene that the antiques store owner has brought back from England with him. He's bored with retirement and his book of essays is not going well. The crèche reminds him of his childhood Christmases and, on the spur of the moment, he decides to buy it and fix it up for Cynthia as a Christmas gift. The book is the story of how he goes about it, how the townsfolk help and hinder him and how he keeps the secret from Cynthia.
It's a good story though perhaps not as tight as some others she has written. It could have been either a well-written short story with some of the extras cut out or a more developed novel with a bit more tension and detail but on the whole I enjoyed it. It's always fun to go back to Mitford, visit some of the old haunts and find out what everyone is doing lately. She does hint of the next book and where that one may take place too.
Most uncharacteristically, I didn't post anything about the meaning of Christmas this year. As it happens, I was too busy celebrating; and by New Year's, I'd moved on to other things. Still, better late than never.
At Christmas we celebrate the birth--that is, the Incarnation--of our lord Jesus Christ, whom we believe to be both fully God and fully Man. This is rather a shocking statement. The Creator of the entire universe, of all that we can see and more that (through distance or simple inability) we can't, a being of a higher kind of reality than ours, suffered Himself to be born as an infant.
Christianity is not the first religion to claim that that the Godhead has become incarnate as a human being, of course--but the Christian claims are unusual for a number of reasons.
The first point is that we know when and where, historically, Christ was born; his birth is a matter of fact rather than remote legend, and even those who dispute his divinity do not dispute his place in history.
The second (and to me more interesting) point is that Christ behaved most peculiarly for an incarnate deity--he never used his divine powers for his own benefit, but only for others. He healed many people; he fed the five-thousand; he turned water into wine, but reluctantly, and only because it was his mother who asked; he walked on the water, but only as a sign to his disciples; and finally, he rose from the dead that we might live.
Contrast this with what he could have done, and didn't. When he was hungry in the desert, he didn't turn the stones into bread. When he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemene, he didn't blast the soldiers where they stood, or call upon a host of angels to drive them away. When he was hanging on the cross, he remained there until he died.
Some will object, "Yes, but that just shows that Christ was merely human; if he were divine, he'd have done something about it. Those other miracles never happened, but were inserted into the record by overzealous believers."
That's a fair point, and yet I don't believe it holds water. One of the glories of the Bible is that the heroes of the Bible are not whitewashed--all of their faults are on display. This applies to both the Old and New Testaments, to Moses, David, and Solomon as to Peter and Paul. If the Gospels are read objectively, it's clear that their authors weren't trying to whitewash anyone or to sensationalize any event; if they were, they'd have done a much better job of it. Even then it was clear that Christ was unusual, and far from suppressing the fact the Gospel accounts emphasize it.
Christ limited himself in this way because he was called to be "a man like us in all things but sin." Christ was sent to redeem us, and to show us the way to heaven--to show us how Man, unstained by sin, could walk with God and so come to life eternal. And to that end, Christ had to be a man--in short, he had to play fair, to show that the thing could be done without resort to divine power.
The rest of us, alas, are not unstained by sin, and so are unable to walk with God on our own strength--we need Christ's aid. But that's a story for another holiday.
A little over an hour ago, the first of two NASA/JPL Mars Exploration Rover spacecraft bounced to a successful landing on the surface of Mars; you can find the relevant links at the JPL web site.
Three cheers for the MER development and flight teams; as a fellow JPLer I know how hard they worked to make this happen. I'd also like to congratulate the Deep Space Mission System operators who set up the communications channel that let us confirm that Spirit is alive and well--they don't get a lot of news coverage, but they are under just as much pressure as everyone else involved.
One successfully down; one to go.
The seventh book in Brust's "Vlad Taltos" series has yet another twist on the "unreliable narrator" idea. With the exception of Athyra Vlad's been narrating them, and there are tantalizing hints in one or two of the books about his having to tell his story to a metal box. It's not at all clear just who the metal box belongs to, or why Vlad's agreed to talk to it; in particular, I don't know whether the box is just a conceit to explain how Brust got the story to begin with, or whether there's something deeper going on. (There are hints in Brust's "Khaavren" books that their "author", Sir Paarfi of Roundwood, has had some kind of dealings with Mr. Brust.)
But Orca does something completely different. Orca picks up some time after Athyra; Vlad is seeking help for a Teckla boy who was injured saving his life, and he's called upon his old friend Kiera the Thief to help him. And here's the trick: most of the book is narrated not by Vlad, but by Kiera. And even the sections that Vlad narrates are apparently based on Kiera's remembrance of how he narrated them to her. Moreover, some third-person interludes make it clear that she's not relating the tale to some old metal box, but rather to Vlad's estranged wife, Cawti--although apparently we the reader (whoever we are in the grand scheme of things) are privy to certain bits of information Kiera's not passing along to Cawti.
That's right--we're hearing about Vlad's experiences through not one but two levels of unreliable narration.
The plot in this particular volume is fairly pedestrian. A wisewoman might be able to help Vlad's young Teckla; in return, she wants to keep her house, which has recently been foreclosed on. Vlad and Kiera investigate, and find their way into a financial scandal that could rock the Empire. Ho. Hum. But it's a good read nevertheless, not least because it's the first time we get to see Vlad and Kiera interact for any length of time, and because (as in Athyra) we get to see Vlad through the eyes of another.
Oh, and there are Important Revelations. More than that I shall not say.
...but as the father of a two-year-old girl I understand how Mr. Nash felt.
(Via Lynn Sislo, who's really worth checking out if you haven't.)
This is a singular book for Brust, not just in the context of his "Vlad Taltos" series, but with respect to all his work to date.
One of the fascinating things about Brust's work is that he always uses an unreliable narrator. Even when you think the narrator is giving you the story straight, you can't be sure--and you certainly can't assume that the narrator is always 100% correct.
In this book, which follows immediately after Teckla and Phoenix, Brust dispenses with a narrator altogether, and consequently gives us the only unbiased external view of Vlad Taltos we are likely to get.
Toward the end of Phoenix, Vlad took some actions that seriously angered his superiors in the Jhereg. He's now persona non grata and will be rendered persona non viva (if that's the right expression) as soon as the Jhereg's best assassins can catch up with him. So he's wandering about the countryside trying to keep his head down--and attached.
As this book begins, he's just come to a rural area; the local lord turns out to be an Athyra wizard Vlad had a difference of opinion with in Taltos. The wizard kills someone who helped Vlad at that time, and then tries to kill Vlad; Vlad obviously needs to do something about it.
The neat thing is, not only is Vlad not narrating, Vlad's not even the viewpoint character. Instead, the camera follows a young Teckla boy who's being trained to be the village healer, and who (being curious) befriends Vlad when our hero first shows up. It's simply fascinating how different Vlad looks from the outside as opposed to the inside.
Every January 1st we get up and watch the Rose Parade on TV (except for the rare occasions when we get up much earlier and watch it in person). And this year we watched as a B2 stealth bomber, accompanied by a couple of other jets, did a flyover of the parade route.
And then, about ten minutes later, we watched as the B2 and its companions did another flyover in the other direction.
And then, having a shrewd knowledge of local geography, we went out to our driveway hoping to catch sight of them.
We heard them before we saw them--and then watched in awe as they flew, low and slow, right over our house.