Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Full of Cigam and Ytlaef, But Still Emal

Review: Born to Magic: Tales of Nevaeh by David Wind

Naming is a power given to Adam in the Old Testament. Sorcerers and practitioners of magic in tales of power know that to have access to a Real Name is to control the named one. Just think of Rumplestiltskin!

In Born to Magic, names given to lands and characters mostly have the power to disturb and distract the reader. Some, like Llawnroc, Nosaj, Tolemac, Atir, and Nevaeh itself, are familiar place- and person-names, reversed. Once I noticed this pattern, each time a new name was introduced I had to work out what it might spell backwards. 

Prince Mikaal, son of the High King? Okay that's not one. But the High King's wife Enaid? Jackpot! 

Once I got the naming disturbance out of my system, though, I began to see the story more clearly. Wind has used a classic sci-fi strategy, changed something about a technology, culture or people, and projected it into the future to reveal its impact on life. And despite the themes of magic and sorcery, Born to Magic is post-apocalypse science fiction.

In the future Earth created by David Wind, post-nuclear-holocaust Earth was destroyed by never-named Dark Others, who seem to be located "across the oceans to the East". Because of this nuclear catastrophe, or perhaps because of undetailed environmental damage, the power of magic has departed men, and only women can wield it. Women have completely assumed the mantle of magical power, yet menKingsstill rule territories in Nevaeh, commanding armies of bowmen and sword-wielders.

By the time I have absorbed this concept, we meet Solomon Roth, the High King, who hails from Nevaeh's past. He got there by way of an interstellar colonization project that failed because the colonists carried along a tailored virus that mutated into a killer. Roth was the only survivor when the starship returned to Earth. He provides the "current-day" perspective on what happened in almost three intervening millennia. 

Areena, the female lead, is a powerful wielder of magic. (Quick checkokay, her name, like Mikaal's, is not reversible.) Mikaal is a male born with magical power, and he and Areena need to get together for mutual training in order to save Nevaeh. He will teach her to use a sword; she will teach him to access and wield his power. Together, they must travel to a mysterious Island where their power will be confirmed. (Except males must never approach the Island upon pain of death.)

Now the tale becomes even more confusing. (Hard to believe, I know.) This is when we learn that Areena's magic is really science. You know, the same science that was studied by Karl Zener and J.B. Rhine, used by Uri Gellar to bend spoons, and tapped by Nostradamus to write his prophecies.

As I write this, Areena and Mikaal have just reached the Island. (I haven't finished the novel yet.) There might be something in those last chapters that would wrap the whole story in comprehension for me. But I will stop while I'm ahead, tiptoe away and leave these two magic-wielders to their fate. Like a Regency romance whose characters say, "Too cool!" and "I'm outta here," this story just reached my limit of inconsistencies.

I'm outta here.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Trunks Full of Them (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

  "Why did your family commit you?" asked the psychiatrist. 
  His patient replied, "My family thinks I'm nuts because I love pancakes." 
  "Well, that doesn't make you crazy," his startled doctor told him. "I am quite fond of them myself!"
  "Great!" His patient enthused, "Come on over to my place sometimeI have trunks full of them in the attic!"

When I was eight or nine years old, I had read all the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys mysteries on the "children's side" of our old-fashioned Carnegie Library, frequently taking them to the "adults side" of the library to read at the big wooden tables in the quieter space there. I began making inroads on the other series, but there were a limited number: Nancy Drew and the Oz books come to mind.

So what would I do when the summer reading program rolled around? I began to check out the shelves of adult literature, guided by a sympathetic librarian. Morris West, Carson McCullers, Taylor Caldwell, Zane Grey, Howard Fast, Lloyd C. Douglas, Sigrid Undsetthese were all deemed too challenging for children to read, but I dug into them anyway. When I met the adult-level reading challenge (I think it was 12 books read and "reported" on during the summer), I won a book of my own. I chose Taylor Caldwell's A Prologue to Love, which I hadn't read yet.

With this book, a cheaply hard-bound volume that I had "bought myself" through my summer reading efforts, a light went on in the back of my brain that no amount of packing up to move, no change in my reading tastes, nor even a transition to Kindle has been able to quite extinguish. I must own the books I read. 

My baby-sitting and lawn-mowing earnings purchased paperback books from the local Rexall Drug. When I got an afternoon-and-weekend job at the Duckwall's Five-and-Dime, I budgeted a chunk of my paycheck to purchase books. I began storing my "library" in shoe-boxes under my bed. By the time I graduated and went off to the School of Mines, two milk-crates of books went along with me.

Flash forward to 2001, and a move from southern to northern California. A full third of the moving truck contents were book-boxes, which we unloaded into the new house's basement garage. The hand-built shelving went into storage as well; there was no room for them in the house we were sharing with my father-in-law.

Piled in 5-foot-high rows, those book crates rest there today, mute testimony to my vice of collecting books. Oh, I occasionally go down there and dig through the boxes to find a specific book I simply must read again. Often, it is because there is no Kindle version available; many of the boxed volumes now exist on my Kindle (or in its Cloud) as well. There is no dust on the eBooks.

So I knew exactly which vice I would write about in response to this week's Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge:

April 22, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a vice. It can be part of a character or a part of the story. The vice can be the focus or it can be subtle. Think of ways to use a vice (or multiples, if you are so daring) to create a compelling flash fiction.

My trunks full of secret vice are stashed in my basement rather than the attic, but the truth is they are just as useful as the crazy man's pancakesand probably no more dry and dusty!

Trunks Full of Them

The movers wheeled the piles of book boxes out to the truck as I looked around at the empty shelves. I had built them to fit this space. How would they suit the new house?

Removing earthquake strapping that kept 8-foot-tall shelving from toppling onto our bed, I worked the bed-head shelf away from the wall. Behind the headboard, I found Hilbert Schenk's Steam Bird. Panic brought chill sweat: what if it had been left behind? 

Halfway to the new house, too late to return, I remembered the boxes of Destroyer novels left behind in the attic crawl space.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Simple, Modest, Genius

Review: Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute

I first discovered this gem as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. That was over fifty years ago, long enough that I don’t remember what they removed to condense it. It doesn’t matter—the novel captured me even in its condensed form. I re-read it with great enjoyment at least once a year.

The story is a simple one, suited to its main character. Keith Stewart is a post-war aviation tool-fitter, living in a modest house on modest means supplied by his weekly Miniature Mechanic column about building model engines and clocks. To supplement this income, his wife works part-time in a shop. Shute tells us this basic fact about Keith Stewart right up front:

He would have made more money in the toolroom progressing up from charge-hand to foreman; he would have made more money as an instructor in a technical college. He would not have made more happiness than he had now attained.

The part of Keith’s “job” he likes least is the correspondence. Even so, he replies personally to each letter, equally patient with the able mechanic and the obvious novice (such as Mr. Hirzhorn of Tacoma, Washington, who “evidently had a secretary with an electric typewriter to whom he could dictate, because each letter was about fifteen hundred words long.”) The letters come from all over the world. Every engineer, tool-fitter, and tech of the day is building little engines; and most of them read Miniature Mechanic for the designs and instructions Keith supplies.

Keith and his wife have no children. His only sister Jo, who married well, has one, and while Jo and her husband are on a sailing vacation (actually scouting for a permanent move to Canada or the US Northwest), their daughter Janey will stay with Keith and Katie. Before they leave in their yacht, Keith helps them seal a small leather box into concrete in the ballast of the boat. He believes it carries Jo’s jewelry with them, because the currency-export restrictions would prevent it otherwise. Actually, he’s not too troubled about it. Keith is a man living in his comfort zone, and is not troubled about anything much.

Several months later, when they learn that Jo and her husband are dead in a shipwreck on a tiny island in the South Pacific, Keith and Katie realize that they will need to care for Janey. This is when Keith learns that his trusteeship will require more than faithfully caring for Jo’s daughter. The entire fortune the couple had amassed has been converted to diamonds, and Keith is the only living man who knows where those diamonds might be.

He decides he must recover them alone, and sets out to do just that, undertaking a journey to the opposite side of the globe. This modest man who has never been off the island of England packs a single small suitcase, puts a £110 in traveler’s checks in one pocket and a tiny model generator in the other, and talks himself onto a flight over the pole to Hawaii. 

In Honolulu, he learns that the only ship heading anywhere near the tiny island he needs to reach is a dirty hand-built fishing ship owned by a “simple-minded man,” Jack Donnelly, who had sailed her alone from Oregon without charts, engine or any paperwork. Keith, who knows he suffers from sea-sickness, sets out across the emptiest part of the Pacific as second hand to Donnelly.

Behind the scenes, however, Keith is anything but alone. His editor at Miniature Mechanic worries that this mainstay of his publication may come to grief. He sends a telegram to a professor in Michigan whose model-building is the technical relief from his professional focus on medieval literature. The professor considers who may be able to help, and passes the telegram to the Tacoma lumber magnate, Sol Hirzhorn, who has his own reasons for helping Keith Stewart. 

Hirzhorn makes loaning Keith the use of the Ferris yacht (which happens to be in Honolulu) part of a million-dollar deal Hirzhorn is contemplating with Chuck Ferris of Ferris Hydraulics. Pilots, mechanics, engineers, and model-buildersmakers and moverswhom Keith meets all along the way each lend a hand to help him. Through their (and his own) willingness to help, Keith is brought to realize his own value and abilities.

In the end, this is a novel about networking, about the community of makers, and about real virtue rewarded. As for Keith Stewart, Shute summarizes him perfectly in the novel’s last lines:

He has achieved the type of life he prefers; he wants no other. He is perfectly, supremely happy.

Perhaps that is the simple appeal of this novel. Don’t miss it.

A Quiet Retrospective

Review: The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara

At the height of his career, John Wayne was the image of the American we wanted to present to the world: strong, competent, honorable and attractive, in every sense of those words. 

In the 1952 classic, The Quiet Man, John Thornton is quintessential John Wayne, swaggering around his ancestral Irish hamlet, charming the natives and winning Maureen O’Hara’s heart.

He’s a nice, quiet, peace-loving man, come home to Ireland to forget his troubles. Sure, yes, yes, he’s a millionaire, you know, like all the Yanks. But he’s eccentric—ooh, he is eccentric! Wait ’til I show ya… his bag to sleep in. A sleeping bag, he calls it! Here, let me show you how it operates. —Barry Fitzgerald as Michaleen Oge Flynn in The Quiet Man

The love story is clever, pitting Thornton’s instant attraction to (and for) O’Hara’s Mary Kate Dannaher character against their differing customs and her brother’s enmity. Squire “Red Will” Dannaher (played by one-time boxer Victor McLaglen) is a brawler who had hoped to buy the Thornton farm from its owner, the Widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick). When Thornton persuades her to sell to him instead, Dannaher takes Thornton’s charming ways as a direct challenge—not only to his hopes for property acquisition, but also to his undeclared relationship with the Widow Tillane.

If anyone could create a notable supporting character to the Wayne-O’Hara-McLaglen trinity, it is Barry Fitzgerald. He plays Flynn, the local matchmaker, as a boozy leprechaun with an eye to any opportunity for a free drink. Flynn narrates much of the film, either explicitly, or, as cited above, in dialog with other characters. He has plenty of opportunity to talk, too—Flynn has a finger in every village pie, it seems.

In fact, the movie is full of endearing comic bits, quietly poking fun at stereotypes and illuminating Irish village life. We can chuckle at the stolid Englishman who calmly reads his paper as a pub fight rages around him, laugh at the Catholic priests who cover their collars to cheer for the Anglican bishop and grin at the reaction of the Reverend’s wife when she learns her husband has won a sizable bet.

Characters aside, the center of this movie is the clash between Wayne and O’Hara. Sure, the last quarter of the film seems to be concerned with the lengthy fist-fight between Thornton and Dannaher, but in watching it again recently, I realized their fight is a metaphor. Thornton and Dannaher are almost equally matched, weight-for-weight, skill-for-skill. Dannaher’s bluster is fueled by anger and stubborn pride, while Thornton’s agreement to the fight has a tinge of resignation to it, a “let’s get it over with” attitude.

Wayne’s quiet American spends a lot of time avoiding this fight, ignoring his opponent’s attempts to instigate the fray—even at the cost of losing considerable “face” with Mary Kate. Once having commenced the battle, however, Thornton will not concede. He’s in it to win, and will do what it takes to achieve victory, as long as it’s within the rules. In the 1950s, these were qualities and attitudes the world ascribed to John Wayne. 

By extension, we hoped, they were characteristics the world would ascribe to America herself.

Thornton cannot beat Mary Kate (although she invites it) until he has beaten her brother, not because it is her custom, but because to do otherwise wouldn’t be strong, wouldn’t be principled.

Wouldn’t be John Wayne.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Study of Pie

I like pizza. There were whole years in my early married life that pizza was on the menu for dinner whenever we could afford it. 

We've eaten abysmal pizza in Jo-burg and Milano, we've enjoyed outstanding, even glorious pies in Idaho Springs, Colorado and Gallup, New Mexico. We've piled extra cheese on our Tombstones, office-microwaved Red Baron.

But until yesterday, we had no motivation to study pizza. The science and knowledge of pie, short of that imparted from the taste buds, was totally unnecessary.

That was before we walked into Pieology, a new local pizzeria that replaced the defunct Blockbuster video in the shopping block at the bottom of our hill. The conceptfast, artisanal, custom-built pizzasis unlike the Dominos model. Here, all pies are medium (11.5 inches across), and the build process is more like Subway than Round Table. There is a single price for all the toppings you want, and they do not deliver.

I had a whole wheat crust brushed with herbed butter, piled with extra mozzarella, and sprinkled with black olive slices, corn and bacon. For my spouse, the thin crust was a negative, but the availability of whole wheat or gluten-free was a plus; that pie was built with marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese and pepperoni, Next time, we may try the hand-made (standard) pizza crust and choose a different cheese. They have a dairy-free cheese that might be interesting.

However beautiful a pie may be, the bottom line is the taste. I watched the pepperoni pizza disappear, crisp crust and all, as I savored my own herb-buttered, corn and olive bedazzled slices. This was an $8 pie with $28-worth of flavor!

PieologyI believe we will be attending regular classes here. Maybe even take along some homework!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

M-Holes, P-Holes and A-Holes: On the Gender of Words

Working as a technical writer in the 1990s, I learned that it is possible (although it takes extra effort) to write entire books without ever denoting gender. “You” and “the reader” suffice when the writer needs to refer directly to a person. If you must use gendered pronouns, they can be alternated so “she” has equal time with “he.”

But no amount of tiptoeing around pronouns helps when the English noun itself has a built-in gender-word. Draftsman must become drafter, chairman yields to chair. It’s all actors and waiters and hosts now.

For a while, politically-correct constructs were the way to go. As we wrote and spoke, we appended “-person,” lest we offend the women who filled Chairs or drew maps. We slashed pronouns with abandon, creating awful s/he and him/her awkwardness. 

Some writers became so traumatized as to abandon pronoun number agreement entirely, leading to such giggle-producing effects as “As soon as the student has finished the exam, they will have to leave the room.” What, all of them?

"M-Hole" cover in San Francisco is labeled "PG&ECo"
Then there’s manhole. This word has prompted major disputes across the English-speaking world. City planners and plat-drafters might prefer to leave the name intact, so they know what the little “MH” symbols on their maps mean. But that “man” in the manhole has to go!

Person-hole would be gender-neutral, but in addition to its dismal lack of grace, it might also be shortened to P-hole. That’s just nasty! And access hole, another proposed term, has an even viler shorthand.

That’s why cities as large as London and New York, and as small as Golden, Colorado, have gratefully accepted the designation “maintenance hatch.” It has the advantage of leaving their city plats intact, and it shortens to M-hatch. No more holes, man or other.

Ah, the wisdom of Soloman! Oops, “Soloperson.”

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Hole Truth

Review: A Field Guide to Desert Holes by Pinau Merlin

We often walk through the world blind and ignorant, oblivious to the burgeoning life all around us—unless, of course, we take our walks with a Field Guide. A second-edition hardbound copy of Peterson's A Field Guide to Western Birds resides next to my bay window, because I want to know what that dickey-bird out there is named. My spouse says, “If it’s blue in a tree, it’s a Stellars Jay, if it’s brown on the ground, it’s a towhee.” 

But I want the expert's nod to reassure me, yes, that’s a towhee.

I’ve purchased more than my share of “roadside geology” books, too. These guides combine geology and history for a locale, telling the casual tourist, "The streak of pale yellow you see on the hillside is quartz, which was mined by the Spanish as they came through the area." Of course, the tourist is looking in the wrong direction, so he confidently informs his family that the large yellow letters painted on the rocks to celebrate a local high-school graduation are “made of Spanish quartz.” (This actually happened onceI was able to gently redirect their attention to the correct hillside, telling them, "If they are, it was mined from over there.")

Now those field guides, useful as they are, can just move over on the shelf to make room for a new king. Pinau Merlin's Desert Holes guide shows you how to spot the living quarters, larders and shady retreats of desert animals. Let’s face it—in the daytime, when most of us go for a walk in the desert, these holes are the only evidence of the abundant desert life.

Like many field guides, this book uses description as the primary mode to convey the shape, size and usual location for these holes. I would have loved to see a set of color plates to illustrate holes, such as I have in my Petersen’s Guide to Rocks and Minerals. Too often, I simply couldn’t visualize the hole shape Merlin was describing. (There are some lovely ink sketches, but far too few.)

The most impressive thing about the guide is the sheer number of holes Merlin describes. Even if you read it, as I did, in the air-conditioned comfort of an urban food court, you will get the sense of life that would be hidden all around you as you stroll through a daytime desert. I even got excited to retroactively identify (from a sketch) the burrow of a spider seen in Death Valley more than two years ago.

Desert walkers and armchair wanderers alike will find items of interest in this guide. In paperback at 132 pages, it’s not too heavy to bring along.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Burning Desires in Spanish Harlem

Review: Chango’s Fire by Ernesto Quiñonez

Julio Santana is hijo de Chango, a child of the Santeria god representing fire and lightning. He knows this because the operator of the botanica next door, the high priest of Regla Lukumi, Papelito, told him so.

Black as tar, with no trace of Spanish blood in his lineage, at sixty-eight, Papelito is a man made up of rumors. It is said he can kill with prayers. Papelito is the only gay man who can walk the streets of Spanish Harlem swaying his hips like a cable-suspended bridge and not be ridiculed.  —Ernesto Quiñonez, Chango’s Fire

Julio has lived all his life in Spanish Harlem, where he now owns the top floor of a gentrified building. He loves this neighborhood where he built a cardboard clubhouse in a burned-out lot as a boy, where his mother saved his father’s life from depression and addiction. Where he watched as the Pentecostal church in which he had lost his boyhood faith burned to the ground.

... Spanish Harlem was worthless property in the seventies and early eighties. Many property owners burned their own buildings down and handed the new immigrants a neighborhood filled with hollow walls and vacant lots. Urban Swiss cheese. The city would then place us in the projects, creating Latino reservations… as many who owned real estate burned the neighborhood, collected the insurance, sat on the dilapidated property, and waited for better days. Today the wait is over, Spanish Harlem’s burned-out buildings are gold mines…

Julio’s trial by fire is still to come, though, because he is keeping secrets. His name is not on the deed to his building, because he doesn’t want the IRS to ask where his money comes from. His best friend, Trompo Loco (Crazy Top), wants nothing more from life than some attention from his unacknowledged father, Julio’s secret boss Eddie. And Julio’s secret job is to burn down buildings.

…In the news, we were being punished for being junkies, thieves, whores and murderers. The evidence of God’s wrath was the blocks upon blocks of burned buildings we supposedly brought on ourselves. In my church it was a sign, these fires that consumed Spanish Harlem… these fires were evidence of prophecy, of fulfillment, of… “The Truth.”   But the truth was, it was just a guy like me who had set those fires…

Chango and the other Santeria Orishas expect to be paid for their help, for the stories that guide their followers: with sweet cakes and candy, burning of candles and incense, a derecho of $50 or $5—or sometimes, with everything you hold closest to your heart. Julio wants to help his friend Maritza with her immigrant-filled church. He wants to find a way to help his friend Trompo deal with his father’s neglect. He wants to quit his secret job.

Julio Santana, child of Chango, wants to find a way out of the fire. Federal agents, the INS and his secret boss Eddie all are conspiring to keep him on the job. Julio must make a decision. Whatever he chooses to do, someone will get hurt.

This is a thrilling story, told in a genuine voice of Spanish Harlem. Quiñonez makes us part of his neighborhood, helps us feel its rhythms and its pain. I cared about these people and their problems, I wanted Julio to find the solution and rescue those he loved. I read until 3 AM, unable to put it down.

This one’s a winner.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Ten Commandments Plus One

Review: The Eleventh Commandment by Lester Del Rey

Way back in the 1960s, as the U.S. Supreme Court was just beginning to consider if the Ten Commandments were appropriate for use as decoration in the nation’s schools, science fiction writer and history professor Lester del Rey was pondering what might be the result of an established state religion in America. He set the stage for such a radical departure from the Constitution in The Eleventh Commandment with another 60s icon, global thermonuclear war.

Following the nuclear annihilation, which destroyed the Vatican City and vaporized the Pope, a new pontiff was selected from amongst the American Cardinals. When Europe also elected a Pope, the American church split from the Old World Catholics in a schism that established the priority of the eleventh commandment:
“Ten were given to Moses, for the Hebrews.” Gordini answered. “And our Lord instrusted us to observe them. But what we call the Eleventh—it should be called the Original—was given by God the Father to the entire human race through Adam, to whom He said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.’ It was the foundation of our accomplishments.”

In the bomb-decimated land, these principles found fertile ground. To Boyd Jensen, immigrant from the colony on Mars, the culture they spawned is frightening, baffling. Four billion people live in North America, another billion in South America; most of them are American Catholic in faith. Contraception is illegal. Boyd’s profession on Mars, biologic research, is an arena restricted to priests on Earth. Poverty is commonplace among the laity, practically unknown in the clergy.

In addition to the misery of the huddled masses, mutations and plagues are everywhere. Boyd learns that he will not be allowed to return to Mars, once he has been exposed to the diseases of Earth—and there is also the hint that his own DNA is damaged, that he was tricked into coming to Earth to remove him from Mars' “pure” gene pool.

Boyd believes he can survive on Earth without subscribing to the state religion. He wears an unobtrusive patch that keeps him sterile; he “isn’t the type” to succumb to the bleeding disease (faint foreshadow of AIDS, there); he does have more training in cytology than many priests, and this is valuable knowledge. He hasn’t reckoned with two things, however.

At a higher gravity than Mars’, his contraceptive is less effective. Boyd is fertile enough to get a young woman pregnant. Her baby is taken from her by the Church to be raised in a special facility, and Boyd is determined to help her get him back.

And the Church Militant knows more than they’re telling about the extent of the mutations. The eleventh commandment may be the only thing that guarantees mankind’s survival on Earth.

Del Rey’s conception of a Catholic America was obviously predicated on the Third World Catholic states of Central and South America. At the beginning of the story, New York City (actually, Long Island) seems more like Caracas or São Paulo. Del Rey seems at first to be saying that Catholicism is the cause of poverty and overcrowding. As you read on, however, his message comes clearer: The root cause of this misery is the human need to contend for survival.

And you don’t get to opt out of the game, as Mars has done with her “pure” racial stock. The crucible is where the metal is purified and made strong, not the shelf.

In the end, The Eleventh Commandment seems hardly dated. Its plot needs little amendment to be conceivable as our own possible future, even though it was written over a half-century ago. And the warning, that the fruitful will multiply and the meek will inherit the Earth, is one worth considering.


Other conceptions of the Eleventh Commandment have included:

  • Thou shalt not cause thy children pain is a very moving poem set to music by Collin Raye, with the commandment: "Honor Thy Children" (do not abuse them).
  • Bishop Ussher called Christ’s admonition to his disciples the eleventh commandment: “I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” 
  • A bumper sticker supplied Brian Elroy McKinley’s version: “Find God and Find Happiness.” 
  • civil rights campaign from, ironically, 1962 (which is the publication date of my Eleventh Commandment paperback) renders the commandment: “Thou Shalt Stay Out of Downtown Birmingham.”

This thought-provoking novel is, alas, not available for Kindle.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Lovely and Light, a Ripping Yarn

Review: Harry Takes Off, Steve Turnbull, Kindle Edition

Ripping yarns* were stirring adventure stories in which plucky heroes triumphed over adversity (or sometimes simply died bravely). These thrilling tales, often set in iconic locations in the British Empire (Victorian London, Depression-era Yorkshire, British Africa, India during the Raj) or in places where the British Army was currently deployed (WWI and WWII Europe, South America, North Africa and the Middle East), were a staple for many schoolboy readers, beginning in the Edwardian era.

Harry Takes Off is a light homage to such stories, but this novella gives the yarn a steam-punk twist, and hands the action off to the distaff side. Turnbull's universe posits a steam-driven technology that includes anti-gravity to loft riveted-iron steam-powered aircraft into the skies. Given anti-gravity, aircraft technologies include helium-buoyed armored Zeppelins and Harry's own ornithopter with its flapping wings, as well as more "conventional" craft.

I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction of the two heroines, Harriet (the eponymous Harry of the title) and her adopted sister, Khuwelsa, both with each other and with the denizens of steam-punk-Edwardian East Africa (British- and German-dominated Zanzibar and Kenya). Because Khuwelsa is black, and both are female, we see the fun that ensues as the girls are repeatedly underestimated by the German Army. I especially liked the way Khuwelsa as the engineer for their 'thopter is essential to their eventual triumphnot because she is black or female, but because of her demonstrated engineering skill!

The girl fliers happen to observe the German Army in Kenya preparing an invasion, and set out to warn their father who is stationed in Kenya. They must survive being driven to ground by German aircraft, captured by the Germans, and separated from each other by the prejudice of their captors. Even when they finally manage to warn the British Army in Zanzibar, they are ignored because they are female, and have to take matters into their own hands. 

The ending of the tale is appropriately triumphant—in a word, ripping! I enjoyed the novella so much, I immediately purchased the Kindle versions of Turnbull's Maliha Anderson mysteries, set in the same steam-punk universe.

Brava, Harriet and Khuwelsa! And bravo, Steve Turnbull!

* The BBC series Ripping Yarns was a spoof of the entire genre, written by Monty Python alums Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, with Palin as the lead character in a new yarn each week. With titles like "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B" and "Across the Andes by Frog", Ripping Yarns captured the essence of such stories, but exaggerated the characteristics of the genre, with "screamingly funny" results.

The Flip Side of Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Guns, Germs and Steel, explored why one society would succeed while another would fail. Diamond identified factors that lent themselves to success, and illuminated thriving cultures as blessed by history, resources and internal health.

Collapse looks at the flip side of this equation, identifying five main factors that lead not to simple failure, but to total (and in many cases, sudden) collapse of the society. 

This book will probably be read primarily as an environmental health warning, and Diamond frequently sounds a tocsin on environmental issues. But he points out that cultural causes also contribute to these catastrophes.

A first set of factors involves damage that people inadvertently inflict on their environment… extent and reversibility of that damage depend partly on properties of people… and partly on properties of the environment… A next consideration in my five-point framework is climate change, a term that today we tend to associate with [anthropogenic] global warming… [but which also involves] changes in natural forces that drive climate, and have nothing to do with humans… A third consideration is hostile neighbors… The fourth… is the converse of the third set; decreased support by friendly neighbors, as opposed to increased attacks by hostile neighbors… The last set of factors… involves the ubiquitous question of the society’s response to its problems… [which] depend on its political, economic and social institutions, and on its cultural values. [Emphasis mine.]
Diamond begins by placing these factors in a present-day context to which most of us can relate: Montana. Once he is sure we have a grasp of the complexity involved in these interlocking issues, he goes on to consider historical collapses in the Pacific Islands (Easter Island and the Pitcairns); the desert West (Anasazi); Viking settlements in Iceland, Greenland and Vinland; and the Mayan empire.

He then examines collapses in progress or barely averted in more recent societies: Rwanda, New Guinea and the Dominican Republic. Finally, he turns that carefully developed spotlight on nations as he looks at how these factors play in China and Australia; and on global corporations, as he examines input from and impact on the oil, mining, farming, lumbering and fishing industries.

The author pulls no punches in this endeavor; where there are culprits in human skins, Diamond identifies them. It was chastening to realize, though, how often the collapsed societies simply had bad luck. For example, Diamond and another researcher isolated nine factors that tend to promote deforestation of Pacific Islands once they are settled by men. Of those nine, Easter Island had eight. The Easter Island deforestation and the subsequent catastrophe was there in potentio the day men first landed on its shores—but collapse was hastened by the islanders’ practice of cremation. Without that extra impetus, the forests of Easter Island might have survived to the time of contact with white explorers.

Diamond closes with a note of hope, gleaned from his experiences in developing and writing the book. Cultures can change, disasters can be averted, he stresses, but only if we have:
…the courage to make painful decisions about values. Which of the values that formerly served a society well can continue to be maintained under the new changed circumstances? Which of those treasured values must instead be jettisoned and replaced with different approaches?
If you enjoyed Diamond’s treatise on why societies succeed, you will want to read Collapse. Then we can debate his closing questions from an informed position.