Ian thinks I'm being too hard on Peter Jackson and company. He reminds us that unless a thousand little things all come together exactly right an otherwise good movie can be ruined. He points out how much worse Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy could have been. He says that it's a miracle that it was made at all, and an additional miracle that it's so good. He thinks, I gather, that we bookish folks who carp and complain about every little detail are missing the big picture. In his phrase, we've been handed a pile of diamonds, and are complaining about how they are cut.
In short, we need to (a) count our blessings, and (b) give Jackson some credit.
I went and saw Ralph Bakshi's animated The Lord of the Rings when it first appeared in the theaters. It was 1978. I was in 9th or 10th grade, and a thorough-going Tolkien geek. But even a young geek's enthusiasm couldn't save Bakshi's movie from being the complete and utter disappointment that it was. So I'm well aware how much worse Jackson's movie could have been.
In fact, I'll readily concede that Jackson got almost everything right, especially when it came to the visuals. The Shire was a joy and a delight; Moria was suitably eerie; Lothlorien was suitably ethereal; the Argonath was glorious; Gollum was exactly right, even with that absurd trick with the lembas; Minas Tirith was gorgeous; Grond was a terrible sight; and on and on.
I'll further concede that, not being a movie buff, I've got no real appreciation for all of the difficulties involved in making a movie, so the achievement that seems so unlikely and miraculous to Ian seems less so to me. Nevertheless, it was a superb effort, and I'm genuinely grateful to Ian for filling us in on some of what went on behind the scenes.
So, Ian, I've looked at it from your point of view; now look at it from mine.
You compare the movie to a pile of (possibly miscut) diamonds; Tolkien's trilogy, then, must be the Arkenstone of Thrain. If I'm holding Jackson to a ridiculously high standard, it's because I'm measuring Jackson's achievement against Tolkien's. Not fair, perhaps, but being a bookish person I can't help it.
This is the midpoint of the Chronicles of Prydain, and it's of a piece with the others. Our hero, Taran of Caer Dallben, escorts "the golden-haired Princess Eilonwy" to the Isle of Mona, where she is going to live with the King and Queen of Mona and learn all about being a princess. Nothing goes quite as planned, of course, and no sooner do they arrive than Eilonwy is kidnapped by Achren, the wicked enchantress who stole her from her mother when she was a baby. Naturally, Taran must rescue her.
As in the previous volumes, the other characters seem to be chosen for the lessons they can teach young Taran. In this case, the major learning experiences are provided by the feckless Prince Rhun and a giant named Glew. From Glew he learns that physical size has nothing to do with moral stature; from Rhun he learns that fecklessness can go with a good heart, that it is not a permanent condition, and that he really doesn't want anyone else to marry "the golden-haired Princess Eilonwy." And there are all the usual things about loyalty, courage, and the importance of good friends.
David's immediate response when we finished it was, "Tomorrow, we can start the next one!"
At the moment, we have our house about half-replumbed. That is, the main line from the street to the water heater and service porch (well, it's not really a service porch, and it's not really in the house, but it has a washer-driver and a half-bath in it, and the distinction isn't worth going into) has been replaced with copper; the second half will be done in a month or so.
Well, call it seven-sixteenths done, rather than half-done. To begin with, the hot and cold water lines have been swapped. That's supposed to be fixed on tomorrow. The problem is, the hot water line had a whole bunch of junk in it from the old water heater; that junk is now clogging the fill valves of all of the toilets in the house. That's supposed to get taken care of tomorrow as well. In the meantime, we're filling up the toilet tanks with buckets of water from the shower.
Home ownership--a never-ending source of interest!
Michael Blowhard has a neat post proclaiming the greatness of light entertainment--of authors like Ngaio Marsh and P.G. Wodehouse. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I think he's got something.
Read the comments, too.
A couple of days ago, there appeared on Brandywine Books a conjecture as to a couple of plot changes in Peter Jackson's film The Two Towers, to wit, why does Faramir take Frodo back to Osgiliath, and how come the Ents first decide not to march on Isengard only to change their minds "hastily". I thought his conjecture was plausible, but I'm a book guy not a film guy, so I challenged Ian Hamet, whom as we all know is a film guy, to give his opinion.
Ian responded with a detailed and informative post in which he dissects the forces acting on the screenwriter and director who have the unenviable task of cutting a massive novel down to size. I won't repeat his observations here; you should go read them. But I do have a few comments.
First, I understand that very few novels can be translated to the screen without significant changes. The two media are extremely different, and the way in which you tell a story is different. That's fine, and I don't have any trouble with many of the changes that were made for this reason. As an example, Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring includes many scenes of Saruman and Isengard that are simply not in the book--but they are consistent with what we eventually find out in the book. That's telling the story in a different way, and it works, and it's appropriate.
But my view is, if you're going to bother creating a screen adaptation of a well-know and much loved novel, you had best tell the same story. Your inventions should, if at all possible, be consistent with the facts of the novel; and if they are not consistent with the facts, they should at least be consistent with the spirit of the novel. And if they can't be consistent with the spirit of the novel, they should at least make sense in the context of the movie.
Let's take the Ents' decision to march on Isengard upon seeing the devastation created by Saruman, immediately after the Entmoot decides to do no such thing. Ian's opinion is that this is a case of "show, don't tell;" the Entmoot's close decision in favor of not marching is overturned by showing them--and us--what Saruman has been doing to Fangorn Forest. Now, I agree with Ian thus far--the devastation, and the Ents' reaction to it, needs to be shown visually. But I think it could have been shown without requiring the Ents to make a snap judgement, something that Ents simply don't do. For example, the Ents could have closed the Entmoot with the resolution to investigate further--and then been roused to full anger when they saw the devastation.
But this is a lesser sin; it bugs me, but in general the right stuff happens.
Next, take Faramir. Faramir's purpose in the book is as a constrast to Boromir. Both are brave; Faramir is also wise. Jackson's changes relieve Faramir of a great bit of his wisdom, and weaken the character (among other things, as we shall see).
Ian argues that Faramir's decision to take Frodo to Osgiliath adds drama to Sam and Frodo's story, drama that is badly needed there since Jackson moved the Shelob's Lair sequence that ends Tolkien's The Two Towers to the third movie. (Ian explains why moving Shelob to the third movie was reasonable, and I rather agree with him.) Ian claims that without the extra drama, Sam and Frodo would have spent the last half of the movie doing a lot of boring clambering about on rocks, and the scene with Faramir would have been devoid of drama.
I'm inclined to disagree--and I don't think Jackson's feel for how much drama is needed in a given scene is all that good. Witness, for example, the collapsing staircase at the end of the Moria sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring. Our heroes have just fought a cave troll, Frodo has apparently been impaled, they are being chased by orcs, and they are about to face a balrog. No additional drama was required. Similarly, when the balrog's whip catches Gandalf, he clings to the cliff for agonizingly long moments; I think it would have been more effective (as well as truer to the book) if he'd shouted "Fly, you fools!" as he was falling into the depths, Doppler shift and all.
In fact, I think the Faramir sequence has scope for plenty of drama without changing its nature; for example, Jackson could have made Faramir much more reluctant to let Gollum go.
But that's not the real reason I complain about the Faramir sequence; I complain about it because it ends up with Frodo in Osgiliath and seen to be there by a Ringwraith. This simply makes no sense.
First, Jackson is ridiculously bad at conveying how large a place Middle Earth is. The battle scenes in The Return of the King, for example, make it look like Minas Morgul is about ten miles away from Minas Tirith; in fact, it's about fifty miles. Having Frodo take a detour to Osgiliath without paying any real time penalty for it is typical.
But OK; grant that the distance is negligible. What's unforgiveable about the sequence is the scene in which the Ringwraith confronts Frodo. As I recall, Frodo is standing on top of a wall, completely exposed. The Ringwraith has very likely seen him before, at Weathertop; but would definitely sense the Ring anyway. You can't tell me that the Ringwraith wouldn't have stooped on Frodo like an owl on a mouse and carried him off to Mordor. Pffft. End of story. Dramatic, yes--but also, absurd and nonsensical.
Back to you, Ian.
The drummer fires a gun as a gimmick during the swing band's final number, and the accordion player falls down, dead. Who loaded the gun? And why? Enter Inspector Alleyn.
As always with Marsh's mysteries, the pleasure is equally divided between the puzzle and the vivid characters, and that's no less true in this case. It's a fun book, and I enjoyed it.
At the same time, there's a false note about the whole thing. The plot involves a swing band and its members, back in the late '30's when swing was most popular. And though Marsh clearly did her homework, you can't help feeling that she found the whole idea of swing music distasteful; not only do most of the characters find it an ill-sounding noise, the auctorial voice does as well. I suppose it's not surprising; swing must have seemed considerably more dangerous back then, and the bandsmen in the story are a bit of a sordid lot. It would be rather like writing a mystery about a rock'n'roll band when Jerry Lee Lewis still the marrying kind.
Partway in this book, our hero Sir Apropos of Nothing travels into the Tragic Waste, and I can't help thinking that that is, indeed, apropos.
The book begins with a ridiculously obscene satire on The Lord of the Rings. I suppose it was funny if you like that sort of thing; I thought it was marginal at best. Not, I hasten to add, because I think Tolkien is above being satirized; but because David elevates a not-very-good dirty joke into an entire chapter.
It improves after that, but you still end up with the same kind of uneven tone the previous book had--it's trying to be farcical and serious at the same time. Not even P.G. Wodehouse could do that successfully.
I don't know what it says that I'll probably buy the next book in the series when it comes out in paperback.
Collected Miscellany has a couple of posts on the writing of history. The first points out that history is about determining and recording historical truth--not about exporting present day politics into the past. This should go without saying. The second champions narrative history, to which I say "Hurrah!".
There's a place for non-narrative history--it can usefully condense, summarize, and analyze the primary sources in a particularly area, and make them accessible to a wider group of historians. But for communicating our past history to those who need to know it and make use of it--the rest of us, that is--nothing succeeds like narrative history.
Which reminds me, I just got a copy of William Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire. Why am I blogging when I could be reading?
Over here, Jaquandor (BTW, is that pronounced Jock-on-dor or Jak-wan-dor?) discusses whether blogging is bad for writers. It seems a correspondent had suggested that blogging is simply another form of procrastination, and of no benefit to a professional writer.
It seems to me that there are two aspects to this question: first, is blogging beneficial to one's writing? And second, is blogging beneficial to one's career? Certainly, while one is blogging one is not trying to find an agent, sending out manuscripts, or writing salable prose. I can see that for some writers, blogging might be a dangerous distraction.
But, not being a professional writer, I'm more interested in the first aspect--how does blogging affect my writing skills? And I think the answer is simple: if the three most important words in Real Estate are "Location, location, location," then the three most important words in writing are "practice, practice, practice". If you wish to write clearly and well, you can never get too much practice in putting your thoughts and visions into words. And if you approach blogging with that in mind, then it is excellent practice. The daily format is especially helpful at turning writing from being something you do every now and then, when especially inspired, into something you can do whenever you like.
The horror of every student is the five or ten or twenty-page paper. I still remember my surprise when, some five years or so into my career as a software engineer, I realized that I was often writing documents of much greater length than that. That was my first lesson--writing is much easier if you have something to say. And the great advantage of doing technical writing is that it emphasizes clarity and directness, two qualities I find valuable in any kind of writing.
I'm a history buff; I once brought home a copy of the celebrated Hobbes translation of Thucydides. I soon discovered that Hobbes' translation is celebrated because of Hobbes' Herculean command of English prose style, a style fraught with sentences containing seemingly dozens of clauses--Herculean, because only a Superman can do the necessary heavy lifting. It's the sort of writing where you need to read each sentence three times to be sure you understand it; and it takes you twenty minutes because the sentences are so long. It might, perhaps, be an accurate reflection of the original Greek; but it's no kind of way to read Thucydides, and to date I haven't done so.
But I digress.
A little over seven years ago, I started writing and publishing book reviews on the web. I started out updating the website daily (it was nearly a proto-blog in that regard) but after a few months gravitated to a monthly format. At the end of each month I'd sit down with the stack of books I'd read during the month, and spend several hours reviewing each one. I don't claim that every review was a miracle of clarity and style, but over time it, along with my technical writing, taught me to write on demand. Writer's block be damned!
In fact, I think writer's block is widely misunderstood. A few years ago, when I began to write more seriously, I read quite a few books on the subject. There's a certain category of book--I'm thinking of Writing Down The Bones and So You Want To Write that treats writing as a semi-mystical activity. These books emphasize something they call "writing practice", which amounts to written free-association. The goal is to stifle one's "inner editor," that little voice that says, "This is garbage!" and to write down the contents of one's heart before it can be censored or edited.
I tried doing this kind of writing practice, and I did not find it particularly helpful. Indeed, I'm not entirely sure what it's supposed to accomplish--unless it is simply intended to help those who have never written to get words down on paper, so that they see that they can. For my part, I cherish my inner editor. For me, it's that little voice that says, "That sentence is too long. Delete those three words and that comma, and it'll say the same thing."
Or perhaps it's a way for people to practice writing when they don't have anything in particular to say. And that, I think is the key to writer's block, and the prime difference between writing fiction and non-fiction. For non-fiction, such as a book review or a technical document, the material is before you. You must put it in some kind of order, and present it clearly, but the content already exists. Your concern as a writer is not what to say, but how to say it, and in what order.
When writing fiction, however, the material must be made up. Figuring out what happens next is hard; writing it down is relatively easy--provided you're used to expressing your ideas and visions in words.
And that's where blogging helps. It's practice at the craft of writing, at training the words to be your servants rather than your master. And then, when the muse strikes and you're ready to perpetrate some literature, your servants stand ready.
As I related in Part 1, I brought home an HP PSC 2510 All-In-One PhotoSmart printer that prints, scans, copies, faxes, and reads digital camera memory cards, and has both USB and wireless interfaces. I was overjoyed, because I'd gotten the wireless model for the price of its wireless-less sibling.
Later the next morning, I wasn't so happy. The copying worked OK, and I could print stuff using it, but the photo quality was, frankly, lacking. Even with the special photo ink cartridge and premium photo paper, and the proper print settings, the photo prints were clearly pixelated if you looked closely. Arrgh! More than that, I couldn't use the scanner at all; every time I started the HP scanning software it would just sit there and twiddle its thumbs until I killed it.
I checked the HP website; sure enough, there was a new printer driver available as a 71 megabyte download. Why they needed 71 megabytes, I have no idea. But it was dated 12/30/2003, comfortably after the release of the latest version of OS X, and it seemed likely that if nothing else it would fix the scanning problem. (I'd resigned myself to living with the print quality issues.) But all I've got here is a dial-up line; 71 MB would take hours.
Not to worry; yesterday evening I bopped over to my friend Dave's house, and used his DSL line. (I digress: Apple hardware and software are truly wonderful. When it was time to go, I simply closed my laptop, putting it to sleep, and went to Dave's house. When I got there, I opened it again, and was immediately on the 'Net via Dave's wireless network. No muss, no fuss, and it works every time.) I downloaded the new driver; it also turned out that Apple had some OS updates to download that included printing improvements, so I made sure to snag those as well.
By the time I got home, it was too late to try anything more, so I went to bed.
This morning, after taking Dave to school, I got down to business, and installed the new driver. As soon as it was done, I tried to scan--and it worked flawlessly. Two points for HP. Then, just to see, I made yet another test print on the nice photo paper--and the pixelation was gone. The print was lovely.
But third time's the charm. Not wanting to borrow trouble, I'd been using a USB cable to talk to the printer. Now that everything else seemed to be working, it was time to try the wireless interface. And here's where the story gets really exciting.
The HP manual offers detailed instructions for how to set up wireless printing with a WiFi base station. I didn't follow them. I read them just enough to glean a few important facts:
So happens, Mac OS X supports ad hoc wireless networks seamlessly. I simply:
And bang. The new printer was now available to me over my wireless LAN.
There are a number of reasons why my old Epson printers didn't get much use. The primary reason, of course, is that I only want to print stuff every so often. But on top of that, I use a laptop, and I hate being tied to my desk--and that USB cable tied me to the desk. And I hate having to get out the paper and load the printer--which I always had to do, because if I left the paper in the printer the dust cover made it curl up. Thus, there's always been a sizeable psychological barrier to actually sitting down and printing anything.
So ironically, the new printer I bought in hopes that it would be more reliable than its predecessors when used only rarely will almost certainly get considerably more use than its predecessors.
Anyway, color me one happy camper.
Some while back I mentioned that I hate my printer. I got a number of good suggestions for a replacement; in particular, most people had had good luck with Hewlett-Packard inkjets. Now, I've got a good history with HP; I had a couple of their early injkets (the Deskjet and the DeskjetPlus), and we have a Laserjet 4 that's still working fine after something like 15 years. At this point I'm sure it will obsolesce before it wears out.
I got my first color inkjet shortly after getting my first digital camera; it was a Canon of some kind. I didn't get an HP because at that time HP's color inkjets were lagging, and printers that could reproduce a photo nicely were rare. The Canon's print quality was OK for its time, if not outstanding, but I was continually having problems with it--every so often the it would start garbling the data sent to it. Or perhaps the computer was garbling the data; I never did figure it out.
I replaced the Canon with an Epson Stylus Photo 700, which printed beautiful photos and got irredeemably clogged if you didn't use it often enough, which I didn't. I replaced it with a rather less expensive Epson (The 888? I don't remember.) It produced adequate prints, and suffered more or less the same fate. I replaced it with yet another inexpensive Epson, the C-82, which is the one I wrote about last time. It has multiple problems: it clogs regularly, and sometimes in mid-job, and it doesn't play well with Mac OS X 10.3--nor is any new driver forthcoming from Epson. I installed a third party printer driver that solves the driver problem, but given how much ink and paper costs, the mid-job-clogging problem is enough reason to look for another printer.
You'll note that that was three Epsons in a row to go south. Even I couldn't ignore that. The picture quality is great, and inkjet printers are ridiculously inexpensive these days, but they are not quite disposable.
So. Time to look for another printer.
On Wednesday, whilst our three older kids were all in school, Jane and I took little Mary off to the mall for a stroll and a road-test of our new Urban Assault Stroller. While there we stopped off at the Apple Store, where I investigated the printer aisle. "Naturally," I reasons, "If they sell the printer at the Apple Store, they expect it to work with their latest OS!"
(Whether this was a valid assumption shall be seen anon. Foreshadowing: your guide to quality literature.)
(The line about "foreshadowing" is a quote--10 points to anyone who can identify the source.)
The Apple Store had Epson, Canon, and HP printers. Given my past history with Epson and Canon, and the good words folks had for HP, I decided I'd give the HPs a serious look. And the one that really caught my eye was the PSC 2410.
The PSC 2410 is an All-in-one printer: it prints, scans, copies, and faxes. I've previously avoided this kind of beast--jack-of-all-trades, master of none--but this one is part of HP's PhotoSmart line, implying it should print photos nicely. In addition, it accepts digital camera memory cards, allowing you to make prints directly, without benefit of computer. And the scanner is a really nice feature. (I've got a scanner that I never use. It lives in a box, because I don't have room to leave it out all the time. Because it's in a box, I never use it. It probably doesn't work with OS X anyway.) In addition, the paper feed for HP printers is on the bottom, instead of sticking up in the back. This is good; it means that I don't need to take the paper out when I put the dustcover on the printer.
The price for the PSC 2410? $299.
I decided to think about it, and to check prices elsewhere. A little web research, and I determined that yes, indeed, the printer is well-thought-of, and that yes (surprisingly) $299 is a reasonable price. OK, I said; I'll get one.
Now, the Apple Store is at a mall about thirty minutes from our house. On the other hand, there's an Office Depot five minutes from our house. Feeling slightly guilty (the Apple salesman was extremely helpful, and really deserved to make the sale) I stopped off at Office Depot and took a look around.
And stopped dead in my tracks. You see, the PSC 2410 has a big brother, the 2510, that allows you to print, scan, and so on over a wireless network. It usually sells for $100 more than the 2410, and though I'm big on wireless I wouldn't spend an extra $100 to get a wireless printer. But Office Depot had a special sale on HP wireless printers--in short, I bought a PSC 2510 for the same price as a PSC 2410. Good stuff. Plus, Office Depot has all of the HP paper and inks. I got a ream of Bright White inkjet paper, a package of Premium Glossy photo paper, and some ink, and headed home.
A detailed look at the technology by Dawn Eden.
What I want to know is, where's my disposable iMac?
I'm not sure what to say about this book. I've read and reviewed it before; you can go see what I thought about it then.
What it is, is a satirical heroic fantasy. Apropos of Nothing is a bastard child of some nameless knight who forced himself upon Apropos's tavern wench mother--nameless because, in fact, there were a crowd of them. He's clever, quick, and lame in one leg. He despises most people, including himself, and including especially the heroic Tacit, a stalwart fellow who befriends him one day when he's about to be beaten up by the local bullies. He's crude, nasty, dishonest, lewd, and nicer than he thinks he is.
He lives in a fairly typical heroic fantasy world--kings, knights, dragons, peasants, thieves, the whole nine yards. The kings are fools or villains, the knights are glory-loving scoundrels, and the peasants would steal your clothes or burn you for a witch as soon as look at you. This is because it's a satire, right?
The whole thing is full of goofy puns. Apropos is apprenticed to Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions (an area of great volcanic activity) in the service of the king of Histeria; later he is chased by the Harpers Bizarre. He flies on a phoenix, is nearly killed by a stampede of unicorns, steals the story from the hero (!), rescues and beds the princess, and on and on.
It's crude, vile, funny, clever, and pessimistic by turns, which isn't the best combination; and the tone is patchy; the author seems unsure of whether he's trying to write a serious fantasy or a farce. Or, rather, he knows he's trying to write a farce, but he keeps getting too serious about it. It should be a souffl´, but it's more like a pound cake.
So, not a success...but not entirely a failure, either.
Don't laugh. It's actually a pretty good book and I'm not a big Western fan. When I was in high school, I stumbled across Owen Wister's The Virginian and fell in love with it. That was followed by Vardis Fisher's book Mountain Man after Redford made the movie "Jeremiah Johnson" out of it. And a few years back I read a few of Ivan Doig's stories about Montana, particularly "Dancing at the Rascal Fair." But the Louis L'Amour type westerns have never interested me much. However, at my book group we were talking about Westerns as a movie genre—we tend to digress from topic occasionally—and one of the guys recommended this book. He's got pretty high end taste in books too, so I was surprised.
It is good. In some ways, it's better than the classic movie they made of it. After reading it, I don’t see Gary Cooper as Shane though. He's not dangerous looking enough to be true to the character in the book.
I read it as an allegory. Shane is the old west of gunslingers and outlaws trying to adjust to the new settled west of the homesteaders. He's the classic hero—-tall, dark, handsome, straight, soft-spoken, dangerous and conflicted. Joe Starrett, the little boy's father, is the new west—-hardworking, independent, proud, earthy, honest and striving. The conflict is between the old way of working the land in the west with open range and long cattle drives and the newer, more settled way of breeding and feeding fewer cattle but doing it more land intensively.
Of course, it also a pretty well-told adventure story. Shane is the perfect good/bad guy. You want him to win his fight to give up gunslinging and yet you know that for him to remain true to who he is, he can't. Telling the story thru a young boy's eyes only makes it more dramatic. It also gives you the great line he keeps repeating "and he was Shane." Only a kid could accept someone at face value and then, growing up, imply the deeper meaning in the story.
It isn't great literature but it is a good story well told and certainly worth the reading.
This is hardly topical, as it took place in 1708, but it's still funny.
I was getting breakfast for the kids this morning, as I've been doing since Mary was born, and had this conversation with my seven-year-old.
Dave: I want some chocolate milk.
(Note: he didn't say please.)
Me: And what makes you think you deserve chocolate milk?
Dave (surprised): What?
Me: And what makes you think you deserve chocolate milk?
Dave (in disgust, as though I'd misheard him): REGular milk.
Me: No, you said you wanted chocolate milk.
Dave (with an air of resignation): OK, I'll have chocolate milk.
It was a genuine Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck moment. I laughed loud and long, and got Dave his chocolate milk.
Gosh I'm glad I don't live in Dave Sim's head.
I was extremely tempted to let that first line stand as the entire review, but I suppose I should elaborate.
Jaka's Story is the next installment of Sim's epic comic book series, Cerebus the Aardvark; I've previously reviewed Cerebus, High Society, and Church and State.
The first thing to know is that this isn't a story about Cerebus at all. It's primarily about a dancer named Jaka who appears as part of a gag in one of the early episodes. Cerebus has been slipped a love potion by some bad guys; things don't go quite as expected, and he becomes besotted with the dancing girl at a tavern. She returns his love, or so she says, but by the end of the episode the potion has worn off, and Cerebus is gone. Being, after all, an aardvark, he's not likely to fall in love with a human no matter how lovely she is.
Jaka makes a number of short appearances in High Society and Church and State, during which time Cerebus has gotten over his disdain for human women, and they have a number of bittersweet passages. This, however, is the first volume in which she plays a major role. And in fact, she's center stage--Cerebus isn't even present for most of it.
The first two-thirds are quite interesting, despite Sim's penchant for filling whole pages with four or six or eight panes of nearly the same image (I suppose it's supposed to be cinematic, and sometimes it works; there are a number of pages on which one character is having writer's block, where it's quite effective; but mostly it just seems like he's trying to get through an issue with as little writing as possible.)
But as I say, the first two-thirds are quite interesting. The volume contains two narratives side by side. The first tells of Jaka's childhood in the Tavers Family Residence in Palnu from when she was five years old until she left Palnu and began earning a living as a dancer. The second follows on from Church and State, and features Cerebus (briefly) visiting with Jaka and her shiftless husband Richard. The two stories are converging into what's looking to be a really dramatic climax when -- BANG in steps the Cirinist Inquisition. The Cirinists are a matriarchal sect of the Church of Tarim; it seems that dancing has been outlawed. All and sundry (except Cerebus, who stepped out in boredom sometime earlier) are shipped off to the Cirinist dungeons, which is where the last third of the book takes place.
I really don't know what Sim was trying to achieve, but what ever it was, he completely blew it with that last third, in both narratives. I won't say how the story of young Jaka ends--but the horrible, traumatic event that is supposed to send her fleeing her patrician birth to become a dancer in low dives all over Estarcion is too absurd for words. As for the present day narrative, the ending is truly horrific...but the only thing I gather from it is that Sim doesn't much like women and doesn't much like religion. I also gather from his introduction that he has no concept whatsoever what a healthy marriage looks like.
Anyway, I'm disappointed, just as I was with Church and State--the book's got an excellent build-up, and some truly beautiful story-telling, and then the ending fizzles. It's really rather pathetic.
I don’t have much to add to Will's review of this book. When I was reading the Vlad Taltos series in January, this was the only one I couldn’t put my hands on at the time and so, moved on without it. I wish I had waited. The following books would have made more sense and been better for knowing what was in this book, I think. If you haven't read Brust's Taltos series, start at the beginning and work your way thru them. They're a gas.
One of the truly surreal parts of having a newborn in the house is that they grow. They never do it while you're watching--you come down for breakfast, and you look at them, and....they're bigger than when you last noticed.
That's what happened this morning. I looked at Mary, all comfy and relaxed in her carrier (she's on the table next to me as I write) and suddenly realized that her head was just a little bigger and more rounded than it was yesterday.
"Jane," I said, "Her head's bigger."
"It could be," she said. "She wanted to eat all night long."
The kicker was her hair. She was born with a lot of dark hair, but it looks thinner this morning. Analysis: the follicles are farther apart.
I was expecting this--Mary is our fourth, after all--but I wasn't expecting it quite so quickly.
The very day after I write a review of C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, a book in which Lewis argues for the notion of "objective value" or "natural law", I read this post on Banana Oil. The post is a hodgepodge of linkage; the second entry down deals with Leon Kass and the president's Council on Bioethics.
I don't really want to talk about cloning here, as I've not thought much about it. What I find fascinating are some comments made on both sides. Ian quotes a post which says, in part,
[Leon] Kass [Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics] has written in the past about how we should base our moral judgments in part on what he calls "the wisdom of repugnance." In other words, the feeling you get in your bones that something is wrong is a reliable guide to what really is wrong.
It is genuinely sad that both left and right in the US now believe that feelings trump facts and reason. There can be no productive argument in such a situation. One side feels one way, the other side another, both say so, and then the name-calling begins.
I don't know to what extent the quoted post is an accurate description of Kass's belief....but if it is, it seems to me that what Kass is saying is that some things are objectively wrong--wrong on the face of it. His mistake is in using the language of emotion, rather than the language of natural law.
In my experience, I might add, the feeling in my bones that something is wrong is always worth listening to. In technical matters, it's called the voice of experience; in moral matters, it's called the voice of conscience. Please note, I don't say that this voice is invariably correct--sometimes the problem is in my understanding, and sometimes I'm simply confused. But it's always worth listening to.
If you're like me, you've participated in dozens if not hundreds of bull-sessions, electronic or otherwise, on the topic of "What constitutes good literature?" The presence of the book in the "Literary Fiction" section is no clear guide; the "Literary Fiction" section is mostly filled with pretentious tripe. The popularity of the book is no clear guide; people will read the most appalling trash in large quantities. And the book I revere might well revulse you. It can be tempting to cut the Gordian knot of aesthetics by claiming that aesthetic values are merely subjective. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," you might cry.
And yet, that's not a particularly satisfying answer. It's clear to me--in fact, it's clear to everyone--that some books are better than others. I might not be able to say precisely why in every case, and yet the fact remains. Some books are better than others.
Part of the problem, of course, is that there is no single measure of literary value--there are dozens of axes on which a work can be said to succeed or fail. Literary value is complicated--as complicated as people are complicated--and to say that literary value is merely subjective isn't a solution, it's an abdication.
A similar muddle exists in the realm of moral value. The modern relativist says, "Act A is forbidden in culture B, but compulsory in culture C; therefore the immorality of act A is culturally-defined rather than absolute." Reduced to simplest form, this statement generally turns out to mean "It's not wrong when the So-and-so's do it, and therefore it's not wrong if I do it, no matter what Mrs. Grundy says."
And indeed, faced with the varied customs and ethos of the cultures of the world, it's easy to cut the Gordian knot of moral value by taking up a relativist position--especially if we're looking for reasons why it isn't sinful to sin.
And that brings me to Lewis' book The Abolition of Man, which is outstanding and which I highly recommend. Lewis begins with a discussion of a schoolbook whose authors appear to espouse the notion that aesthetic and moral values are subjective. He points out that such people don't usually hold that all value is subjective--just the ones they want to belittle. Their own values, of course, are objectively good, as they will hasten to prove from first principles.
Except that they can't. You can't prove that a value is objectively good except in terms of another value. Consider the following dialog:
A: We must feed the poor!
A: Because if we don't do something, many of the poor will starve.
B: Oh. That's bad, is it?
A: Of course it's bad. If they starve, they will die.
B: Oh. But won't that leave more food for the rest of the poor?
A: You don't get it. If we don't do something, people will die. Some of them will be children!
B: And it's bad for children to starve?
A: Well, naturally!
Speaker A has a number of options here. He might conclude that B is yanking his chain and tell B to go to hell; he might (if he's unwise) try to argue the point further--for no matter what value A invokes, B can simply say, "Oh, that's good, is it? Why?"
A's best answer is simply that it's wrong to allow children to die of starvation if we can prevent it. Allowing them to starve is objectively, self-evidently, axiomatically wrong.
According to Lewis (and I have no reason to doubt him), the word "reason" has been redefined in the last hundred or hundred-and-fifty years. For the ancients and medievals alike, "reason" included not only logical thinking but also what we call common sense--and that, in turn, included the recognition that the value of bravery, charity, and other virtues are self-evident. Some things simply don't need to be proved.
This, of course, gets us back to our moral muddle. If moral values are self-evident, then why don't all cultures agree on them?
The astonishing fact is that for the most part they do, as Lewis amply illustrates in the Appendix to his book. Every culture in the world shares in what Lewis calls, for lack of a better word, the Tao. Taken as a whole, the agreement is remarkable. And taken as as a whole it becomes clear that the exceptions, so far from proving that value is relative, are simply culture-specific kinks, the besetting sins of each nation.
Moreover, although the Tao is the common heritage of all mankind it still needs to be taught; even Aristotle recognized that if virtue is not taught to a child, the child will never recognize virtue as an adult.
Thus, it's more true to say that there's no accounting for taste than that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For what is bad taste but attributing value to objects which don't deserve it? And what is virtue but attributing value to actions which do deserve it (and acting accordingly)?
I generally buy my daughter the trade books she reads for school so she can write in them. It's easier for her if she underlines the vocabulary words she has to define or scenes she has to discuss as she's reading them. It's a simple enough adjustment for her learning difficulties and since schools really don’t teach more than one or two non-text books a semester, it's not a huge budget issue either. This book is taught in, I think, 7th grade. Maybe 6th. I do remember trying to help her decipher the idiomatic vocabulary and probing her for a little more depth on her critical thinking questions. It's too bad I hadn't read it at the time. Our chats about it would have been much more productive because it's really a very good book. Amazingly so.
As a coming of age story, the plot is fairly simple. Rob Peck is a young boy skipping school one day and wandering the woods brooding when he happens upon a neighbor's cow calving and in distress. He's small, the cow is huge and it's a fierce struggle to help the calf out but he does it and he goes on to save her from choking to death on ruptured goiter by reaching in and ripping it out of her throat. He's bitten and unconscious when he's found by the neighbor and carried home to be stitched up on the kitchen table by his mother. And in payment for saving his prize cow and her twin matched bull calves, the neighbor gives Rob a young piglet of his very own to raise.
That's the first couple of chapters. After that it's the story of Rob raising his pig, living during the Depression on a farm that is barely making it, watching his parents struggle and finally accepting some of the harsher realities of adulthood. It's not a happy story, though there are light hearted moments in it, particularly when a prissy friend of his mother learns he is nearly failing English in school and decides it's due to not learning to diagram a sentence. His description of his diagramming lesson was so funny I had tears in my eyes reading it. And if you are not of a farm background or don’t understand the earthy way that farmers approach the breeding of animals, some of the scenes in it may be a little surprising. It adds rather than detracts from the book.
His parents are deeply proud, plain people and Shakers, although what that means is unclear to me since Shakers were a sect that believed in communal living and a celibate lifestyle. His parents seemed more along the lines of devout Quakers. No matter. The point is that he does not fit in. His clothes are different, he doesn’t own a bike etc. And they are poor. His father must work off farm as a pig killer at a slaughter house to pay the mortgage. They have next to nothing and the only real thing he has of his own is the little pig he has been given. He plans on breeding her and making money from selling the stock.
The real joy of reading this book is the language. Peck plays with idiom in a way that enchanted me. It's almost poetic. I had to read slowly and listen to the words to hear it. The descriptions at the end had me in tears. The story was sad and the telling was sad. I am so glad my daughter had the opportunity to read this one. It's a jewel.
In which Will feels heroic for doing the things Jane usually does every day.
It's common to lampoon a husband's feelings of achievement in the area of childcare at a time like this (in the movies, at least, and on TV), and I think that's wrong. I've gotten the kids up, fed, dressed, and in David's case off to school; I've washed the dishes; I've gotten the carseat ready to bring Mary home from the hospital; and I don't usually do these things.
What's not to be proud of?
But then, I've always found it remarkably unperceptive to say that "so-and-so is just a housewife...." Keeping a household running smoothly is a lot of work, and a valuable skill.
...unto us a daughter is given!
Mary Suzanne Duquette was born today (8.5 lbs, 20"), and Jane and I are exceedingly grateful.
Ian Hamet has become well known for his essays on the great movie directors; today he's branched out a bit, and posted a lengthy and informative disquisition about the early 20th century drama critic and cultural observer Mortimer Brewster, whom he touts as a forerunner of our own Terry Teachout.
Much of Hamet's essay is taken up with the disturbing scandals that plagued Brewster's life, including his 1940 conviction for serial murder. Brewster never confessed to the crimes, and indeed was supported in his claims by his wife of two years, Elaine Harper. He was eventually released from prison in 1946, and disappeared--with Elaine--to lead a quiet life in the Far East.
I'm less interested in the various Brewster scandals, however, than in Hamet's disturbing misrepresentation of Elaine Harper. As is well-known (he published no less than five books on the subject), Mortimer Brewster was no friend to matrimony; indeed, Elaine Harper was clearly an exceptional woman to not only catch such a confirmed bachelor and man-about-town, but also to keep him. Hamet says of her,
One gets the impression that she actually accepted Mortimer's views and would have lived with him under any arrangement he demanded.
Now, I must say that this seems highly unlikely. For Brewster to marry, given his published views, was to expose himself to public ridicule. Surely if Elaine Harper had been willing to enter into some less formal arrangement, Brewster would have taken advantage of it?
It is true, I grant you, that the young Mrs. Brewster completed the unfinished manuscript of her husband's fifth book on marriage, Mind over Matrimony, and saw it into publication; but what else could she do, with her husband being in prison at the time for a string of murders he may not have committed, and all the legal expenses to pay?
In short, I simply cannot buy Hamet's portrayal of this loving, loyal minister's daughter as some kind of potential libertine-in-waiting. Rather, I would prefer to think of her as an old-fashioned girl who stood by her man, right or wrong.
Beyond that, I found Hamet's narrative to be both informative and compelling, and I commend it to anyone with an interest in the dramatic scandals of the 1930's and '40's.
When you're scheduled to have a new baby in the house in two days, one of the last things you want to hear your wife say is, "Honey, I think we have a plumbing problem."
I came rattling downstairs with visions of the kitchen sink backing up, or perhaps water covering the floor, and was quite relieved when Jane led me outside; I figured it was some problem with the sprinkler system. We've had a lot of rain recently; I'd just turn off the water to the yard, and we'd get the plumber in some time in the next week. No big deal.
Once we were outside, Jane pointed at some water running down the steps from the back yard; the water proved to be coming out from under the doors of a storage wall we've got under an overhang back there. Not, oddly enough, from under the door of the cupboard that contains the hot water heater, but from under the door next to that.
The problem turned out to be a big old one-inch galvanized pipe that runs the full length of the storage wall up under the roof. It had developed a couple of pinhole leaks and was spraying water all over the gardening tools and bags of fertilizer and assorted scraps of plywood. Joy! Something would clearly have to be done, and soon.
I called up my dad and asked him to come over and show me where the nearest shutoff was (Jane and I about our house from my parents about seven years ago; they'd lived there for the previous thirty-five years). I had fond hopes that we might not have to shut off the water to the house to fix the problem.
No such luck--that big old one-inch galvanized pipe, which had been there since at least 1965 and possibly longer, is the line that feeds all of the indoor plumbing. Double-joy!
Fortunately our plumber was available this morning, and was able to stop the leaking with a couple of pipe-clamps. But we're looking at a complete repiping (and a new water heater), and it needs to be done sooner rather than later.
I can only imagine what wonders tomorrow will bring.
As I've hinted upon occasion, our favorite TV show at the moment is Good Eats, which airs on the Food Network. It's not so much that we're foodies (we're not) as that Alton Brown is both funny and informative. He doesn't just show you how to cook something; he also goes into the chemistry and physics of it. And he goes about it in a suitably whimsical way. Anyway, in Alton Brown's cookbook he references McGee's On Food and Cooking as one of his major sources--indeed, as a source that often goes a good bit beyond what he needs to know.
Well, Jane was looking for a present for me this past Christmas; she was ordering me some books through Amazon and wanted to get me just one more. I'm not sure just what prompted her to add this one to the list, but I don't regret it. I've been reading it in small dribs and drabs ever since, and finally finished it up this morning.
It's fascinating stuff. He covers the characteristics of the major foods (the different kinds of fruits, vegetables, grain, meat, nuts, and so forth); the different methods of cooking, and how they work; how the body digests food; it's fairly comprehensive and very detailed.
For example, were you aware that fatty acids have a chemical structure very similar to that of octane and other hydrocarbon fuels? Octane is a chain of eight carbon atoms; each carbon atom has two hydrogen atoms attached to it on either side. The carbon atoms at the end have an extra hydrogen each. Octane reacts nicely with oxygen to give you carbon dioxide, water, and heat; it's a lot of energy stored in a compact space. Fatty acids typically consist of longer chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms, very similar to octane's longer cousins, with a carboxyl group at one end. And just like octane, fatty acids react nicely with oxygen.
The single neatest thing I learned from the book, though, is the secret of modern beekeeping: five-sixteenths of an inch, the so-called "bee space". In the old days, it wasn't possible to remove honey from a beehive without destroying the hive. A beekeeper harvested honey at the end of the season by destroying all but a few of his hives. In modern beehives, the honeycomb is built on to removeable racks which slide out the top of the hive. There's a wire mesh below the racks that prevents the queen bee from getting up into that part of the hive; consequently, only honey is store there.
And the bee space? That's the required distance between the edge of the racks and the wall of the hive. If the gap is any smaller, the worker bees will seal it with wax; if it's any larger, they'll fill it with honey comb. But if it's just five-sixteenths of an inch, they leave it open and use it as a highway.
Apparently the fellow who discovered this (a pastor and school principal turned beekeeper named Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth--and didn't his parents have a fine time rolling out that name when they were angry at him)--I say, the fellow who discovered this patented his discovery, but it didn't do him much good; infringement was too easy once the secret of the bee space was generally known.
So, if you like to cook and what to know just what's going on in your oven or stewpot, or you're just generally curious about how things work, On Food and Cooking is well worth your time.
I like Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr stories. They amuse me. I have found that I need to space them out and not read them back to back, however, since he tends to repeat details from one book to another. It can get annoying if you don’t give yourself enough space between them. But it's been awhile since I last read one and I found this one on my shelf one night as I was prowling around looking for something to read so I gave it a go.
One thing you have to know is that this series is fairly formulaic. Bernie is going to burgle, is in the process of burgling, or has just burgled some place, and someone shows up dead there. Bernie then has to find the murderer or he's going to end up taking the blame. That has been the essential plot line of every book in this series that I've read so far. But this one is very different, enjoyably so.
Bernie has a hot weekend planned with his latest flame in a quiet country inn in upstate New York. Unfortunately, she cancels on him a couple days before because she's, yikes, about to get married. Bernie was not aware of the other guy in her life and he is understandably bummed out. But he's not so bummed that he cancels the trip. Rather, he invites his extremely short friend the lesbian dog groomer along instead. Not exactly the romantic weekend he had planned but then the owner of the inn stocks a particularly fine brand of whiskey which at least makes up for it a little. And there is this book in the library of the inn that he's kind of interested in finding. It's a book by Raymond Chandler, inscribed to Dashiell Hammett, that may have been given to Hammett during a weekend they may have spent together that Hammett may have left at the inn. Maybe. He's just going to take a little looksee around.
Things get interesting when they get there. They have to share a room and a bed. The inn is snowed in and the snowstorm is predicted to last all weekend. There is an extremely precocious kid that Bernie jokingly tells he's a burglar, which she blabs all over the place. Fortunately, it's such an absurd statement that no one believes it. Ha! And amazingly enough, his ex-girlfriend and her groom show up for a quiet honeymoon weekend. Awkward isn't strong enough. And then, he finds a body in the library when he's out cruising in the middle of the night for the book. No phone, no one in or out because of the snow and no way to call for help.
I enjoyed this one more than the others. Block is playing around with some of the basic conventions of mysteries and mystery writers here and still telling a funny whodunit. And the ending with it's nod to the deus ex machina strategy to save the hero is hilarious, especially when you realize who the deus is in the machina. If you like Block, get it and read.
Memoirs and diaries are an interesting genre to read but especially so when written by non-professional writers who are merely telling a story. Polishing thoughts can be a good thing but it can also knock some of the edges off that give power and sharpness to the true story.
This book was written by a woman who lived thru the Nazi occupation of Norway, grew up and wrote this book as a response to her grandchildren's request for stories about her childhood. She tells of having to abruptly flee inland away from the bombing of the fjord they lived near and in the process leaving her toys and pet dog behind. For a time her older sister is working in a hospital directly in line of the bombs treating German and Norwegian injured, unable to communicate with the family and in serious danger. She, her mother and siblings travel to refugee sites inland without her father who works in the harbor, living in cramped quarters with strangers and struggling to find food. The stories go on of atrocities committed in concentration camps in Norway, of kids teasing the German soldiers and of adults trying to keep a sense of pride in a situation purposely designed to demoralize.
It's a story of hardship and uncertainty and, above all, trauma. It's not polished writing. There are no elegant phrases or images. It's rough and untidy and at times hard to read. But it gave me a clear picture of what her childhood was like and what her family had to do to survive. And if it seemed chaotic at times, that only reflected the uncertainties a little girl had to live with every day. It's something that should be written down and should be remembered so that I and my kids and the rest of the folks who read this book understand what it is that war does to the people living around the battlefields. I'd recommend it for that alone.
Last week I wrote that I hoped to get back in harness and start posting daily again; and then my cold came back. I felt lousy most of the weekend, and frankly it's still not quite over; and as I've been working the last couple of days anyway I've simply had no energy for writing when I get home.
I'd like to promise that things will improve immensely, but as we've got a baby due sometime in the next week I fear that will not be the case. We Shall See.
These are three more volumes in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles that Wrede wrote in the late 80's and early 90's. I suspect the Harry Potter phenomenon brought them back from dusty retirement as a way to fill up those tables at the bookstore that have large signs saying "If You Liked Harry Potter, You'll Like These." I've browsed some of those books and aside from magic or the supernatural as a leitmotif, very little else is like Harry.
However, I've been on a young adult fiction kick lately and I did enjoy these, so much so I actually stayed up late to finish one. They remind me vaguely of a cleaned up, more innocent version of Terry Pratchett's Lancre novels.
The books tell the story of Cimorene, the princess who's run away from home because princessing is too boring to be believed and has become the voluntary captive of Kazul, the King of the Dragons. Kazul is female, by the way, but King is a job description and not gender associated. There's a Queen who fulfills other functions.
In Searching for Dragons she meets Mendanbar, a reluctant King of the Enchanted Forest, while on a quest to rescue Kazul from the Wizard's Society who are using Kazul to suck all the magic out of the Enchanted Forest into their Wizard's staffs. This is a bad thing. Unfortunately, Mendanbar's magic sword leaks magic, and while out of the Enchanted Forest it stands out like a beacon on a hill for evil Wizards. Not to mention the magic carpet that they borrow has transmission problems and keeps dropping them all over the place.
In Calling for Dragons, Princess Cimorene has become Queen Cimorene and she's newly pregnant when someone, likely a wizard, threatens the Enchanted Forest with destruction. Because the magic of the forest is tied directly to King Mendanbar, he's unable to do the heroic thing and go on the quest to save the forest himself. Cimorene goes in his place, with the help of Morwen the redheaded, pretty, and nearsighted witch, and Telemain the Sorcerer who is really a magic geek speaking in magically scientific terms no one can understand until someone translates for them. Sorcerers are different from Wizards since they study all sorts of magic rather than specializing. And, oh yes, the trio have help from a bunny who's been enchanted to be 7 feet tall, then eats magical donkey cabbage and turns into a donkey and then is further enchanted to sprout wings and turn blue when he eats some specialized magic ag products raised by Farmer McDonald who is diversifying his farm. The bunny's name is Killer. They return to a really frightful situation with a war between the Wizards and the King. And the King is in trouble. Almost best of all, in this one we get to hear what Morwen's cat's are really saying when they meow.
Talking to Dragons breaks stride just a bit. The narrative switches to focus on Cimorene's son, Daystar, now 17 years old. One day, she hands him a sword and sends him on a journey in the Enchanted Forest telling him nothing except he will know what he's suppose to do when it happens. And then he has all sorts of adventures after meeting a fire-witch, a baby dragon and a lizard named Suz.
One of my theories about young adult and children's books is that the high quality ones can be read by both adults and children with enjoyment. These certainly follow that theory. I enjoyed them so much I told my daughter I want them back for MY bookshelf when she's done with them. Perhaps my son, the Terry Pratchett aficionado, will read them as well.