Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Little Light Reading (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Kathryn Hepburn, Desk Set (via reel-librarians.com)
Spider Robinson taught us that "Librarians are the secret masters of the universe. They control information. Never piss one off.

I wouldn't dream of it. For me, and I suspect, for most dedicated readers, Robinson's Secret Masters are the root and core of our reading history.

I set out in this flash intro to explain why the topic of "spreading light" always inspires me to talk about librarians. I've known four that prodded me along my path, never letting me drop into easy, thoughtless reading habits. They challenged me with genres and authors who were then unknown to me, but who would become my friends and partners in life.

They really did have those old-fashioned names. Furthermore, all four were single when I knew them, though I have learned that Winston later married (at the ripe age of 58.) All four had tales to tell of their own introduction to the deeply magical world of books, with their own Secret Masters to be thanked in later life.

So I honor and memorialize my seminal librarians for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week:

December 16, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about “spreading the light.” You can use it to honor or memorialize a loved one.

None of my Secret Masters are still in this world. Perhaps you can let yours know, before it is too late, what a difference they made in your life.


A Little Light Reading

They wear old-fashioned names: Hildegard, Charlotte, Winston, Arabella, and the light they spread is second-hand, but it is brilliant and up-to-date.

It pours in gentle beams from Sigrid Undset and Taylor Caldwell, or shines through harsh desert illuminations by Zane Grey and Tony Hillerman. Bob Shaw's light of Other Days shields us Against the Fall of Night. The undersea twilight of H.G Wells gleams for 20,000 Leagues. They gave me Light Music on the Dark Side of the Moon. I had All the Light We Cannot See.

I can always count on a librarian to bring me to the light.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015: My Most

Some surprising entries show up in my recap list this year: authors who provided a superlative disappointment or a transcendental joy, movies that thrilled unexpectedly (or unexpectedly fell flat), things that broke down or performed wonderfully, crowd-funded projects that swept me to triumph or left me asking "is that all there is?"

In no particular order, here for 2015 are my most:

Disappointing New Novel

Fish Tales by Sheri S. Tepper: Astounding as it may seem to those who follow this blog, Tepper makes my #1 negative rating this year. The book came out in 2014, but I didn't read it until early this year. My initial reaction was, it's just as well that Tepper is putting down her pen, if this is all that's left. Gone was the elegant language, the sense of story, and the brilliantly-compelling, though oddball, characters. If it had been anyone but Tepper, I would have put the book down long before halfway through, and never come back.

In second place is a culturally-inaccessible debut from Nina Nenova, The Capital of Latecomers, translated from Bulgarian, but not rendered in Western thought-modes. It reminded me of a former entry in a most-disappointing list, the 1990 movie Jacob's Ladder

Neal Stephenson might have made it to this bottom of the list award with Seveneves as well, except that I've had disappointments from Stephenson before that turned into "wow!" reactions upon re-reading. I'm willing to give it another go, but that'll be an assessment for another year.

Enticing Debut Novel

Then Comes a Wind by R.J. Stewart: I reviewed this novel after reading it for the second time; the first was as a beta reader. 

Among other things, I said of the novel: "If I had encountered Stewart's blizzard at the same age as I did [Laura Ingalls] Wilder's, I might not have been so fearful of one, principally because neither Will nor his women are frightened by the storm. Storms are just what happen on the prairie, and the Suttons' approach to life is to cope with what happens. There are darker turns to this story, though, that make it inappropriate for very young readers."

Close second to this is Novel Concept by Dan Fiorella. (While this is not his debut novel, he counts for the purposes of this list, because he is new to me as a writer, and I found the book on the Kindle Scout list.)

I reviewed it with a solid thumbs-up, recommending it for anyone who loves the humor and wit of Max Shulman, Christopher Moore, or Dave Barry.

Delicious Re-Read

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis: I first read this novel in the 90s when it came out in paperback, after devouring The Doomsday Book by the same author a few years earlier. I reviewed it for Blogcritics in 2005 after a third re-read, and again recently after re-reading it on Kindle.

Each time, I have been rewarded with new insights. Most recently, it was the critical role played by computer modeling (and the poor decisions those models foster), which led the novel's main character Ned Henry to the realization that "that's the problem with models—they only include the details people think are relevant..."

As with Tepper, I have rarely run across a novel by Willis that I did not enjoy reading. If time-travel isn't your thing, try the delightful Bellwether, which asks (and answers) the question: Where do annoying trends and cultural memes come from?

Second place in this list is Neal Stephenson's brilliant Anathem, which I reviewed this year after re-reading the Kindle version.

Deflated Expectation on the Screen

Mockingjay Part 1: Maybe the disappointment was similar to having The Hobbit broken into a movie trilogy; the novel by Suzanne Collins was not that much longer than the first two in the trilogy, but by dint of expanding the action scenes and dialog, the film made a two-release meal of it.

One result of splitting the tale into two films was making an interim minor climax into a major cliffhanger, so that Part I could end on a teasing question. This reduced the impact of the character arcs that made Mockingjay (the novel) such a powerful read. Other, more trivial, problems introduced in the expansion paled before that disappointment.

Difficult to Choose the Best

I have a section of my movie collectiona fairly large shelf, in factreserved for sports movies starring Kevin Costner. 2015 saw two more titles added to that list: Draft Day and McFarland USA.

Draft Day was reviewed in this blog last May, when I said of it that Costner "makes us see the son devastated by the need to fire his own father, the child grieving for a hero-parent, the man uncertain how to respond to impending fatherhood in his own right, all while trying to deal with the intense pressure to perform brilliantly for his team." 

In July, I happened to catch McFarland USA, another Costner sports outing in which the actor represents a conflicted man in a situation that calls for leading a team to self-discovery, effort, and eventually, glory. This is his forte, and Costner shines again as a track coach leading a group of mostly-Latino runners to victory.

One of the best scenes in McFarland USA comes over the closing credits as runners from that first teamthe real guysset out for a training run with the real coach Jim White, with notes about their lives after their track victories. It is impressive how many of these boys who might have left school before graduation, instead went on to college. They then became servicemen, policemen, and managers of businesses.

And they still go on training runs with their coach.

Triumphant Crowd-Funding

My spouse and I got in early on one of the "most" Kickstarter projects of all time this year: Exploding Kittens. This crowd-funded game racked up an impressive list of superlatives in its 30 days as a project: Completely funded in the first 24 hours, it ended the month 10,000% funded, with the highest number of backers ever (over 200,000), and nearly $9 million in pledges. 

It became, first the most-backed game ever, then the most-backed project ever. Eventually, it would even spawn imitations on Kickstarter.

The company stretched, and stretched again, finally delivering us a game box with a magnet closure that meows when opened, with sufficient space for both the standard family-friendly game and a full NSFW deck. The first time we played it, we were delighted, and two other players in the game were inspired to buy their own decks!

Regift-Suitable Project Backed 

On the other hand, a truly "meh" result came from the Kickstarter project for Crop Circle Towels. This could have been an awe-inspiring product, but it fell a little short thanks to the skimpy dimensions of the Bath Sheet, the shallow pile, and the slightly less than color-fast nature of the green dye used on them. I am surprised the product made it to Amazon! 

Bath sheets are usually 35 inches by 60 inchesI notice the largest size Crop Circle towel is no longer labelled "bath sheet" on Amazon, though.

I hope my nephews like their Christmas presents!

Ready-for-the-Bin Hardware

Our sturdy portable 3D printer, the Bukito from Deezmaker, which gave us so much pleasure producing knick-knacks and trinkets at Chick-fil-A over the last 20 months, finally bit the dust this fall. 

Obsolete technologythings move so fast in an emerging art!and cumulative wear-and-tear made the prospect of repairing it more expensive than simply replacing it with something more up-to-date. We will probably look at a Delta printer, simply to be exploring a different mode of printing.

Life-Enriching Hardware

Our Kindle Paperwhites continue to perform beautifully, especially with auto-updates, and with Amazon Prime First freebies and Kindle Scout additions. My spouse got a new-version Paperwhite as a belated birthday present, and reports the 300-pixel screen is easier and more enjoyable to read. 

I count my Kindle as, not just this year's, but this decade's, most useful lifestyle change.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Comedy of Manners and Time Travel

Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Connie Willis has a unique twist on time travel: the "net" through which travelers access other times is self-correcting. Not only can one not travel to a time in which one has already lived, one cannot bring "through the net" anything that might cause an anachronistic incongruity. Crisis points are even more tightly controlled: no one can travel to Waterloo, for example, or get close to the grassy knoll. 

So when in To Say Nothing of the Dog, Ned Henry is dragooned by Lady Shrapnell into traveling back in time to research the "bishop's bird stump" at Coventry Cathedral just before it was destroyed in the Blitz, he is baffled by his inability to find it. Back and forth he goes, getting more and more time-lagged as he visits jumble sales ("maybe it was sold as a white elephant"), the bombed-out smoking remains of the cathedral ("That's a cat! I thought it would be the size of a wolf, somehow...") and the putative peace and quiet of the Victorian age. 

The last visit is necessary because somehow, a cat (extinct in 2067) has been brought forward through the net. Ned is volunteered to take it back, and somehow get Lady Shrapnell's great-great-great-grandmother to visit Coventry so that she will write about the bishop's bird stump in her diary, because, so Lady Shrapnell will be inspired to rebuild Coventry Cathedral and restore the bishop's bird stump to its rightful place in history and the hearts of Englishmen. 

Mr. Dunworthy and Finch, whom we met in The Doomsday Book, are back. They want to make sure the net stays open and history happens. Lady Shrapnell is determined to get the cathedral rebuilt on time, with the bishop's bird stump, despite the laws of physics—besides, "laws are made to be broken." Professor Peddick wants to defeat his rival Overforce with his ideas of a "Grand Design" that "shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we may." Verity Kindle wants to make sure the cat she rescued isn't drowned, "incongruity or not." Ned just wants to get a full night's sleep. 

What transpires out of this knot of competing ambitions is a wonderful comedy of manners, with modern perspective applied with liberal amounts of humor and allusion. History is used as a sustaining structure seen by the participants in the way we note limbs, leaves and stems on a tree: as a confusing mass dimly perceived in detail, and really understood only as a gestalt "tree." (Even while Lady Shrapnell reminds us that "God is in the details," we see clearly that using computer models to guide our choices is a poor strategy, because "that's the problem with models—they only include the details people think are relevant...".)

It is also an Agatha-Christie-style mystery whose deftly-handled clues span 700 years of history. At least. The wonder of Willis' writing is that the novel succeeds brilliantly on every level, and rewards re-reading with new insights each time.

I recommend it highly. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Looking Around a Blind Curve (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

As a student at Mines, I was pleased to learn that my new spouse shared a love of road trips into the mountains, especially as I did not have a driver's license then. We would rent or borrow a car, take off from campus, and enjoy the "Rocky Mountain's majesty" just a few minutes from the borders of Golden, Colorado.

One memorable incident (that made me very happy I was not behind the wheel) occurred as we drove a rented car to Frasier, Colorado, during the ski season. The road led through the Winter Park ski area, a popular destination for students in the Denver area. Winter Park's lifts were just down a snowy slope from the highway.

My spouse had years of experience driving in snow and on the mountain roads, and was a careful operator of any car, but especially in a rental. Even so, the packed, icy condition of the road was a challenge.

We would be indebted to the looky-loo behavior of a truck driver, driving toward us on the same road, who had more visibility of what lay ahead than we did, and who was willing and able to warn us. But it was my driver's split-second response to the situation, and driving skills, that saved us all.

I share it with you for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week:

December 9, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about a looky-loo. It can be in the general term of “looking around” or it can be a nosy neighbor kind of tale. You can also go deeper into the prompt and have a looky-loo at another culture (or your own).

I've often wondered what the skiers' laundry looked like that night when they got home!


Looking Around a Blind Curve

The snowy curves of the Frasier road were packed slick.

Far ahead, a semi-truck blew his horn urgently, heading into the same blind hairpin we were approaching. "What's he honking about?" I asked. 

My savvy driver replied, "I'm not sure, but I think I'll slow down!"

Around the corner, some skiers skipping the tow fees were unloading from a car parked inside the curve. Our skid took us 360 degrees, halting on the steep road-edge. The semi barely missed us, passing with its horn still blaring.

The panicked skiers loaded back into their car and left without a word.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

(Yo) Ho Ho Ho (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

You know when you drop a handful of change or a couple of bills in the red Salvation Army pot that the money is going to a legitimate charity. The donation box at your church is not likely to be a scam, either.

But it seems every business has a gift collection out for its customers to contribute during the holiday season, and not all of them are as well-intentioned as the Santa-capped bell-ringers on the street corner downtown.

While the spark for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge prompt this week may not have been tide of giving that surges each year in December, it ran into my own suspicions about a charity program I saw last week in a shop:

December 2, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a pirate story. It can be about pirates or piracy; modern or of yore. Swashbuckling, parrots and rum can be involved or maybe you’ll invent details beyond standard pirates.

Charity is an important civic virtue; you need not have a particular religious belief to see its value to your community or yourself. But the people who take advantage of our charitable urges are no less thieves than those who plied their trade on the high seas.


(Yo) Ho Ho Ho

The donations in his coffee-shop "Christmas Gift for Africa" box kept mounting. Each time Jeremy checked, the colorful poster behind it with its soulful photos of needy children had garnered more money.

So far, this particular holiday drive was doing better than the "Relief for Earthquake Victims" and "Kids With Cancer" combined. It seemed it would be a very merry Christmas indeed. For Jeremy.

Going with the theme, Jeremy ordered a rum-raisin muffin to go with his espresso, connected to the coffee-shop's WiFi, and prepared to spend his stolen gains online, where all the best pirates hang out nowadays.