October 31, 2004

The Jupiter Myth, by Lindsey Davis

The Jupiter Myth is yet another Marcus Didius Falco mystery, and it follows directly upon The Body in the Bathhouse. That book left Falco and his family in Britain; his wife's uncle Hilaris is the Roman procurator in Londinium, and the current book takes place while Falco and company are visiting Hilaris prior to returning to Rome. All is well and good, and then a crony of King Togidubnus turns up dead in a Londinium wineshop. The crony wasn't supposed to be in Londinium; he wasn't even supposed to be in Britain, having been banished by Togidubnus some weeks prior; but he and the king grew up together, and Togidubnus is going to want to know who killed him. Falco having worked well with the king in the past, he's naturally dragooned to find out.

I don't have much to say about this one, but I enjoyed it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:50 PM | Comments(0)

October 29, 2004

Jury Duty

Which reminds me, I was on jury duty this week, and I feel cheated. I was told to call in on Sunday and see if they needed me to come in on Monday. They didn't. They told me to call in on Monday evening.

Monday evening I called in and was told to call in on Tuesday.

Tuesday evening I called in and was told to call in on Wednesday.

Wednesday evening I called in and was told to be at the Jury Assembly Room on the fifth floor of what used to be called the Criminal Courts Building at 7:45 AM.

I was there at 7:35 AM; I'm like that. I sat outside the Jury Assembly Room until they opened it up, reading Mad Hatter's Holiday by Peter Lovesey. When they opened the doors I went in, found a comfortable sit, and continued reading. They had the usual orientation song and dance, with a certain amount of paperwork, and I finished the book. I took Nevil Shute's Lonely Road out of my backpack and continued reading. They called for a panel; it was pre-qualified for a 20 day trial. JPL only pays for 10 days, so I knew they weren't even going to call my name.

Eventually it was lunch time. I took out my lunch, and continued to read while eating it. (They gave us a break for lunch, but walking around downtown Los Angeles by myself isn't my idea of a good time.)

About halfway through the afternoon I finished Lonely Road (a real tear-jerker) and began reading Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde. They called another panel around 3:30; I wasn't called, and went on reading. Around 4:15, they let us go home. That was it. We were done. Maybe they'd summon us next year.

Now, it's nice that I don't need to drive downtown any more. And I've certainly got more than enough to get done without missing work for a week or two. But if you've read this far I'm sure you'll agree that it was a dead loss as from a blogging point-of-view. Oh, well.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:37 PM | Comments(1)

Winning the Flu Trifecta

We've had something of a trifecta this evening; our three older kids have all whoopsed their cookies at least once. Amazingly, it's not from eating too much candy either. Mary's not likely to have any trouble, but I'm concerned that Jane and I might soon make it five of a kind.

And here I was hoping for a quiet weekend....

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:34 PM | Comments(0)

October 28, 2004

Interior Desecrations, by James Lileks

Lileks' previous book, The Gallery of Regrettable Food, nearly caused me to disgrace myself in a public bookstore. When I heard that Lileks' next book (an examination of the most egregious interior design of the 1970's) was available, I made for the closest bookstore eftsoons and right speedily.

And I brought it home, and read it, and laughed far too much, according to Jane. So later on we sat down together and leafed through it, and we both laughed too much.

Lileks' basic shtick, if you're not familiar with it, is to take day-to-day images from past decades and ask, "What were they thinking?" A lot of fun comes in the way he answers that question. You can see it at work on his website; dig down until you find the Gallery of Regrettable Food pages for a sample.

Anyway, he's in fine form here, and I'd honestly like to quote large swaths of the text to you. It wouldn't be fair to do that, though, so I'll settle for descriptions of three living rooms:

If you had a persistent rash, this would be a good room; you'd look right at home.

Said of a room where the couch, the wallpaper, and the drapes all have the same extremely busy pattern: Surrounded and outgunned, the lamp and the pillow held out as long as they could.

Said of a room where everything was done in Bright Primary Colors: This room was designed for a blind blues singer, so that he could hear the furniture.

I'll probably be giving away at least one copy of this book sometime in December.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:21 PM | Comments(5)

October 27, 2004

Date with Daddy

Our new daughter is getting bigger and more mobile and cuter and more interesting, and consequently is becoming more of threat to our older girl, who has begun engaging in a variety of interesting behaviors designed to get her equal time with Mommy and Daddy. The solution to that, of course, is to punish said behaviors--and give her a little extra TLC at other times.

So tonight I took Anne out on a date. We went to Carls, Jr., where she didn't eat much of her food because she was too excited, and then we went to a local bookstore, where I got her a pink book with princesses in it. Four princesses, to be exact, each with her own wardrobe, color scheme, and accessories, and just enough of a plot to justify examining each of them in detail. Oddly, none of the princesses were named "Barbie".

When my two boys were this age we came home with books like Diggers and Dumptrucks. I looked for Slippers and Shoes, but Dorling-Kindersley doesn't publish anything like that. Pity.

I came home with a few gems for myself, too: James Lilek's new book, Interior Desecrations, the second volume in the Complete Peanuts series, and two more of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels, of which more anon. I'll give you a bit of preview, though: Lileks rocks.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:18 PM | Comments(3)

October 25, 2004

The Body in the Bathhouse, by Lindsey Davis

It was just three-and-a-half years ago that I first made the acquaintance of Marcus Didius Falco, informer-for-hire and occasional agent for Emperor Vespasian. And you know how it is when you discover a new author--you start looking for excuses to visit every bookstore in town in hopes that they'll have some volume you've not yet devoured. By October of 2001 I'd read all eleven of the Falco books then available (you can find the reviews on our Lindsey Davis page). And then, sadly, I sat down to wait until the next book was published.

And here we are, precisely three years later, and finally, at long last, amazingly, I have a new Marcus Didius Falco book to review. What happened? Did Lindsey Davis take a sabbatical? Was she in a horrible accident? Did I simply grow tired of good old Marcus? In fact, the answer is "None of the above."

The plain and simple truth is, the publisher did me wrong. Yes, it's entirely the fault of Mysterious Press that the Foothills have been Falco-less for so long.

You know how it is when you walk into a bookstore and discover that there's a new book by a favorite author and you get excited and then you realize that it's a trade paperback and all the ones you've bought to date have been mass-market paperbacks and you really don't want to spend the extra money just to get a trade paperback that won't fit on the shelf with the others and so you decide to wait until the mass-marker edition comes out? And so you put the trade paperback down and try to erase it from your mind so that you won't pine unduly in the meantime.

You know how that is? Sure, you do. It's probably happened to you a dozen or more times.

But what if the book in question is never published as a mass-market paperback? What happens if the wily publisher discovers that Marco Didius Falco sells just as well--or better!--in trade format, and just goes on publishing new books in the series every so often, and only ever in trade format? And then hides them away with the hardcovers so that (not being one to buy murder mysteries in hardcover) you never see them again after their initial release?

What happens is you go for three years without reading any of them, that's what happens. Until one day you stumble upon them, lurking shamelessly in plain site with the hardcovers. And then you have to catch up.

That's what happens. And it's all the publishers fault.

(But what about the book, you ask? Oh, the book was great. I read it on the way home from New Orleans, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Vespasian sends Falco to Britain to see why a public building project is overrunning its budget. And for reasons too complex to go into here, he's accompanied by his wife Helena, his sister Maia, his two daughters, their ineffectual and snooty nursemaid, and Helena's two brothers-in-law. A foul time is had by all, especially by the older brother and the snooty nursemaid, the murderer is caught, and all ends happily. More or less.)

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:02 PM | Comments(2)

October 24, 2004

Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

So Jane and I went out on a date, as we sometimes do, and we went to a bookstore as we usually do on a date, and we found a new Discworld novel as we all too seldom do, and Jane got to drive home so I could start reading it to her, as we invariably do when we find a new Discworld novel at the bookstore whilst on a date.

As long time readers know, the city of Ankh-Morpork is ruled by the Patrician, a (reasonably) benevolent despot named Lord Vetinari. Lord Vetinari is a practical man; he's willing to adopt unusual methods to keep his city working smoothly. Early in his tenure, for example, there was a terrible problem with thievery in Ankh-Morpork; Vetinari retaliated by giving the previously shadowy Thieve's Guild equal standing with the other craft guilds--and then establishing an official schedule of rates and fees. Pay your Thieve's Guild fee regularly, and the Thieve's Guild will ensure that you remain untroubled by burglars while at home or by thieves while out and about. They'd better, or the Patrician will have words for them. Of course, the new scheme led to the near destruction of Ankh-Morpork's Night Watch, a situation that has required a considerable amount of the Patrician's time (and many of Pratchett's books) to put right.

In this book, Vetinari turns his attention to the telecommunications industry, as it were. The Discworld's most recent technological development is the "klacks", a kind of telegraph system based on optical semaphores and line-of-sight relays by operators sitting in klacks towers. In recent books it has even been possible to send klacks messages all the way across the continent to the distant city of Genua, some three-thousand miles away, via the towers of the Grand Trunk.

But the klacks is a newcomer to Ankh-Morpork; long before the waving flags and flashing lights spread across the land there was the Penny Post and the Ankh-Morpork Post Office. But the Post Office has fallen on hard times; indeed, it's been decades since the last mail delivery. It's time for that to change, decides Vetinari; it only remains to find the right man to take on the job.

Enter the unfortunately named Moist von Lipwig. Moist is a con-man, and a skillful one; it's a sign of the improved status of the City Watch that they were able to catch him at all--well, that and the sharp nose of Lance-Constable Angua. But caught he has been, and Vetinari feels that a fast-talking con-man is just what the Post Office needs to get back on its feet. If Lipwig doesn't want to take the job, of course, there's always the scaffold...and should he take the job and then decide to leave town quietly, there's always his "bodyguard," a golem named Mr. Pipe, to fetch him back.

Meanwhile, there's something odd going on with the Grand Trunk. A new company has taken it over, and suddenly it's become much less reliable. Line men having been dying with distressing regularity. And they say the dead men's names circulate forever in the overhead.

The book isn't perfect; there's at least one thread I wish Pratchett had tied off neatly, and at one point there's a catastrophe that works out a little too conveniently for Mr. Lipwig. But on the whole, I'd say it ranks up there with Pratchett's best, and it's definitely less serious and more funny than the previous two Discworld novels, Monstrous Regiment and Night Watch. So go read it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:18 PM | Comments(0)

October 22, 2004

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

This is a very odd book my sister gave me for my birthday, and as it's the first in a series I can see I'm going to have to find the sequels.

It's sort of a murder mystery, and sort of a science fiction novel, and sort of a thriller, and sort of a literary fantasy. It takes place in an alternate universe where Literature is more highly prized than in our own, a world where criminal fiends might reasonably kidnap the original manuscript of, say, Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and hold it for ransom--and threaten to kill the title character if their demands are not met.

Literary detective Thursday Next is detailed to find the Chuzzlewit manuscript, and before she knows what's what she's entangled in a web of intrigue surrounding general all-around-bad-guy Acheron Hades, arch-criminal, seducer of college girls, and Thursday's one-time literature professor (she turned him down).

There's a lot of high literary foolishness in this book, and a lot of plain old ordinary foolishness as well, and I have to thank my sister because it was a great way to be "unavoidably detained" for a few hours. And I have to apologize to Craig Clarke, as he reviewed it for Ex Libris Reviews just last February, and I didn't go looking for it.

But I shall certainly go looking for its sequel, Lost in a Good Book.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:59 PM | Comments(8)

October 20, 2004

Beowulf Can Whup Dante Any Day

This interview with Neal Stephenson is worth reading even if you're not a science fiction fan, if only for Stephenson's take on the deep divide between genre and literary fiction (see question #2). Me, I'll take Beowulf over Dante most days of the week.
Posted by Will Duquette at 06:09 PM | Comments(0)

Wobble to Death, by Peter Lovesey

I'm a fan of Lovesey's Peter Diamond series, as is Deb English; but I've recently discovered that Lovesey has also written a series of mysteries set in Victorian England and involving a police sergeant (later inspector) named Cribb. They are long out of print, at least here in the United States, and I'd never seen any until a recent conference brought me to New Orleans. The French Quarter has six or seven used book shops, and I visited all but one of them (occult and new age stuff, not my thing). And in those six or seven shops I located four of the Cribb novels, of which this is the first.

The book's a competently written mystery; had I been in the mood for a mystery and picked it up at random, I'd not have been disappointed. But Cribb isn't particularly interesting, and Lovesey shows little of the flair I've come to expect from his later books. (Great word, flair--I'm not at all sure what it means in this context, except that Lovesey's writing has improved in the decades since 1970.)

The setting, on the other hand, is fascinating. It seems that footraces of various kinds were popular in mid-Victorian England, and one kind in particular--the Six-Day Go-As-You-Like, also known, gruesomely, as the Six-Day Wobble. The rules are simple: the racers have six days to walk or run as far as they can. That's six contiguous 24-hour periods--there are no mandated breaks. You can take a rest whenever you like, for as long as you like, you can eat whatever you like (provided you have someone to bring it to you), insecure in the knowledge that while you are resting or eating that your competitors might still be wobbling along.

Six-Day Wobbles were usually held on the open road; this book concerns a race held on a track in London's Agricultural Hall. There are two favorites, experienced "pedestrians" both, competing against each other on an inner track, and a number of unproven riff-raff competing on the outer track, and things look good for the race's promoter until one of the favorites collapses on the second day. Enter Sergeant Cribb and his dogsbody Constable Thackery.

Bottom-line: not bad, and I'm quite curious to see if Cribb develops into a more memorable character.

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

October 19, 2004

Blow Fly, by Patricia Cornwell

This is the kind of book you read while wolfing down a pound of Oreos followed by a pint of Haagen-Daz ice cream. It's trash, pure and simple.

Cornwell writes a series of action thrillers based on Kay Scarpetta, a forensic expert who at one time was the head of Virginia's state coroners office. She is highly gifted at her profession, incredibly intelligent and personally attractive. Her sidekick, a detective named Marino, is also highly gifted at his profession but is blue collar in his outlook, gross personally and lacks the finesse that distinguishes Scarpetta. A perfect foil. She also has an incredibly smart niece, Lucy, who at one time worked for the CIA as a computer expert, flies helicopters and is now running a private investigation agency. Kay had a lover, a profiler for the FBI named Wesley Benton, but he was killed off in a gruesome scene some books back, leaving Kay heartbroken and emotionally drained. She has left the coroner's office after a political fiasco and is now running her own private forensic consulting agency while trying to put her life back together in the wake of her lover's death.

And one of the criminals she's caught in the past, a psychopath with some weird physical anomaly that makes him have body hair all over and has caused facial deformities giving him the name Wolfman, is sitting on death row. He's the unloved son in a worldwide mafia type organization based in France and he's written Scarpetta offering to come clean on his family if she will visit him in prison, and administer the drugs at his death sentence.

That's the set up of the book. The action goes further, bringing (spoiler here if you plan on reading it) Wesley back from the dead, having Lucy commit a cold blooded murder described in technicolor detail and a whole series of grisly murders that Kay has to solve fast to save the next victim, who just might be herself.

As I said, trash pure and simple. And I am somewhat abashedly waiting for the next one to come out in paperback.

Posted by Deb English at 06:33 PM | Comments(3)

October 18, 2004

The Gathering Flame
The Long Hunt
,
by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald

These are the fourth and fifth books in the Mageworlds series, and I'm reviewing them as a pair because in an odd way they go together.

The initial three books in the series tell the story of the Second Magewar from the viewpoint of Beka Rosselin-Metadi, star-pilot and Domina-in-waiting of the lost planet of Entibor. The Gathering Flame takes place a generation earlier, in the opening days of the First Magewar. As the book begins, the known galaxy is divided into two regions: the Civilized Worlds, and the Mageworlds. The Mages have begun to raid the planets of the Civilized Worlds, which remain woefully disunited in the face of the threat. And so Perada Rosselin, the Domina of Entibor, travels to the frontier world of Innish-Kyl to seek a leader with a proven capability to unite disparate forces to take the war to the Mages--privateer captain Jos Metadi.

The book goes on to relate Perada's and Jos's efforts to unite the Civilized Worlds, and ends with the destruction of Entibor by the Mages. (That's not a spoiler, by the way...this is a prequel, after all, and you'll notice that Beka is the Domina-in-waiting of Lost Entibor.) On the way, we also see a number of scenes from their respective childhoods.

The Long Hunt, by contrast, takes place a generation after the Second Magewar, and concerns a number of adventures had by Beka's son Jens and his cousin Faral. The events of this book seem oddly detached from those of the earlier book--but in fact they are not. And what ties them together is the ghostly presence of one Errec Ransome, star-pilot, adept, hero of the First Magewar, the Breaker of Circles.

Ransome worked as a star-pilot as a young man, until his talent manifested and he became an Adept on the planet Ilarna. So great were his powers that he was sent to the master guildhouse on Galcen for training. And shortly after his return to Ilarna, the planet was attacked by the Mages. The other Adepts in his guildhouse were slain; young Errec was taken captive.

Both Mages and Adepts can sense the currents of power and probability that flow through the universe, but they have entirely different philosophies and goals. Adepts do not manipulate the currents of power, but try to ride them instead. Mages regard power as a garden to be tended and brought into pleasing order. Not surprisingly, they don't get along.

Errec manages to escape, at great cost to himself, and makes his way back to the Civilized Worlds, where he falls in with Jos Metadi. Metadi wants to hunt Mages; Errec is happy to help Jos find them. And therein hangs a tale. One can argue, in fact, that although he's rarely on stage all of the Mageworlds books to date are mostly about Errec Ransome.

I can't say more without spoiling things; suffice it to say that I enjoyed both of these books immensely.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:51 PM | Comments(0)

Happy Birthday, Jeeves!

Last Friday was P.G. Wodehouse's birthday. Brandywine Books has a tribute.
Posted by Will Duquette at 05:04 PM | Comments(0)

October 17, 2004

And There Was Great Rejoicing!

Yesterday delegates of the Episcopal Diocese of Rio Grande met to elect their next bishop, and they did not elect our rector. And yea, verily, there was great rejoicing at St. Luke's of the Mountains!
Posted by Will Duquette at 07:05 PM | Comments(4)

Badgers!

I read a fair number of books while off at my conference, so expect a number of fresh reviews over the next few days. In the meantime, here's something silly you should go look at.
Posted by Will Duquette at 05:09 PM | Comments(0)

October 15, 2004

Praise Be!

Jaquandor's baby son Quinn is home from the hospital and doing better than they had feared after a difficult birth and a raft of early problems. He's not completely out of the woods yet, but things are looking promising. Jaq's not what you'd call a religious man, so I gather, but y'all can pray for little Quinn anyway; the kid can use all the help he can get. (Jaq, thanks for keeping us posted!)
Posted by Will Duquette at 06:51 PM | Comments(0)

Tcl 2004, Days 2 and 3

Day 2 of the conference was much like Day 1, except that it rained outside. For the purposes of this blog it was of interest mostly because of an observation I made about elevators. You know how, in elevators, everybody all turns so they are facing the same way?

It ain't so.

All this week, and on other recent occasions, I've noticed a distinct tendency for people not to line up facing the same way. Instead, folks tend to stand against the wall, facing into the center of the elevator. I conjecture that although people frequently do act like sheep they don't like to be caught at it, and have become self-conscious about all turning to face the same way.

Pay attention next time you're in an elevator, and let me know if you notice the same thing.

Anyway, today was the last day of the conference, which reminds me that I should say something about the food. This year's conference was sparsely attended, due mostly (I think) to insufficient publicity--but the contract with the hotel mandated a fixed price for the food. That meant that we got more meals, and more kinds of food (and better food) at each meal. I Am Not A Foodie, but I have to say that we ate well. Two of the afternoons they gave us chocolate brownies to die for, and the dinner last night was steak and lobster, with an open bar. I didn't drink much (I never do), but I have to say I like Abita Amber, one of the local beers.

Taken all-in-all, and disregarding the food, I'd have to call this year's conference a success. A lot of good discussion went on between (and, in some cases during) the various talks, and a lot of folks who couldn't make it were able to sit in via a cobbled-together webcast.

But all good things must come to an end, and the conference wound down a little after lunch today. Dave and I fly out at 7AM tomorrow morning, so we had an afternoon and evening to enjoy New Orleans--and we worked at it. We started by walking down to the French Market, which Dave hadn't seen yet, and then up Barracks St. to Kaboom Books, where I found a copy of Allan Sherman's autobiography, A Gift of Laughter (we used to have a copy, but it's long gone) and a book by Nevil Shute (cheers to you, Ian!).

The bookstore owner suggested that we check out the neighborhood next door, Fauborg Marigny; the Quarter was getting too expensive, she said, and a lot of folks had moved down to the Marigny, which was now a lot more "real" than most of the quarter. We took a turn in that direction, and concluded that "real" == "bohemian" == "a little cruddy and smelly, if picturesque". Eschewing the Marigny, then, we walked all the way back to the west end of the Quarter, where we caught the Canal Street ferry. The ferry takes you across the Mississippi river to a part of the city called Algiers.

There wasn't much in Algiers except some pleasant if slightly seedy neighborhoods; however, we passed a comfortable hour sitting outside a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant drinking/eating "snowballs". A snowball is basically a snowcone in a big cup; the ice is shaved finer than your typical snowcone, but not nearly as finely as Hawaiian shaved ice. Then we caught the ferry back across the river and walked back along the riverfront to the French Market for dinner.

On the way, Dave was accosted by a black fellow with dreadlocks who said, "I bet I can tell you where you got those boots at."

"Huh?"

"I bet I can tell you where you got those boots at."

"Oh, no you can't," says Dave.

"I can. Shake on it for honesty?"

So Dave shakes hands with him, and he turns to me. "And you'll shake on it as a witness, won't you?"

Having been warned about this by Clif Flynt yesterday, I just said, "Oh, I'll be a witness all right."

So our man turns back to Dave. "Now I will tell you where you got those boots at. You got those boots at the end of your feet, resting on the ground here in New Orleans."

Dave ended up paying him $20 for a bootshine, and we continued on to dinner.

Dave and I had gone to a fancy place called Sbisas on Monday night, Dave's choice, so we'd agreed that Tuesday night we'd go somewhere where I could get a good cheeseburger. Instead, a group of us went to ZydeQue for cajun barbecue; and then the hotel provided fancy dinners both Wednesday and Thursday nights. So tonight we headed to Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe, right by the French Market, where I had reasonable expectations of getting a Cheeseburger in Paradise. And when we got there, things took an abrupt right turn. Instead of the cheeseburger, I ordered a local dish, red beans and rice with sausage and corn sticks, and Dave got the cheeseburger. I don't know what came over me, unless it was the margarita, except that I ordered dinner before our waitress brought me the margarita. I dunno. But it was all quite good.

And then we lumbered back to the hotel, both weary and footsore and ready for some serious alone-time before getting up at some absurdly early hour tomorrow to get on the plane. And here we are, and tomorrow I fly home.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:59 PM | Comments(0)

October 14, 2004

Tcl 2004 -- Day 1

I came to New Orleans for the 11th Tcl/Tk Conference, of course, and yesterday morning it was time to buckle down to some serious conferencing--and it was some serious conferencing. The hotel gave us breakfast at 8 AM; they gave us lunch at noon; they gave us dinner at 6 PM; and with the exception of a few half-hour breaks we were busy at it from after breakfast until 10 PM. At least, I went back to my room at 10.

Consequently, I don't have a whole lot to report. The most surprising thing, from my point of view, is the reception that Snit is getting this year. Snit first saw the light of day as a short "Work In Progress" talk at the 9th Tcl/Tk Conference two years ago in Vancouver, B.C. At last year's conference Snit got a couple of public mentions, and I talked about it with a couple of people. This year Snit has been right up front, and several people have asked me what they could do to make Tcl faster so that Snit can be faster. More than that--one such optimization was discussed at the Snit Birds-of-a-Feather session last night, and Donal Fellows (on whom be praise) implemented, tested, and committed the optimization first thing this morning. (A Birds-of-a-Feather session, or "BOF", is a block of time set aside for a bull session on some topic of interest to some subset of the attendees. The conference schedule usually has time scheduled for some number of BOFs; the subjects are determined as the conference goes on.) I requested and got a Snit BOF because there were several people who were disappointed that the Snit tutorial was cancelled, and quite a few people showed up for it.

It's all very gratifying, of course. I told Dave that if all the attention goes to my head he has permission to clout me.

Posted by Will Duquette at 01:26 PM | Comments(2)

October 13, 2004

New Orleans Afternoon and Evening

So at lunchtime yesterday I set out in search of an undistinguished lunch, and Bookstar. I'm not a foodie, and I'm terribly afraid that culinarily New Orleans is wasted on me. Besides, I didn't see any point in having a long, leisurely fancy meal when I could be out exploring. Bookstar, according to my Google search, was just west of the Jax Brewery Mall on Decatur, just where it joins with N. Peters. Thus, I hied myself to the Jax Brewery, had a suitably undistinguished lunch, and then went on the additional block where the counter guy at Tower Records assured me that I was not going blind, that Bookstar was not hiding from me but had been replaced by something else a year earlier.

'Net 0, New Orleans 1.

I'd already done a lot of wandering up and down the western half of the French Quarter; plus, there were two more book stores worth checking out in the eastern half--one close to my hotel, and one in the northeast corner. I didn't think I'd make it that far; I sort of planned on going just far enough east to hit the first one, and then back to the hotel. But somehow I just kept walking, and I'm glad I did.

My first stop was at the French Market, which is just off Decatur in the southeast corner of the Quarter. It's a combined farmer's market and flea market, with many more alligator heads than I'm used to seeing at your typical flea markets. I picked up a couple of Preservation Hall Jazz Band CDs.

At the end of the French Market I turned left and headed up Barracks Avenue to Kaboom books. And I have to say, that was the best part of the walk, that and the walk back along Bourbon Street to my hotel. Both stretches of road are mostly residential, with a very different flavor than the commercial streets. I was fascinated to see that although most of the houses looked pretty dingy with old battered doors, peeling paint, crumbling brick, and so forth, the cars parked outside them were all in good condition, and not inexpensive. I'd love to see inside some of the houses, because I suspect that the seediness is a bit of an act.

The other thing I noticed on the way down Bourbon Street is that a lot of the houses had what I can only call stoops...except that they were tiny. When I hear the word "stoop" I think of the wide, tall steps in front of New York brownstones. These stoops were about a yard wide, a yard deep, and a yard tall, like little cubes with stairs in the middle.

I did swing by the final bookstore, Librarie Books on Chartres Street, but by the time I got there I had a headache and a footache and I walked right on by. All told, morning and afternoon I'd been walking for four hours, and it was time for a nap.

Around 5:30 I wandered down to the conference area; the afternoon tutorials had just let out and I chatted with a number of folks I knew. And then at 6 a group of us headed off down Bourbon Street to a cajun barbecue place called ZydeQue that I'd seen that morning.

I'd not been on this half of Bourbon Street before, and the contrast with the pleasant residential area I'd walked through during the afternoon was striking. But as this is a family blog, I think I won't go into details. But we had a good dinner at ZydeQue (I had a pulled pork plate with spicy french fries and baked beans), and returned to the hotel by way of Decatur Street. After that I hobnobbed with a few folks and went to bed.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:53 PM | Comments(0)

October 12, 2004

Morning's At Eight

Wonder of wonders, I slept pretty well last night. The bed was comfy, the room was quiet, and the air was cool--good sleeping weather. I woke up a little before 8AM--which is to say, around 6AM Duquette Daylight Time, but as that's when I usually wake up, and as I went to bed around 9PM Duquette Daylight Time I was feeling pretty good.

One quick shower later, I went down to breakfast. I had a biscuit and some bacon and such-like from the buffet, and a nice waitress named Olivia brought me a Diet Coke for my morning caffeine, and when I was done she brought me a nice little bill for $12.95. I am grateful that the conference is providing breakfast over the next three days.

After breakfast I goofed around on the 'Net until 10AM, and then I went out to explore the French Quarter and look for bookstores. It was a hot, sunny, morning, and (pleasantly) the piled garbage was all gone; apparently I was correct about Columbus Day. I walked around the block to find Preservation Hall, which is a remarkably dingy place. I'd been warned about that and was expecting it, especially since so much of the French Quarter is remarkably dingy, but Preservation Hall takes the cake. Whatever they are preserving, it isn't the Hall itself; from the outside it looks like an abandoned building from some ancient and long-forgotten industrial district. The French Quarter has dingy facades, bad sidewalks, old bent wrought-iron, peeling paint, doors that don't close properly, but it seems alive. Preservation Hall looks dead.

The music starts at eight; if I get a chance (and if I can get in) I might go back this evening for a listen.

I walked down Toulouse Street to Decatur and then west to the Jax Brewery and the riverboat dock. I thought about taking a river cruise--about two hours, with jazz--sounded like fun, but it also sounded like $20. As I hadn't yet seen a bookstore, I continued on my way.

My sources (which I shall never divulge) led me to believe that their might be a Bookstar located in the Jax Brewery Building, now a shopping mall. I poked around a little--high priced boutiques, mostly. No bookstore. I concluded that my sources must be out-of-date and continued on to Canal street, the western boundary of the Quarter, where my sources indicated that I might find a large B. Dalton. Eight blocks uptown, I gave up on the B. Dalton, (I did, however, find a statue of Ignatius Reilly, complete with earflaps, and I passed several hotdog carts shaped like giant hotdogs) and decided to just wander...and just wandering led me to Crescent City Books on Chartres Street. Typical used bookstore, a bit light on the genre fiction--but I did manage to find a couple of Peter Lovesey's Inspector Cribb mysteries. I like Lovesey, but Cribb was out-of-print long before I discovered him. The owner gave me a map of other local bookstores. Notably, it didn't include Bookstar or B. Dalton, and who can blaim them?

From there I went around the block to Beckham's Book Store, a somewhat larger establishment, where I found another Inspector Cribb and a Robert Barnard I'd not seen before.

It was getting on toward noon by this time, so I decided to go back to my hotel and take a break before heading out for lunch. On the way, I stopped at Arcadian Books, directly across the street from the Bourbon Orleans. I didn't stay long--it was too hot, too stuffy, and so crowded with books (many of them in French) that I had to turn sideways to get between the stacks (something which doesn't help as much as it used to). Plus, it smelled rather like my grandfather's house, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself--homey, you know--only about five times stronger, which was a bit much.

After my long walk I really wanted a drink, so I stopped at the Coke machine by the pool. $2. Or it would have been $2, except the machine was broken. I went upstairs and got a can of Coke out of the mini-bar for $1.50.

It's now 12:30, which means the morning tutorial should be just about over; I'm going to go downstairs and see if I can register. After that, I'm going to walk back over to the Jax Brewery for lunch; a web search indicated that there is indeed a Bookstar there, right where I was looking. How I missed it, I dunno.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:57 AM | Comments(0)

October 11, 2004

Live from New Orleans!

As I write this, I'm sitting in my room in the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, which is pretty much at the geometric center of the French Quarter. My first impression of the French Quarter--narrow streets, dingy buildings, bags of garbage piled by the sidewalk. It's Columbus Day, so I'm assuming that the normal garbage pick-up didn't happen today.

My friend Dave and I had dinner at a place called Sbisa's, if I remember the name correctly. We started with Mint Juleps, which Dave really liked; but a Mint Julep is just bourbon with mint and sugar, and unfortunately the mint and sugar don't do enough to hide the taste of the bourbon. What can I say, it isn't a flavor I've acquired. Dave had duckling and I had filet mignon, and we capped it with slices of chocolate ganache torte which were outstanding. The filet could have been dry and chewy (it was neither) and the torte would still have made up for it.

After that we walked around and window shopped, and looked at the Mississippi.

For the record, Dave and I are in New Orleans for the 11th Annual Tcl/Tk Conference. As usually, the conference consists of a couple of days of tutorials, followed by three days of papers and other technical sessions. I skipped the first day of tutorials, and was supposed to be teaching one of them tomorrow, but that fell through about a month ago; so I'm at something of a loose end tomorrow. I shall have to find something interesting to do......

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:54 PM | Comments(1)

October 07, 2004

What I'm Not Blogging About These Days

I feel like an idiot writing a blog post about how blogging is going to be light for the next few days when in fact blogging has been light for some time. Nevertheless, I'm going to give it a shot.

The first thing is that Jane and I got to go out to dinner a couple of nights ago, all by ourselves, courtesy of Jane's mom, and while we were out we found a copy of the new Terry Pratchett novel, Going Postal. So I'm going to be spending my free time reading it to Jane for the next few evenings.

The pressure to read to Jane is increased by my imminent departure; Monday morning I'm off to New Orleans to the annual Tcl/Tk programming language conference. I expect to be blogging from the conference, as I have in the past--if you can't blog from a geek convention, where can you blog from?--but probably not much about books. But the point is, Jane's going to want me to finish reading her the book before I leave. I'm only free to blog at the moment because Jane's getting the kids some dessert before bedtime, after which I'll be busy reading them stories, and any moment after that I expect her to start cracking the whip.

Of course, I couldn't possibly be waiting impatiently for her to get the kids in bed and be done with it, so that I can start reading it to her and find out what happens next myself....

I've not done any work on The Perils of PDF since Sunday; it's been that kind of week. And in between times, I'm working my way through a "Conan the Barbarian" anthology. It's odd, to read these stories again after so many years.

You'll note that so far this blog has been a Presidential Campaign Free Zone, and I expect that to continue. But I invite you to try a thought experiment. Assume I disagree with you on who should be the next president of the United States. And assume that I'm an intelligent, reasonable guy (which I am). Ask yourself what possible reasons I could have for disagreeing with you. You're not allowed to decide that I'm crazy, evil, misled, misinformed, morally bankrupt, greedy, or just plain stupid. It'll be good for you. Good luck.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:04 PM | Comments(3)

October 06, 2004

Hawkes Harbor, by S.E. Hinton

This book, Hinton's first for adult readers, has some serious flaws--but I have to admit that it's an interesting ride and kept me turning pages. It's a novel of rebellion and redemption; it's also the most peculiar vampire tale I've yet seen.

Although I usually avoid spoilers in my reviews, I find that I can't write about this book without going into significant detail. If you have fond memories of The Outsiders and you're inclined to pick up a copy of Hawkes Harbor on the strength of them, you should probably just go do so and skip the rest of this review. That was my motivation for reading the book, and on the whole I'm glad I took the time.

The rest of you can continue reading.

The first thing I have to say is that you should skip the prologue, as it's by far the weakest part of the book. In the prologue we meet our hero, eight-year-old Jamie Sommers. He's a bastard, and a tough kid, and his mother has just died; kindly Fr. Nolan, who promised Jamie's mother to look after him, is handing him over to a Cruel Nun (TM) to be raised in a Catholic orphanage. It's not clear what else Fr. Nolan could do, but young Jamie feels betrayed by both Nolan and his dead mother.

As an outline, that's not so bad--except for the stereotypical Cruel Nun (TM)--but the reason it doesn't work is that throughout the prologue Jamie carries on an internal monologue that just doesn't sound like the thoughts of an eight-year-old. It's too analytical, too crisp, too grown-up. It might be a reasonable description of Jamie's state of mind from an adult point of view, but my willing suspension of disbelief went into free fall.

I tell you this so that you won't be disappointed by the opening pages; the remainder of the book is blessedly free of this kind of narrative clumsiness.

Fast forward 17 years. Jamie Sommers has been checked into an upscale mental hospital by his employer, Grenville Hawkes. He is nearly catatonic; he is also recovering from being shot three times in the back. During the course of his treatment we learn quite a bit about his life to date, mostly in the form of flashbacks. He has spent most of his life at sea, sometimes working honestly as a merchant seaman, and sometimes participating in a variety of criminal activities ranging from petty cons to gun-running, mostly with an older scoundrel named Kellen Quinn. After blowing the proceeds of one such voyage on a massive binge of drugs, booze, and women in New Orleans, he follows Quinn to Hawkes Harbor, Delaware, where his life changes forever, and where he enters the employment of Grenville Hawkes.

I won't go into how he gets into the mental hospital, except to say that it makes sense; eventually, and probably before he really should have, Grenville Hawkes comes and takes him back to Hawkes Harbor. And the rest of the book is about the odd master/servant relationship that obtains between the two men, and how through it (among other things) both come to find health, happiness and even redemption.

Much of this process of redemption is both persuasive and touching; however, there are one or two bits that I thought were completely preposterous. There's a point after Jamie's return to Hawkes Harbor where he nearly over-doses on anti-depressants and pain-killers. It's accidental; he's still taking the meds he was prescribed in the hospital, and the local doctor had prescribed additional meds for him in ignorance of this. The result has been that so far from laying his personal demons, the cocktail of drugs he's been taking have been making him worse. Hawkes resolves to wean Jamie off of the medications altogether, and takes him on a sea cruise with only a limited supply. The regimen works wonders, and most of its success is due to the pair of beautiful young women Jamie spends most of the cruise in bed with.

That's right--somehow, despite being in lousy physical shape, and being strung out from withdrawal, and having a tendency to jump at shadows, Jamie manages not only to attract the attention of two smart, beautiful women, not only do they take him to bed, taking turns with him, but he manages to keep them well-satisfied, apparently many times a day, for the rest of the cruise. And at the end of that time he's renewed, rejuvenated, more self-assertive than he's been in years, and stronger in every way. This whole scenario is as unlikely as it is contrived, and I'm afraid I shall continue being skeptical of suchlike sexual healing.

Having dealt with that issue in more detail than it really deserves, I might as well end by saying that I found the ending satisfying, if a bit treacly, and perhaps more than a little theologically dubious.

Bottom-line...it was worth my time, even if I didn't always believe it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:34 PM | Comments(0)

October 04, 2004

Mara Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

One of the first civilizations my daughter and I are learning about while homeschooling world history is Ancient Egypt. It's an interesting culture, there are lots of cool artifacts and monuments left by them to study and it's useful for teaching how to study a civilization in terms of government, social issues, geography, the role of religion and mythology, etc. We came to the conclusion that the Egyptians were a very visually-oriented people, extremely pragmatic in their thinking and not inward-directed or concerned about abstract concepts or philosophical questions. They developed extensive canal irrigation and water control systems, indoor plumbing, built the pyramids and carried on extensive trade, all with a clumsy writing system that left most people illiterate and, compared to the Greeks, an unsophisticated system of mathematics.

As an educational tool, historical fiction is useful for making the reality of the times come alive in human terms. Temples that we see as fascinating archeological artifacts were real places with sights and smells and sounds that are hard to imagine unless you are given a story to place them in. So we are reading some fiction as a way to make the history come alive for my daughter.

Mara is the first of these novels. It's set in the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, the only female pharaoh in Egyptian history. Mara is a slave girl, bought by one of the Queen's advisors to use as a spy in the inner chambers of Thutmose III, the Queen's heir. Thutmose has been affianced to a Syrian princess who speaks only Babylonian and since Mara has been owned by a scribe she is fluent in that language. Her role is to translate for the princess when she speaks with Thutmose and report back to the Queen's advisor on anything amiss that she may hear. The conflict comes when she inadvertently falls in love with a young lord loyal to Thutmose who is involved in a plot to depose the Queen and put Thutmose in his rightful place on the throne. Her personal loyalties lie with Thutmose, but her owner will kill her if she betrays the Queen.

It's a good story, well told. The general background history is believable though I went back and read a bit on the reign of the Hatshepsut and Thutmose III and had to point out to my daughter repeatedly where the history ended and the fiction began. McGraw played a bit fast and loose with reality to build the tension in the story, which is ok for fiction as long as the reader understands the difference. It did serve to bring an ancient culture to life, particularly in the daily life of the temples and the common people.

Posted by Deb English at 09:03 PM | Comments(0)

October 03, 2004

The Horrors of Hyphenation

As anyone who has ever produced a large document knows, writing it is just the beginning. In our last installment, I listed some of the things left to do before I can offer bound copies of Through Darkest Zymurgia! for sale on-line. I've got much of that work done now; in particular, I've chosen the font and the page style, set the pagesize to 5" by 8", and got the frontmatter of the book almost completely ready to go. (You can download a preview of the front of the book in (what else) PDF format if you're interested.)

But there was one big step which I had forgotten--or suppressed, I'm not sure. And that big step is policing line-breaks or, in a word, hyphenation.

The soul of TeX is its justification algorithm. TeX is extraordinarily good at producing high-quality fully justified output that looks as though it were typeset by hand by a skilled typesetter. Unfortunately, that beautiful output comes with a cost--by TeX's standards, not all text is capable of being beautifully typeset. This usually results in what TeX calls an "overful hbox"--that is, a line that it simply can't break without introducing "too much" whitespace into the paragraph. In such cases TeX reports the error and allows the line to run a little long and stick out into the margin. If desired, it will also mark the error with a big black box, so that it will be easier to find visually.

There are several ways to solve the "overful hbox" problem. TeX is good at hyphenation, but of course it doesn't know anything about made up words and names, nor is it aware of all of the possible word-breaks even in standard English. Often it's possible to solve the problem by inserting an explicit hyphen here or there.

In more serious cases the appropriate words in the errant paragraph simply do not admit of hyphenation. You can't hyphenate the word "good", for example. In such cases, you can tell TeX to be "sloppy" about formatting the paragraph; this allows it to add more interword space than it would ordinarily do, and usually solves the problem.

Sloppy formatting has its own perils, however--once in a while it results in the dreaded "underful hbox" error. This means that TeX has had to add too much whitespace between one or more words, and that its poetic soul has rebelled. One can ignore "underful hbox" errors, as TeX inserts the space anyway, but the annoying thing is that TeX is usually right. Too much whitespace sticks out like a sore thumb. In this case, you generally have to modify the text in some way. Sometimes you can split the paragraph in two; other times, you actually have to change the wording slightly.

There's an additional problem associated with hyphenation, which is that people's names shouldn't be hyphenated if it can possibly be avoided. It's possible to specify that a word is not to be hyphenated, but all too often so specifying leads to all of the problems listed above.

TeX has no idea whether a word is a person's name or not; and sometimes even when hyphenation can't be avoided it will hyphenate names in the wrong place. Consider the narrator of Zymurgia, Professor Leon Thintwhistle. The good professor's last name is prounounced "Thint-whistle", yet TeX decided that it could hyphenate it "Thin-twhistle". It's possible to educate TeX about such matters, but it requires looking through the finished PDF file for hyphenation problems.

All of this, I may say, is slow going. I've now spent two or three hours at it, and I've made it through chapter 10 (of 41).

It's not all bad, though. I'm taking the opportunity to added drop caps at the beginning of each chapter, and as I read through the output looking for bad line-breaks I'm finding a number of other small errors.

In the next installment--I'm not sure yet. We'll see.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:58 PM | Comments(0)

October 02, 2004

A Question of Values

When I was junior high school a fire in the mountains above our house threatened to make us evacuate, and my mother sent me to my room to pack, just in case. She warned me that we couldn't take everything. So I grabbed a brown paper grocery bag and went to my room and into it I placed that which I valued most--my Tolkien books. I had a boxed set of paperback copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (the ones with Tolkien's own paintings on the front cover and Tolkien's picture on the back); I might have added one or two others. I don't remember for sure whether I included the Narnia books or not, but I don't believe I did.

Then I placed the bag gently in the backseat of my mother's car. That was it. I was done.

Say what you will about me, it hadn't even occurred to me to pack clothing.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:40 AM | Comments(4)

October 01, 2004

Ex Libris Reviews

The October Issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now on-line!
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:14 PM | Comments(0)