March 30, 2005

Yet Another Book Meme

Update: Deb replies, in the comments!

Update: Both Lars and Phil have responded as well. And Lars is right; I said I'd be a book by Wodehouse, and The Most of P.G. Wodehouse is indeed the right one. I don't know what I was thinking.

Ian didn't actually officially pass this along to me, but what the heck--my ears were burning anyway.

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

I doubt my memory's up to it, but I think it would have to be something by P.G. Wodehouse--perfect silliness needs to be remembered just as much as Tolstoy and company. As to which...oh, I'd probably pick whichever book contains "Uncle Fred Flits By".

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

If by "crush" you mean, well, a crush, then I guess I have to say no. Though I do like seeing the hero get the girl.

On the other hand, the last time I got a crush on anyone was so long ago that it's possible my memory isn't to be trusted.

The last book you bought is:

Three: American Caesar, How Great Generals Win, and A History of Warfare. Don't ask me why. I've read the middle of the three so far, and it was quite good.

The last book you read:

It depends on the meaning of the word "read". I finished listening to John Cleese's outstanding recording of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters on my walk this afternoon; and last night I finished reading Ngaio Marsh's mystery Death of a Fool, which invokes the truly weird world of Morris dancing. I should have reviews of both up in a couple of days.

What are you currently reading?

I usually have several books in various stages of completion; but in fact the only book that's really in play at the moment is called Echoes of Armageddon, 1914-1918, by a gentleman named B. Cory Kilvert, Jr. It's about eight British soldiers who died in the trenches and fields during WW I. Kilvert started with eight medals (he doesn't say where he got them) and spent twenty years tracing the men who were originally awarded them. More on that when I finish it.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:

I hate this question; I have trouble limiting myself to five books for a week-long business trip, even though I know I'll probably go book-shopping while I'm away. But let's see.

  1. The Bible. A deserted island sounds better than a monastery for getting back to basics.
  2. The Lord of the Rings. If I'm getting back to basics, I might as well get back to basics.
  3. The Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant. It's too damn long, and once he gets to the Renaissance Durant drops so many names per paragraph you'd think he was a social climber, but I confess I never finished the series. As Ian notes, this is cheating; oh well.
  4. Ian suggests a Mark Twain collection; I'd agree, so long as it includes Life along the Mississippi and Roughing It.
  5. The Oxford Book of English Verse. Perhaps with lots of time to read and nothing else to do, I'd actually take the time to learn to enjoy poetry.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why:

Deb English. Because she hasn't sent me any reviews, or even a letter, in far too long, and it's time she started pulling her weight again. Besides, I'm curious what her answers would be.

Lars Walker. Becausing I'm enjoying his blog posts.

And finally, Phil Wade, because after all Lars is posting to Phil's blog.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:42 PM | Comments(4)

Ex Libris Reviews

The April issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now on-line, with reviews by Craig Clarke and me. Enjoy!

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:18 PM | Comments(0)

March 29, 2005

The Game, by Laurie R. King

This is latest of King's Mary Russell mysteries to come out in paperback, and it's a worthy addition to the series. More a thriller than a mystery, it takes Russell and Holmes to India to look for a missing British agent named Kimball O'Hara. Kipling fans will recognize O'Hara as the young hero of Kipling's novel Kim, though by the time of this story he's a full-grown man.

The title of the book is a reference to the "Great Game"--a cold war of espionage, bribery, and dirty tricks between Russia and England that spanned much of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. The nature of this war is simply put: England had India, with its wealth and warm water ports, and Russia wanted it.

In two ways, the book's title is a bit of wishful thinking on King's part. First, the Great Game was really pretty much over by the time Russell and Holmes are supposed to have arrived in India, a few years after WWI; but I suppose we can't blame her for that. More seriously, most of the action of the Great Game took place not in India but in the shadowy regions to the North--in Tibet, in Afghanistan, and in that broad stretch of Centra Asia known variously as High Tartary, Chinese Turkestan, and Sinkiang or Xinjiang (take your pick).

Poetic license to the side, I must say that King did her homework. She does an excellent job of capturing the feel and atmosphere of the latter days of the Raj, especially as regards the odd sport of pig-sticking (she draws on a treatise written by Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, of all unlikely people); she also draws extensively from Peter Hopkirk's excellent history The Great Game, which I highly recommend. Follow the link for our list of Hopkirk's books--interestingly, it's the #1 Google hit for Peter Hopkirk. Just goes to show, Hopkirk's not nearly as well known as he should be.

Bottom-line: I liked it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:11 PM | Comments(0)

March 26, 2005

The Ridgewood Boys

I hadn't intended to post anything until after Easter; however, I stumbled on something pretty cool this evening. My old friend Rick Saenz and his son have spent that last several years learning to play and sing bluegrass music. They've gone to bluegrass camps and open-mikes and workshops, they've taken lessons, they've played gigs with other bands and by themselves, and they've practiced an awful lot; Rick's written extensively about the whole process, and it's been fascinating to watch. From a distance, mind you; I'm in California and they are in Tennessee and so I've never actually heard them perform.

So yesterday the two of them recorded fourteen tracks, and today Rick put the MP3's up on the web. Bluegrass isn't my usual cup of tea, not that I know anything about it; and anyway I gather that Rick and Chris's flavor of bluegrass is anything but mainstream, looking back to the 30's and 40's. But I have to say, they sound really good. You can find the tracks here. Of the ones I've listened to, I recommend "This Weary Heart You Stole Away" and "Don't Cheat in Our Home Town".

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:30 PM | Comments(1)

March 23, 2005

A Trip to Mars

Last December, scientists from the Hawaii Underwater Research Lab discovered the sunken hulk of a seaplane called the Marshall Mars, one of six giant seaplanes built for the U.S. Navy by the Martin Corporation during World War II. After Pearl Harbor, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser responded to fears of Japanese submarines preying on American shipping by suggesting that his shipyards turn out a fleet of flying boats. He eventually teamed up with Howard Hughes to build the Spruce Goose. The Martin Corporation ran with the same idea, eventually producing one of the largest planes ever built, a giant transport plane called the Martin Mars. The U.S. Navy bought six of them, named them after island chains, and used them throughout the war.

Marshallmars

Two of the six planes--the Marshall Mars and the original Hawaii Mars--were destroyed during test flights; the former caught fire, and the latter crashed on landing. The remaining four planes-- the Philippine Mars, the Marianas Mars, the Caroline Mars, and the Hawaii Mars 2 served valiantly through the end of the war and after, until they were retired by the Navy in 1956. At some during his Navy service my father flew on either the Hawaii Mars 2 or the Philippine Mars, possibly more than once (my memory is hazy).

On retirement, the four planes were purchased by a Canadian firm, Forest Industries, and converted for use as flying tankers, for fighting forest fires. By 1962 the Caroline Mars and the Marianas Mars had been lost, one in a crash and the other in a typhoon, but the other two continued in service.

And so it was that many years later, on a family vacation to Canada in the early 1970's, we visited a place called Sprout Lake (which rhymes with "sprote", not with "sprout"). And there, anchored in the middle of the lake, my father was bemused to see the Hawaii Mars 2 and Philippine Mars of familiar memory. We stayed at the lake for about a week, if memory serves, and more than once we took a row boat with an outboard motor around and about the giant planes. And each afternoon one of the planes would take off with a full load of water, circle the lake, and then dump the load right in the middle. It was an amazing sight.

The truly amazing thing, though, is that these two planes are still flying, and still getting the job done. Click on the link to see more--and when you look at the pictures and videos, remind yourself that these beasts have a wing span of 200 feet.

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

March 22, 2005

How Great Generals Win, by Bevin Alexander

Whilst I was at the bookstore some weeks ago I decided, for some unaccountable reason, that I wanted to learn more about military strategy. I cast about to see if I could find something like Military Strategy for Dummies or Warfare for the Compleat Idiot, but those titles were conspicuously lacking. This book doesn't quite meet that need, but it goes part of the way and it was an interesting read besides.

Alexander begins by observing that "The rules of war are simple but seldom followed," and that attacking a prepared position usually results in slaughter for the attackers. Instead, "great generals strike where they are least expected against opposition that is weak and disorganized." The remainder of the book is a series of case studies of great generals and how they won their greatest battles: How Hannibal Barca won at Cannae and how his nemesis Scipio Africanus finally defeated him. How Genghis Khan and his generals conquered the geographically largest empire the world has ever seen. How Napoleon Bonaparte won his early battles. How Stonewall Jackson used his small force to neutralize far larger Union forces. How William T. Sherman won the Civil War by doing in the South what Stonewall Jackson wanted to do in the North, had he not been killed in battle. How Sir Edmund Allenby stopped the Germans in the Middle East, with a little help from T.E. Lawrence and his Arabs. How Mao Zedong led the Red Army during the Long March. How Heinz Guderian, Erich von Manstein, and Erwin Rommel realized what tanks were really good for, and the use they made of them. How Douglas MacArthur won at Inchon and why he failed spectacularly afterwards.

The book ends with a summary of the principles discussed throughout the book:

  • Operate on the line of least expectation and least resistance. Figure out where the enemy doesn't expect you to go--and go that way. France fell so quickly at the beginning of WWII because no one thought the Germans could bring tanks through the forest of Ardennes.

  • Maneuver to the rear of the enemy. Your enemy's morale will suffer when he realizes that you're sitting across his supply lines; and if he's too far from home his army might just disintegrate. That's what happened to the North Korean army in South Korea after MacArthur's invasion of Inchon.

  • Occupy the central position. That is, if your enemy has two forces, maneuver to a point directly between them. This ensures that you can deal with either one before the other joins with it, thus "defeating the enemy in detail". Napoleon was a master at this in his early days; once he became emperor, though, he lost his subtlety and tried to win all his battles with brute force.

  • Follow a "plan with branches". Uncertainty and misdirection are your allies. Therefore, maneuver in two or more columns, keeping the columns far enough apart that the enemy can't guess what your true objective is, but close enough together that they can support each other at need. The enemy won't know what to defend, and will likely end up dividing his forces to defend a number of spots. No less than three times during Sherman's march north from Atlanta the Confederates split their forces between the two cities his columns appeared to be approaching; and in each case Sherman marched his troops right through the middle and captured a third, undefended city.

  • Don't attack prepared and well-defended positions. Instead, make the enemy leave their positions and come to you. Scipio Africanus conquered Carthage not by a frontal assault on the city, but by marching into and burning the city's agricultural hinterland. The Carthaginian army was forced to follow after, or else the city would starve.

  • Don't get pinned down in fortifications. If you're holed up in a fort, you're effectively out of the battle.

  • Where the enemy's army isn't is often more important than where it is.

All in all it's a fascinating book, and for my purposes useful as well. I recommend it.

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

March 21, 2005

The Simple Life

My friend Rick Saenz has recently posted quite a few thought-provoking essays about "living the simple life"; I commend them to you.

Rich reminds me of something Uncle Screwtape says to his nephew Wormwood, which unfortunately I cannot quote because my copy of The Screwtape Letters has wandered off. Screwtape says, in effect, that there was a time when men knew fairly well whether a thing was true or not; and that if you proved to them that they were mistaken, they would change both their beliefs and their behavior accordingly. I think Rick exemplifies that latter phrase better than anyone I know--he's changed his beliefs and his behavior both in the time that I've known him several times, and has pursued the logical end of his beliefs with vigor and apparent fearlessness. He's ended in a place that might seem alien to many of us, but I've learned never to discount the things he finds important.

Over the last few years, Rick and his family have sought the simple life by moving to the country and starting a family business--and that's just the tip of the iceberg. But where Rick's been something of a rolling stone, I'm a well-rooted tree, both in my home (I'm raising my four children in the house in which my parents raised me and my three siblings) and my career (I've been at JPL for almost two decades). The challenge for me, then, is how to seek the simple life here, in my current home, in my current job, without seeking more fertile soil elsewhere. On the other hand, though it hasn't generally been my goal to lead a simple life many of the things Rick says resonate with things that we're already doing--or, as it might be, not doing. I'm curious to discover the extent to which I'm already leading a simple life. I've clearly got some thinking to do.

Posted by Will Duquette at 10:18 PM | Comments(0)

Scales of Justice, by Ngaio Marsh

This is a "country" mystery; that is, it's similar to a country house mystery except that the venue has expanded to include an entire neighborhood and all of its colorful characters. A resident is killed while angling in the stream and is found dead with another man's catch at his feet. Inspector Alleyn is called in by the local Lady of the Manor to trawl through the red herrings.

I'm normally very fond of Marsh's work, but I'm afraid I thought this one a bit tedious. Possibly I just wasn't in the proper mood for it; but on the other hand, I seem to recall thinking it tedious the first time I read it as well. The ending surprised me, though, and there are some memorable characters, so it wasn't a total loss. I especially liked Nurse Kettle, who reminds me of a recorder player I know.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:29 PM | Comments(0)

March 20, 2005

Plato Unmasked: The Dialogues Made New, by Keith Quincy

This fascinating book is a new translation of Plato's dialogues, a translation done with two objects in mind. The first was to convey the spice of the original Greek text. Apparently the first English translations of Plato were done in a polite and bowdlerizing era, whereas the Greek text was rather less polite and occasionally outright lewd. The second was to condense Plato's more elaborate rhetorical flights so as to make his philosophical arguments plain and easy to follow without losing any essential nuances.

I predict that this book is going to start a fairly large number of arguments. In the first place, I rather expect it will disjoint the noses of quite a few academic purists. I'm sure that many philosophy departments will ring with the question, "Have you seen the new Reader's Digest version of Plato?" accompanied by snickers and giggles.

The larger number of arguments, though, will be among the groups of people who actually read the book. Now, I have to preface the following remarks by saying that I am not a philosophy major, nor do I speak classical Greek, nor have I read all that much Plato in English translation (and that little almost twenty-five years ago). In short, I am no judge of whether Quincy's condensation is as faithful and nuanced as he claims. On the other hand, I think I can fairly say that it makes for good reading. In the dialogs that I've read so far (Lysis, Euthyphro, Crito, Apology, Phaedo, and Gorgias) I found myself following Plato's arguments without the least bit of difficulty and finding lots of spots where I wanted to argue with him. What's not to like?

And that's why I think the book will start lots of arguments. Because Plato's line of reasoning is so clearly presented, it becomes easier to take exception with it. And as different readers are likely to take exception to different parts, I'd expect discussion to flow fast and furious. In the preface, Quincy notes that he's taught from this translation, and "only in my Plato class have I had to break up a fistfight between students." I expect a book club could have great fun with it.

The dialogs are presented in order of composition; each begins with a historical note (sometimes quite lengthy) about the situation in Athens at the time the dialog supposedly takes place. These are also likely to raise eyebrows, at least for those familiar with Plato and Socrates and not with wider Greek history. We're accustomed to thinking of Plato and Socrates as two of the "good guys"; like almost all human beings, their actual conduct was less than saintly.

Although Quincy claims that his condensed translation captures every important nuance of the original Greek text, he is quick to point out that this book is not intended to replace standard translations of Plato's work, but rather is intended to be an aid to understanding them. In fact, he recommends reading each dialog at least three times: first in a full translation, then in his condensed translation, and then in the full translation once more. For philosophy students I suspect that this is wise council; for the generally curious reader, though, Plato Unmasked stands perfectly well on its own.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:59 PM | Comments(0)

March 19, 2005

Rollerskating

Part of my doctor's recent prescription, co-equal with the diet, is the mandate to go walking for at least 30 minutes a day and to be more active in general. This is a bit difficult, as I'm sedentary by nature and don't much care for going outside and working up a sweat. I dislike jogging, running, hiking, football, basketball, and most other sports. Tennis requires a partner, and anyway I'm no good at it. Golf, well, golf is a possibility, but it's also expensive. Going out for a walk is cheaper, and I don't need to keep score.

There is, however, one kind of physical activity (other than walking) which historically I've actually enjoyed, and that's rollerskating. Forget skating rinks--what you need for good skating is a few miles of reasonably smooth, sparsely populated concrete. Rinks are too crowded, and before you can build up any speed you have to turn. But a long concrete path is heaven. Back when I was in high school I spent most summers in Long Beach, which has many suitable areas; I had a pair of rollerskates and skated all over the place just for fun.

I should point out that this was before the in-line craze; my skates were the old-fashioned kind, with four wide eurethane wheels in a rectangular pattern. I gather they call them "quads" these days. About eight years ago, during an earlier attempt to be more active, I hearkened back to those glory days of yesteryear and decided to try skating again. I wanted to get a pair of quads, but all I could find for sale were inline skates, so that's what I got.

I hated them. I practiced several times a week for several months, and never got comfortable with them. And eventually, of course, they got put away and never used again. But thanks to my doctor the issue arose once again, and this time I found that things were a bit different. I still hated my inline skates. I still couldn't locate a store in my area that sells quads. But I found any number of stores on-line that sell them, in a wide range of styles and prices. This was food for thought.

So today my family sallied forth to try an experiment--we went to a roller rink about forty minutes from our house, and rented skates for everyone in the family but the baby. Our goals were two: to see if Jane and I could still skate, and to see how well the kids did on skates. The results were mixed. Jane and I can still skate, though it took me a couple of turns around the rink to be comfortable on skates again. The kids, well, the kids need practice. Lots of practice. LOTS of practice. They need practice just to be able to practice. But if they can figure it out, we could have some outstanding family outings.

So it's likely that we'll be investing in skates, so the kids can practice in the backyard. And then, who knows--perhaps we'll take a drive down to Long Beach and explore the waterfront.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:49 PM | Comments(0)

Shakespeare's Rough Drafts

It's a little known fact that Shakespeare generally worked out the plot of each play in the form of lyric poetry before writing the actual work. Some of these poems have been preserved; Brandywine Books has the scoop.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:39 AM | Comments(0)

March 18, 2005

You Say Hi-A-Tus, I Say Hi-At-Us

Really, I hadn't intended to take such a long break. But I haven't finished any books (though I'm working on some good ones) and then, The Incredibles DVD arrived in the mail yesterday. Jane and I watched it last night, since Jane wasn't able to see it in the theater, and then we all of us sat down this evening and watched it again--along with the new short, "Jack-Jack Attack", which is simply outstanding.

Tomorrow is Pinewood Derby Day (if it doesn't rain), about which I might have more to say anon; but now, I must go and catch up on my e-mail. TTFN!

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:11 PM | Comments(2)

March 14, 2005

A Confession

Yesterday, I'm not particularly ashamed to admit, I fell from grace with respect to my diet. For over a month I had been good, only eating food that was on the prescribed list. But last night, Jane and I had to leave home at 4:30 to get to a meeting over an hour away which would then run for another several hours; there was simply no time to have a normal meal.

So we went to In'N'Out Burger, and I got a Double Double, "Protein Style". That means it comes wrapped in lettuce leaves instead of in a bun. Yes, for the first time in a month I got to have some red meat and cheese without "low-fat" in its name. It was delicious.

In fact, my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:48 PM | Comments(2)

March 13, 2005

See Lars Write

Lars Walker is guest-blogging over at Brandywine Books; time to take a look. (Lars is the author of a number of books I reviewed some time back, including the excellent historical fantasy The Year of the Warrior.)

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:21 AM | Comments(0)

March 12, 2005

Stagestruck Vampires, by Suzy McKee Charnas

I really wish I could say that I liked this book, which is an anthology of Charnas' short fiction. She writes well, and the stories kept my attention; there's certainly no lack of quality here. So why did I find them so uncongenial? I've been pondering this, and I've come up with a number of reasons.

To begin with, there are the vampires. I like a good monster as well as the next person, but I'm not really down with the whole psychosexual Anne Rice vampire thing. It does nothing for me. For what it's worth I suppose I like Charnas' vampires better than Rice's.

Next, there's the style. Although work of book-length fiction is commonly called a "novel" these days, there's an important distinction between the novel proper and the romance. I don't want to go into it in detail here, but simply put, in a novel the action is largely internal and in a romance the action is largely external. Many books work in both ways, of course, and those are the ones I tend to prefer, but otherwise I'll take a straight romance instead of a straight novel most days of the week.

Anyway, in my view Charnas is using romantic conventions (vampires, werewolves, and so forth) to write stories which aren't romances at all. All of the important action is inward, inside the characters. I don't say that this is bad; but I do say that it's not to my taste.

The third problem is exacerbated by the second, and that's the worldview, Charnas' model for how the world works and how (consequently) people can change. She and I clearly have different assumptions about some basic things, enough that her characters feel somewhat alien to me, and the manner in which they evolve is unconvincing. I kept founding myself saying, "But the world isn't like that. People aren't like that." It might seem silly to lay stress on this over stories that are overt works of fantasy, but the internal component is so important to the story that it typically overwhelms the plot. If it doesn't work, the story doesn't work. And in this case, it doesn't mesh with my own experience of life.

All that said, there's some striking storytelling going on here. The first tale extends the Phantom of the Opera; what if lovely Christine chose the ugly Phantom over handsome Raoul? Why would she, and what would follow from it? Another tells of a girl on the brink of womanhood who discovers that the full moon brings out the wolf in her--and that this offers the means to a highly desired end. Another takes place at a performance of Tosca at the Opera House in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during which Puccini's music drives a vampire wild; the description was crystal clear and almost made me wish I was there--though the plot itself was negligible and not very interesting.

I suppose my least favorite moment comes during a story called Peregrines, which was written just last year; its background is so clearly a liberal nightmare of post-Bush America, and yet it's just too absurd. Let's see. In this future America you need a permit from Homeland Security to travel from one of the 50 states to another. Anyone who looks or speaks differently than their neighbors is liable to be taken away by Homeland Security for "questioning"; such people don't come back. This is all due to the victory of the Fundies, who got control after terrorists bombed the Status of Liberty.

Now, this is all background, and most of it is superfluous to the story. The essential thing is the specter of the secret police, which is used to add suspense; the rest is gratuitous. The only reason I can think of for why Charnas included it is because it seems like a real threat to her. She really thinks that the "Fundies" want to turn to turn America into a police state where immigrants are harassed and oppressed merely for their looks and language.

The kicker, for me, was the reference to the terrorists bombing the Statue of Liberty. Dude, the Statue of Liberty is a major American landmark, sure. But the significance of September 11th isn't that a pair of landmarks were bombed and subsequently collapsed. The significance of September 11th is due to the 3000 people who didn't get out in time--or who tried to fly.

Frankly, it rubbed me the wrong way.

Anyway, those are the reasons why I can't say I liked the book. On the other hand--if Charnas' style is the kind of thing that appeals to you, you should check it out; she definitely knows her craft.

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

Wallace and Gromit

Woo-hoo! The Wallace and Gromit feature is scheduled to be released this October. Here's a trailer. Any guesses who's hardware they are using for post-production?

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:55 AM | Comments(1)

March 11, 2005

Porco Rosso, by Hayao Miyazaki

Ian Hamet has been raving about this movie for as long as I've known him, so when it was re-released here in the states I was quick to grab a copy. And I'm pleased to say that I was not disappointed, for it is indeed a truly charming movie. My favorite Miyazaki to date is still Spirited Away; but then, Porco Rosso is a different kind of movie altogether, and it doesn't seem like it should be rated on the same scale.

Porco Rosso is a tale of a brave and skillful seaplane pilot who lives on an island in the Adriatic sea in the time between the world wars, when Italy was sliding into fascism. He makes his money as a bounty hunter; the Adriatic, evidently, is home to scads of air pirates (Miyazaki has a thing for air pirates), all of whom fly various interesting kinds of seaplanes and prey on the local shipping. It's Porco's job to find them, stop them, retrieve their booty and free their hostages--and, of course, to get paid for it.

The odd thing about Porco is that he has the face and ears of a pig. He wasn't born that way; he's evidently under some kind of curse. But it makes him an outsider, and allows him to speak harsh truths others don't want to recognize. They call him on it, of course; they say to him, "Porco, you really are a pig!"

I don't want to say too much about the plot for fear of spoiling it. But there are cute little girls, and ugly poorly-washed air pirates (and an interesting mixture they make, I might add), and a pretty girl and a beautiful woman and lots and lots of planes and flying scenes and dog fights and a rivalry and an adolescent crush and serious aeronautical engineering--and, I think, something like redemption. If I'm reading it right (and Ian will no doubt correct me if I'm wrong), Porco Rosso isn't a fantasy at all, despite its snouted hero. Rather, it's an excursion into the world of magic realism.

As for the animation, it's simply stunning throughout. I don't have words to describe how beautiful it was--or how funny. It's not a comedy as such, but I think I must have had a dopey grin on my face the whole time I watched it. My favorite funny bit is when all of the air pirates try to get their picture taken with the lovely young Fio. It's just a moment, there and gone, but it's perfectly done.

I watched it with the new English soundtrack, which I thought was very well done. Disney once again made some surprising choices for voice actors that nevertheless worked out perfectly--even if you'd never guess who they were until the credits scrolled by.

Anyway, Porco Rosso is in the stores now. You should find a copy and settle in with some popcorn.

Don't forget the popcorn; it's very important. I didn't get to have any, since I'm on a strict low-carb diet, and I really think you should eat some for me. Thank you.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:18 PM | Comments(0)

March 09, 2005

The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket

When I first read this some while back, I said that it was interesting but too short to be worth the nine dollars I'd paid for it. I got lots of e-mail over that, mostly saying something like, "Will, you just don't get it."

I still don't.

At bedtime just a couple of nights ago I finished reading this book to my two boys. And when I had read the last sentence, I closed the book with great relief and a feeling of liberation. I was done. I didn't have to to read it aloud anymore. For the first time I felt glad at how short it was.

To be frank, I can't think of a book I've read aloud that I disliked reading aloud more than this book. It's not that it's poorly written, or that the prose doesn't flow; there's just something about the atmosphere, and the arch little asides to the reader, and the unrelenting gloom that made for a thoroughly awful experience.

For what it's worth, James agreed with me, and we finished it only at David's request. After the first few days, I began every reading session with "I hate this book. You know that, don't you." And David would say, "Yes," and James would say, "So do I," and then we'd get on with it.

David's been put on notice that he can read the other books in the series if he likes, but if so he'll be reading them to himself. I'm out of it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:28 PM | Comments(1)

The Big Weigh-In

Had a check-up with the doctor today--she's pleased with my progress, keep on doing the same, and come back next month--but the big news is that I'm down 13 pounds.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:16 PM | Comments(0)

March 08, 2005

The House Sitter, by Peter Lovesey

This is a lovely book; I took an evening earlier this week and just wallowed in it.

This is yet another of Lovesey's Peter Diamond novels; it takes place just about a year after Diamond Dust. Diamond is back in the saddle, and working with his team--I said, after the last book, that I was really looking forward to seeing Diamond working with his team instead of investigating as a loner, and I got my wish--but he still hasn't really come to terms with the death of his wife.

Meanwhile, there's a murder on a beach in another county; the victim proves to be from Bath, which drags Diamond in, and further turns out to have been a "profiler", working in a very hush hush murder case--could there be a link? The Powers That Be say "No!"; Diamond says "Maybe!"; you figure out.

There are lots of lovely bits in this book, but I won't spoil them for you; I'll just say that the first chapter is as neat a bit of deception as I've come across in a long while, and that we might have spotted a new love interest for Diamond.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:48 PM | Comments(0)

March 07, 2005

Precautions

Those of my readers who are fathers of daughters will likely recognize this. I surely did.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:21 PM | Comments(0)

March 06, 2005

Guys and Dolls

This afternoon, Jane and I and our two boys attended a matinee of Guys and Dolls done by the local high school's drama department, and we had a rousing good time. That's the main thing, and I want you to keep it in mind. I'm going to pick a few nits in just a moment, but we had a hugely entertaining afternoon--which is to say, the show is a success.

Naturally, the production wasn't perfect. Most of the actors spoke a little too fast in the first few scenes; the phrasing in the songs was often just slightly off--technically correct, but still not quite right; the lighting was a bit erratic; the acting skill was variable; and no matter how much make-up you put on a seventeen-year-old, she's not going to look like an old lady.

But they found eighteen guys who could dance--no mean feat. The music was excellent. Miss Adelaide and Sky Masterson were outstanding, and Sarah Brown and Nathan Detroit have nothing to be ashamed of. Many of the folks in the smaller parts did outstanding jobs as well.

But most important--they treated the show with respect. More than that, they performed with joy, and they had a good time. A classic show like Guys and Dolls is like a well-oiled machine: treat the show with respect, and give it your heart, and it'll get you where want to go. Today it certainly did.

Muck with it, on the other hand, and it'll bite you. I'd much rather see a high school production like this than a Broadway revival. And if I ever sit through the movie version of Guys and Dolls again, it will be with a remote in my hand, fast-forwarding through the songs butchered by Frank Sinatra and (why? why?) Marlon Brando.

Why did they cast Marlon Brando for Sky Masterson? I don't get it. Sinatra is at least plausible--though far too smooth to be Nathan Detroit. His version of "Sue me" sounds pretty instead of anguished and resolute. But Brando! The man can't sing, and his version of "Luck Be A Lady" is a crime.

Fortunately we didn't have to put up with anything like that today. The singers might not have wrung every bit of nuance out of each song, but they were singing them the way they were supposed to be sung, not trying to put their own imprint on them. Congratulations to them!

For what it's worth, I don't much like the movie versions of Camelot or West Side Story either.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:56 PM | Comments(0)

March 04, 2005

The Misplaced Legion, by Harry Turtledove

This is one of Turtledove's early books, dating back to 1987, and one of the first of his works to appear under his own name; prior to this, he'd written mostly short fiction under the name Eric G. Iverson. These days Turtledove's best known for his novels of alternate history; this is something similar, yet not quite the same.

Marcus Scaurus is the commander of a Roman legion fighting under Julius Caesar in Gaul. During a battle with the leader of a Gaulish troop, druid magic sends Scaurus and his legion (and his opponent) to another world, a world almost impossibly strange, to a place called the Empire of Videssos. Videssos is what we'd think of as a proper empire, ruled by an emperor and controlling vast regions; the Roman empire Scaurus knew was still ruled by the Roman Senate in the name of the Senate and People of Rome. Moreover, Videssos is an empire of long standing, and its court protocols and politics are singularly convolute. The people of Videssos and most of the surrounding countries worship a single god named Phos, though in slightly different ways from country to country, which leads to a fair amount of strife; Scaurus and his men naturally worship the gods of Rome.

Has the penny dropped yet? That's right, The Misplaced Legion is really about what the Byzantine Empire, an empire which still called itself Roman, would look like to a Roman of Caesar's day. And the answer, like nothing on earth. Oh, Turtledove's dressed it up a bit. Persia is to the west of Constantinople--excuse me, Videssos the City--instead of to the east; there's no analogue of Rome, Videssos the City has always been the capital of Videssos the Empire; the religion is roughly Zoroastrian instead of Christian; all the names have been changed, except they mostly sound like Greek anyway. Oh, and there's magic; and since the dominant religion is Zoroastrian with the Videssians as the followers of Ahura Mazda, naturally the bad guys are wicked as all get out and worship Ahura Mazda's opposite, the loathsome Ahriman. Though of course, they call him Skotos instead, just like they call Ahura Mazda Phos. This is called poetic license, I suppose.

Anyway, it's an OK book, if not quite as good as I remembered; there are three more in the immediate series, plus some spin-offs, and no doubt I'll get to all of them again in time.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:01 PM | Comments(0)

The Seige: Week 3

Ah, the heck with it. It's been three weeks, I'm still on the diet, I'm still walking 30 minutes a day, weight is coming off, and we're all coping with the details. 'nuff said.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:39 PM | Comments(0)

March 02, 2005

The Ethos Effect, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Modesitt's books are invariably about the ethical use of power, and The Ethos Effect is (unsurprisingly, given the name) no exception. More bluntly, The Ethos Effect concerns this question: if in the 1930's you could foresee the rise of the Third Reich and all of the associated pain, suffering, and death it would cause, would you be justified if, given the capability, you were to nuke Germany off of the map? It's all cast in the far future, and the players are different, but that's more or less the question.

Spoiler Warning: I don't usually include spoilers in my reviews, but I feel I need to in this case. In case you don't wish to read further, I'll give the bottom-line: this is a weak story well-told, and not up to Modesitt's usual standards.

Van Albert is a commander in the navy of the Taran Republic, one of a number of large space-faring powers. The political situation is too complicated to go into, but the most serious threat is a theocratic totalitarian space empire which supposedly grew out of some unholy union of Islam and the Mormon church--

I digress. Modesitt really seems to have it in for the Mormons, as this is the second series in which they've been the bad guys. I don't see it myself. I don't buy Mormon theology, and I find the origins of the LDS church to be highly suspect, but there are lots of Mormons here in the Foothills, many of them folks I grew up with, and they've never struck me as any more prone to jihad than, say, the local Methodists.

But anyway, the Shepherds, as they called, have been expanding slowly for a couple of centuries. They've avoided a major war in that time, choosing to take over small systems one by one, first economically and then politically. And where ever they take over, the populace are sent to re-education camps to learn to be good little Shepherds. As such, they make a nice bugaboo for 21st century blue-staters. It's always dangerous to guess an author's views from a work of fiction, but I have to believe that Modesitt doesn't like or understand religion very well (certainly, a sythesis of Islam and Mormonism strikes me as unlikely in the extreme) and thinks that strong religious feeling is dangerous. It's telling that throughout the book we never really get to know any of the Shepherds.

I digress again. None of the other major powers are willing to stand up to the Shepherds; the last time any tried, the result was an enormously bloody war that left both sides reeling (that story is told in The Parafaith War). A man Commander Albert comes to esteem highly has devoted his life to strengthening the smaller systems on which the Shepherds feed so that they can avoid been swallowed, but reluctantly comes to the conclusion that his best efforts are insufficient. The Shepherds cannot be turned from their path by ordinary means; and so he uses advanced alien technology to trigger a solar flare that renders the main Shepherd system uninhabitable in a matter of hours. Billions of Shepherd civilians lost their lives, both then and during the political aftermath.

Later, Commander Albert determines that his home star-nation, the Taran Republic, has become fascist, racist, xenophobic, and expansionist. His home planet is known for being the most freethinking and friendly to the arts in the entire Republic; it's also the only one where gay marriage is commonly accepted. (Albert himself has two fathers, a lawyer and an opera singer.) As the fascists take control, Albert's homeworld is is brutally suppressed.

There's an odd hint that the Taran Republic has become so through an over-reliance on free market economics and soulless capitalism, which frankly makes no sense to me; fascism breeds in bad economic times, not prosperous times as indicated here. In Albert's view, the Republic has become just as corrupt and evil as the Shepherds at their worst. Albert's friend left behind a second solar-flare device...ought he to stop the problem before it starts by destroying the Taran capital system? And would doing so make him a horrible monster or a savior ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number? As to the first question, he eventually decides that he must. As the latter, you'll have to decide for yourself. Modesitt's answer seems to be that Albert's action is, if not completely justifiable, at least understandable.

Frankly, I don't think Modesitt makes his case. As I read it, it seemed to me that the subtext was, "I don't like free-market neo-cons, and I don't like religious fundamentalists; both kinds of people are fundamentally flawed and since I can't fix them and though it's probably wrong of me I wish I could just blow them all up." I don't know that this is what he was thinking; but that's the impression I got, and the only explanation I can give for the general weakness of the book relative to his usual standard is that political rancor got the better of him.

If there are any other Modesitt fans in the audience who think I've misread the book, I'd be glad to hear from them. I read this during the first week of a really nasty physician-mandated diet (think Atkins with the good parts left out), and I was in rather a jaundiced mood. But Modesitt doesn't usually strike me this way.

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

March 01, 2005

Annabel Lee

I meant to link to this yesterday, and forgot. Amanda Witt has posted Edgar Allan Poe's poem "Annabel Lee", along with a wonderful description of teaching it in Freshman English. I mean, who would have thought that you could sing "Annabel Lee" to the tune of....but no, you 're going to have go read Amanda's post to find it. It's fitting, though, I'll tell you that.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:11 PM | Comments(0)