There have been no posts at Banana Oil since the 25th; in addition, Ian hasn't responded to a Miyazaki-related e-mail I sent him at about that time. He's been experimenting with Linux, and I wonder if he shot himself in the foot.
I agree with Lileks. Our house is and will remain a Bratz-free zone.
When I'm feeling sick and mostly brain-dead, I turn to one of two kinds of book: either a rather shallow series that I can chain-read without much effort, or an old favorite that I know so well that reading it is more likely reminiscing with a friend. Watership Down is one of the latter. I first read it when I was in junior high school (what they call "middle school" around here these days), and the copy I have now I got in England when I was 14. I was on a trip with my parents; it's the only time I've ever been to Europe. I've got copies of James Herriot's first four books from that trip as well, though you likely wouldn't recognize the titles--they were repackaged for American publication as All Creatures Great And Small and All Things Bright And Beautiful.
But I digress.
Are any of my readers unfamiliar with Watership Down? It's a tale of adventure and romance, of resourcefulness and steadfastness, of courage and honor and integrity, of causes and things worth fighting for, of grace under pressure.
And, of course, it's about rabbits. Not country bumpkins in rabbit-form, not talking beasts with waistcoats and pocketwatches, but rabbits. Real rabbits, with the concerns, problems, and enemies of rabbits. They talk, certainly, and tell stories, and they are a degree smarter than real rabbits, but they remain rabbits. They do not build towns or plant gardens or write books; instead, they dig warrens and eat grass and bear young and keep a watchful eye for the thousand enemies that beset them.
It's a remarkable achievement, and I don't believe it has ever been matched. The closest book I can think of is William Horwood's Duncton Wood, which seems clearly patterned after Watership Down (it was published eight years later). It's about moles, who at first mostly seem to have the concerns of moles; there's even a General Woundwort figure named Mandrake (of all things). But as the book progresses it emerges that these moles aren't real moles. Some of them write books; and there are even pseudo-Buddhist enlightened monk moles. In other words, Watership Down is a mainstream novel that appeals to lovers of fantasy, Duncton Wood is unequivocally a fantasy novel whose characters happen to be moles.
In any event, I re-read the book with great pleasure; and the ending has become only more moving with time and familiarity rather than less. I always have to have a box of kleenex handy for the last ten pages or so. Fortunately, given that I'm sick no one's surprised that my eyes are watering.
I'm at home, sick with some kind of strangulating throat malaise, and have been since yesterday morning. And the fact is, I'm bored stiff. I haven't enough mental horsepower to do anything worthwhile, and my attention span is on the order of fifteen minutes max. What to do? Read blogs!
Of course, it doesn't take all that long to make the rounds of the blogs I usually read--at least, not when you're making a day of it--so I've been trawling through the blogrolls. The only blog that I've seen so far that's new to me that I feel like linking to is this one.
I realize that under the circumstances, this probably doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement. Oh, well. I feel rather like Marvin the Paranoid Android this morning-- "Don't bother trying to engage my enthusiasm, because I haven't got one."
I've just released Notebook V2.1.2. You can get the whole scoop at the Notebook Wiki.
Oh, the wild and wonderful things you find in the rain forests of Peru:
Martin's quarry is an un-catalogued species. It is called the Chicken Eating spider because eye witnesses claim to have seen it dragging chickens into its burrow on the edge of jungle clearings. Estimates put it at around 10 inches from one hairy foot to another.
And he found it: a tarantula as big as a dinner plate. And a very odd tarantula, too. Known tarantulas are solitary; after a brood hatches, the "spiderlings" need to scatter PDQ, because Ol' Mom gets mighty hungry while gestating, and the young'uns are fair game. The Chicken Eating spider, on the other hand, shares its burrow with several generations of its offspring.
Don't miss the pictures; it really has to be seen to be believed.Update: Here's another link. Oh, and I was alerted to this by my friend Dave Jaffe.
Well, increased freedom, anyway.
Jane talked to my doctor yesterday, and given my weight loss to date and my improved cholesterol numbers my doctor is now allowing me to eat a wider range of foods. Apparently she hasn't generally had to deal with this issue before; relatively few patients stick to the diet she gives them for this long. Anyway, I'm still mostly off carbohydrates, which I've mostly gotten used to; but I can now add lean beef and pork, eggs, and the occasional bit of bacon or regular (as opposed to low-fat) cheese is OK too, so long as I don't overdo it. On the other hand, I need to keep eating the green leafies at every meal, which, again, I've mostly gotten used to.
So this is a very good thing. I intend to celebrate this evening by going to Pepe's and having their all-pork burrito with verde sauce, sans tortilla.
I've reviewed Kipling's Just So Stories before, back in 2001 when I was reading them to David. After that they got put on the shelf, not to be taken down again until we were reading Prince Caspian. There were several evenings when David wasn't available at story-time, and on those evenings I needed something different. I scanned the shelves, and Aha! This book fell right into my hand.
There are many stories I remember my mother reading to me as a child--picture books like A Fish Out Of Water and Stop That Ball, and B'rer Rabbit and the briar patch, but the one that reminds me most of her voice is Kipling's "The Elephant's Child," one of my all-time favorites both then and now. And it's just one among many: "The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo", "How the Camel got his Hump", and "How the Rhinoceros got his Skin", are my other three favorites, though I don't hear my mother's voice when I read them; instead, I hear Sterling Holloway, Disney's voice for Winnie-the-Pooh, for I once was given a record of him reading those three stories.
The stories are tall tales superlatively told, with excitement and danger and romance, set in colorful exotic places; but the best part of them is Kipling's language and the fun he has with it. He delights in using large and unusual words to make the tale even more exotic--but only when it won't harm the sense. For example,
Wouldn't you just love to visit the Promontories of the Larger Equinox? In another story, he writes,
The Precession of the Equinoxes has nothing to do with anything, but there's glory for you.
Read that sentence aloud to yourself. "Go to the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees..."
Some time later, he meets a Bi-Coloured Python Rock Snake. Shortly thereafter he meets the Crocodile, and gets into a bit of difficulty, at which point the Bi-Coloured Python Rock Snake advises him,
If you've not encountered the Just So Stories before, and these brief quotes aren't enough to intrigue you, grown-up though you are, I'm afraid I must conclude that you have no ear for language and an insufficently developed sense of whimsy.
For lots of reasons. I've in the middle of The Great Game, which is a long book; I'm spending a lot of time working on Notebook and the Notebook Wiki; and I'm transitioning onto a new task at work, which is taking a lot of my attention. As a result, I'm not reading as many blogs as I was, and I'm not finishing books quickly, so I don't have much to review; and the only deep thoughts I've been having recently are going into Notebook. And some evenings, I'm just taking things easy.
One topical comment: why do so many pundits think it's unreasonable for Pope Benedict to wish to hold fast to the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic church? Seems to me that's the job he was elected to do, and he'd be at fault if he didn't. We've got far too many prelates in my church (the Episcopal Church) who've decided that keeping up with the times is more important than the faith once received from the saints, and let me tell you the results aren't pretty.
Anyway, things are likely to be sparse around here for a while longer.
Last month I reviewed The Game, by Laurie R. King; the title is a reference to the "Great Game", a cold war of intrigue and exploration in Central Asia that spanned most of the 19th century and continued into the early years of the 20th. King's book takes place at the very end of the Great Game period, in the years after the first World War. I mentioned in that review Peter Hopkirk's outstanding book The Great Game, and afterwards decided that it was time to re-read it.
And that, let me tell you, opened a largish can of worms.
See, I'm a history buff. And about eight or nine years ago I became interested in 19th century history, and the British Empire in particular--not surprisingly, because you really can't even talk about the 19th century without talking about the British Empire. And I read voraciously on the subject, and one book led to another, and that's how I found The Great Game. And as I was reading it I came to the section on the first Afghan War.
It's like this. During the first half of the 19th century, the Russians were looking for new markets for the products of their nascent factories. They couldn't compete with the British on either price or quality in those markets where the Brits were established; so they looked to Central Asia. Central Asia had other advantages as well; the further Russia expanded, the closer they got to India. And at that time India was the Jewel in the Crown, the source of British power and wealth. The Czar couldn't help salivating over the idea that India might one day be Russia's.
Now, in order to travel overland to India from Russia, by the most direct route, you pretty much need to go through Afghanistan. And it's much easier to do this if the Afghans aren't trying to kill you while you do it. And so the Czar sent a Russian officer ("sent"! what amazing worlds of experience are hidden behind that little word!) to negotiate with Dost Mohammed, who was then the ruler of Afghanistan. The Brits had been trying their best with Dost Mohammed as well, but eventually concluded (foolishly, I think) that he was not to be trusted. And so they sent in an army, fought their way from Herat to Kabul, captured Dost Mohammed, and installed a puppet named Shah Shujah in his place. They felt extremely virtuous about this, because Shah Shujah was, in fact, the "rightful" king of Afghanistan, having been ousted by Dost Mohammed some years before. Trouble is, the Afghanis weren't too happy to have him back, especially the tribemen in the hills. So the Brits left a garrison, and put a couple of idiots in charge: an elderly general named Elphinstone who should have been retired long since, and an exceedingly smart and clever idiot (the worst kind) named Sir William MacNaghten.
OK, there's the situation. The Brits are in Kabul, their leaders there are fools, and the populace is unhappy. Now we can get to Fraser's book.
Harry Flashman, the protagonist (I just can't use the word "hero") of the book, is a bully, a scoundrel, a cad, a coward, a cheat, a drunkard, a toady, and a womanizer. He's the sort of plausible rogue who's smart enough never to show his true colors if he can avoid it, the better to use his acquaintances to his advantage. He can be engaging, it's true--and the next moment commit enormities of the worst kind.
He begins the book by being thrown out of Rugby School for drunkeness, after which he persuades his father to buy him a commission in the Royal Army. An odd choice of career for a coward, but he's careful to choose a regiment that's just home from India, and consequently won't be going anywhere to fight any time soon. But thanks to some missteps of his own he has to leave the regiment and soon finds himself posted to India...where he's assigned duty as an aide to General Elphinstone in Afghanistan.
In short, Fraser gives us an "eye-witness" account of the retreat from Kabul, a fiendish mess that left only a handful of survivors--including, of course, bluff, hearty Harry Flashman.
I don't entirely like reading about Harry Flashman; he's too beastly. But Fraser's an excellent storyteller, and his attention to detail and historical accuracy is first-rate. He's especially skilled, through a careful and judicious use of endnotes, at telling us what really happened while maintaining the conceit that he's simply editing Flashman's own memoirs.
And given that Flashman was "present" at nearly every major 19th century military event from 1842 onward, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the American Civil War, Little Big Horn, and every hot outbreak in the cold war that was The Great Game, Fraser's books are nearly indispensable to anyone wanting to acquire a vivid picture of what it was like. A rather jaundiced and slanted one, no doubt, but vivid and indispensable none the less.
Jaquandor makes the following generous observation:
Of course, for ongoing recommendations on children's books, Will Duquette is the place to go. It's pretty funny when Will encounters a book he doesn't like; his verdict is always some variant of "They can read it when they grow up if they want to, but I am sure not reading that book ever again!" That kind of says it all, doesn't it?
There's a reason why I always put it that way. I firmly believe that the only way to really appreciate good writing and good storytelling is to have read a lot of bad writing and bad storytelling alongside the good stuff. If I only allow my kids to read stuff I personally think is excellent, they'll never gain that appreciation.
But there's more to it than that--I want to be respectful of their taste in books. Sure, they might like a book I don't, and maybe as they read more widely and gain experience they'll see the same defects in it that I do. But right now it's what they like and read with joy, and that's to be encouraged.
This is a lesson I learned from my mom, who passed away several years ago. Mom had no taste or appreciation for speculative fiction at all; she regarded it all as being of low quality and she'd often ask me why I couldn't read something better. Historical fiction, say, her particular pleasure. But the Tolkien hardcovers I've got on my shelf to this day, she gave me, because she knew I loved Tolkien. She also got me my first set of Narnia books, a boxed set of paperbacks. I've still got it, including the box; one book is missing, and the whole thing is in horrible shape having gone through several sets of readers, including my nephews, before it came back to me, and somehow I can't see getting rid of it. In short, my mom loved me more than her own taste.
And let's not miss the main point--there might be something to the books my kids love that I'm not seeing.
So here's to my kids; may they form their taste in books as I did.
(All this said, I don't want to imply that I'd let them read absolutely anything. I'm speaking only of literary quality, here; there are plenty of books I wouldn't let them read for other reasons. Fanny Hill, say, or Lady Chatterly's Lover--though to be honest I have no particular interest in either one myself.)
I've just put version 2.1.1 of my Notebook personal notebook application. If you've not previously taken a look at it, you should go check it out; it's available at Notebook's new home page, the Notebook Wiki.
Notebook is a kind of combination database, notebook, personal information manager, and pseudo-website. A notebook file is a document that consists of any number of pages. You can create as many pages as you like, and link them together like a website--only much more easily. You can quickly search for any piece of information you need in moments. Plus, Notebook is extensible--you can customize it and do all sorts of magical things with a small amount of programming, right from within Notebook itself.
Notebook runs natively on Windows and Mac OS X, and also on Linux and any other OS for which Tcl/Tk support is available. The details are on the Notebook Wiki.
This is Modesitt's latest volume of the long-running Recluce series. As often before, it's about a person learning that they have the talent and need to become an order-master, with all that that entails. And yet, it's refreshingly different. Rather than an impatient kid from Recluce, the hero is a middle-aged cooper from Nordla. His emerging need for order and truth brings him into dire conflict with the local ruler, and he's forced to flee his home. He finds employment with a sympathetic ship's captain of his acquaintance and travels as a ship's carpenter to a number of places we've heard of in previous books but never seen. Everywhere he travels he learns a little more about his ever increasing powers.
This is the first of two books about Kharl the Cooper; the second is called Ordermaster, and I'm rather looking forward to it.
Whilst out walking with my sons recently, we've several times spotted "woolly bear" caterpillars. I explained to the boys that these caterpillars would eventually turn into either a butterfly or a moth, but that I didn't know which one. They not unreasonably asked me to find out. So I did a Google search, and to my surprise this is what I found:
A wooly bear caterpillar is black at both ends of its body and has one reddish brown stripe in the middle.
The wooly bear caterpillar, which turns into the tiger moth, Isia Isabella, is the source of a common superstition. Some people believe that the coat of a wooly bear caterpillar can be used to predict how bad the coming winter will be. There are many wooly bear caterpillars in the United States and Canada. They can be seen anytime from May to October.
They believe that if a wooly bear caterpillar's brown stripe is thick, the winter weather will be mild and if the brown stripes are narrow, the winter will be severe.
Now this rather surprised me, because I've never seen a two-toned woolly bear like the one in the picture, nor have I ever heard of the related bit of folklore. Almost all of the woolly bears I've ever seen here in Southern California have been all black; on rare occasions I've seen ones that were all brown.
Wikipedia comes to the rescue. It turns that there's an entire taxonomic family of tiger moths:
Many species have hairy caterpillars which are popularly known as woolly bears. The scientific name refers to this (Gk. αρκτος = a bear). The caterpillars are usually active during the daytime. If disturbed, they will roll into a tight spiral. Colonial superstition has it that the forthcoming weather can be predicted by the amount of black on a woolly bear caterpillar.
So the local varieties are just a different species than Isia Isabella, but they definitely moths.
I just got back from seeing my doctor; it has now been two full months since my diet began, and it was time to go in, get weighed, and see what's changed in my blood chemistry over the last two months. For those not following along at home, I was directed to avoid all red meat and carbohydrates, to eschew egg yolk, to consume only chicken, turkey, fish, soy, low-fat cheese, egg whites, green leafy vegetables, a modicum of other vegetables, and nuts; and to walk for 30 minutes a day. And except for a very few quite intentional lapses (I celebrated Easter with chocolate) that's what I've been doing for the last two months.
Last month at this time, I'd lost 13 pounds. This month, it turns out, I lost another 13 pounds, making 26 pounds all told. In addition, my cholesterol dropped to under half its previous level, and the other problem statistics are now comfortably in-range as well. In fact, the only problem my bloodwork showed this time is that my HDL cholesterol (the so-called "good" cholesterol) is now too low. My doctor says that I need to eat more fish. I told her we had fish twice this month and twice last month, which is four more times than in the twelve months before that.
So things are going well on that front. Bottomline, I'm to keep at it, and come back for another look next month.
This is the simply the best thing I've run into on the Web in ages. All Tolkien fans have to go take a look. I particularly like the Synopsis of The Lord of the Rings, for students without enough time to read it. Also, you can download the complete Lord of the Rings movie--the Howard Hawks version, produced by Warner Bros. and starring Humphrey Bogart. Peter Lorre is especially good as Smeagol.
Seriously, you need to go take a look. (I'm talking to you, Ian!)
I read this to the boys as a bedtime story, and as a reward to myself for actually finishing The Bad Beginning. 'nuff said.
Apropos of nothing in particular, this happens to be Jane's favorite of all of the Narnia books.
A serial killer has been fascinating and terrifying London. Dubbed the "Flower Killer" by the press, he strangles women, drops flowers on their bodies, and walks away singing. The final victim is found on the London docks just as the freighter Cape Farewell pulls away; the freighter is carrying eight passengers. The victim had a torn piece of embarkation notice for the Cape Farewell in her hand. The inference is clear; the Flower Killer might be on board the ship. There isn't enough evidence to call the Cape Farewell back to port, but plenty enough to be worried, and so Inspector Alleyn boards the freighter at Southhampton as "Mr. Broderick", an official of the shipping line.
What follows is an interesting variant of the snowbound country house mystery. The passengers are trapped on board the ship with a demented killer, and only Alleyn and the ship's captain are aware of it. Without alarming the passengers, Alleyn must determine who the killer is, and prevent him from killing again.
As a mystery it's enjoyable enough, but Alleyn's reflections on serial killing and serial killers are dated, and the psychological explanation for why the killer kills is ridiculously facile. But hey, it was 1958.
This is a book I got at a book fair at my kids' elementary school a year or two ago, with the expectation that maybe I'd read it to them as a bedtime story. It looked somewhat interesting, and the first few pages were not bad, and David that it looked really good. It's been sitting on the shelf ever since, and I decided I'd read it through myself first, rather than starting on it with the kids and getting myself in another Lemony Snicket situation.
Molly Moon is your basic unattractive-and-poorly-behaved-in-spite-of-her-best-intentions young ragamuffin girl; she lives at your basic orphanage-run-by-sadists-who-don't-like-little-kids. Most of the other kids call her names and are mean to her, and the woman who runs the school makes her clean out the toilet with her toothbrush for misbehaving, and her only friend is adopted to a family in New York. Molly finds a book on hypnotism, learns how to hypnotize pretty much anybody, and proceeds to start making a few changes around the orphanage and in her life in general. Along the way she travels to New York and has to outwit the evil Professor Nock, who wants her hypnotism book for his own nefarious purposes.
I found the book less annoying than Snicket's The Bad Beginning--not a difficult trick--but although it had some good bits it was a bit tedious, with a fair amount of heavy-handed moralizing and some thoroughly unbelievable changes of heart toward the end. The dust jacket describes the author as "Another challenger for the crowns of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman," which is laughable. On the one hand she's not nearly as skilled as either, and on the other nobody does heavy-handed moralizing with such self-defeating panache as Philip Pullman.
If things run according to form, I'll probably get two or three comments from kids who think Molly Moon is simply the best. And that's fine; my point is simply that unlike Rowling's books, or C.S. Lewis's, or Lloyd Alexander's, you're not going to see many adults reading about young Molly for their own pleasure.
In the meantime, I think I'm going to save the book for a few years, and let the kids read it to themselves if they like. I've been through it once, and I feel no need to read it again.
If I was less pleased with Scales of Justice on second reading, I was more pleased with Death of a Fool. On first reading I found it dreadfully strange and confusing, mostly because it involves the weird and wonderful world of Morris dancing. I know very little about Morris dancing even now, but I knew nothing of it then, and wondered what kind of rabbit hole I'd tumbled into.
Here's the little I've gathered; but don't quote me. At certain times of the year in English country villages, a group of men would put on costumes adorned with ribbons and bells and dance an odd sort of group dance. Sometimes there would be a sequence of dances and something like a play, with ritual actions and words. The usual explanation is that the dance, the play, and especially the words were a hold-over from pre-Christian fertility rites.
Death of a Fool was first published in 1956; at that time, I gather, what you might call authentic traditional morris dancing was greatly in decline. The book takes place in a small village, where the the "Mardian Morris", or "Dance of the Five Sons", is still performed every winter on "Sword Wednesday", just as it had been for centuries. But Mardian is described as perhaps the last village where the authentic thing still persists as an authentic tradition, performed by the villagers solely for the villagers, and as yet unnoticed by outsiders.
If you want to know more about morris dancing, just do a Google search; I found buckets of websites all about various morris dancing associations, and I confess I did not particularly scrutinize any of them.
The tale itself is an interesting variant on the locked room mystery. The play calls for one of the dancers to hide in a hollow behind a low stone for a time, and then eventually rise up; and when the time comes for the dancer to rise up it's discovered that he's been beheaded. And yet the stone was in plain sight throughout, and no one was seen to go near it. So how was the deed done?
Inspector Alleyn is in his usual good form, and there are a number of memorable characters among the villagers; it made for a nice, comfortable read.