Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Meaning and Consciousness in a Real World

Review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson


Some novelists give us popcorn: snacks of characters interacting in episodes of tasty enjoyment, to be read and then forgotten three hours later. I like popcornbut whether it is a pricey gourmet treat with truffle oil or capers and cheddar, or an almost-scorched microwave bag of munchies, popcorn is not memorable. You consume and move on. 

Other authors provide a solid meal, with two sides and a biscuit. Realistic characters, impressive plot twists, inventive conflicts and resolutions leave you with plenty to digest. Still, by time you open the covers of the next book, you've digested what is enjoyable and nutritious from this one, and you're hungry again.

Neal Stephenson is more like the world-class chef who takes everyday ingredients and whips them into a life-changingly succulent repast. I have yet to read a Stephenson novel once and know how I feel about it. I must ruminate. I must re-read. 

Anathem is no different. I can scarcely believe this rich meal is available for less than $2 as a Kindle novel. The novel begins with a compelling look at a cloistered culture, which seems religious until you realize that here it is science and philosophy that must be protected from the ordinary world—the extramuros world outside the cloister walls. 

The denizens of the intramuros cloister, the concent, are kept focused on their studies. They forego possessions, limiting themselves to a Bolt of newmatter cloth (which can be reconfigured in size, texture, and other characteristics of fabric), a newmatter Chord (a rope or cord of similar diversity), and a newmatter Sphere. These three possessions serve as clothing, bedding, pack and tools for all sorts of purposes. They also provide identification of the owner as an avout (whether male fraa or female suur): someone who lives the cloistered life.

Residing in their "Tenner" cloister, the four fraas Erasmus, Lio, Jesry and Arbilast obey the Discipline while they eagerly await the day the gates will open to allow them to interact with the "Extras" for ten days. For these four, this Apert holiday happens once every ten years. The "One-Offs" in the Unitarian cloister of their concent have Apert once a year, while the "Hundreders" will not exit until ten years from now for their once-a-century mingle with the world outside the walls and the fraas (and suurs) from other cloisters. None of them, Extras, One-Offs, Tenners or Hundreders, can imagine the mindset of the "Millennarians" who live cloistered for a thousand years before they emerge.

Just this one detail might provide a lesser writer with a complete novel. In Anathem, it is the initial baseline stroke of paint on a vast canvas that includes philosophical colleges, cultural upheavals, alien visitors, vast works of engineering and gadgetry, and a central theme: What does it mean to be conscious in the world? How do our minds perceive reality, and how do they affect reality?

Philosophers from Thales through Kant and Gödel to Husserl have thought about these questions and written or spoken about their attempts to unravel meaning from them. Stephenson's novel takes these snooze-worthy tomes and distills them into an adventure, complete with complex characters whose actions we can cheer or hiss (sometimes both for the same person).

Anathem is a challenging read in the most delightful sense. I noticed as I re-read it on Kindle that every few pages, I was prompted to visit Wikipedia to expand on the details of the story. The Teglon, a crucial mathematical tiling problem in the novel, led me to Penrose prototiles and Wang dominoes. The concept of Cnoös as a personalization of the interaction of thought and reality led me to Husserl's theory of intentionality, and onward to noesis (nuos) and the Gnostic philosophies.

I know this is not the last time I will read and enjoy (and spend quite a while digesting) this complex tale. Like all great works of literature, Stephenson rewards the devoted fan with new vistas of thought each time you enter his world.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Dead On the Grand Tour

Review: The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (in the Delphi Complete Works of Mark Twain)

To clear a bad taste from my mouth (see Jacob's Ladder With Rungs Missing), my go-to method is to re-read a favorite. In this collection, I bypassed the familiar Mississippi novels, and went straight to the tale of 19th-century Americans abroad in Europe, Innocents Abroad.

In 1972 when I first read The Innocents Abroad, it was a paperback bought for a dime at a yard sale. We took turns, my spouse and I, reading it aloud on a long bus trip, in between extracts from two volumes of Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization. As a result, my memories of it are mingled with horror over the barbarism of Merovingian Franks and awe at the artistry of Asian civilizations.

Clearest in my recollection of Twain's Innocents is the reaction of the American couples to the historical sites and sights they were presented with in France, Italy and Spain. These raw newcomers to the historical grandeur of Europe were nevertheless accustomed to living "great men." In America, it was common that great works of engineering and art had been accomplished by someone currently living, someone with whom Twain could sit down in the beer-hall and stand to a round.

Imagine the dismay, and growing disgust, at the idea that every great accomplishment was from the past; that "glory days" could only be remotely behind one. Every artist, every builder, every great statesman they hear touted is deceased. Each statue celebrates an ex-personage. Eventually, Twain and his companions begin preempting the expected declaration. After waiting "as long as we can hold out, in fact," they ask their guides (each of whom Twain names "Ferguson"), "Is... is he dead?"

This is side-splittingly funny, especially when they make the same inquiry about an Egyptian mummy or an ancient rebel hung by his chin from the castle walls.

Twain's observations are spot-on, as always. It is not only the hapless Europeans he pinions, but also Old Travelers; tourists like themselves whose experience is just that hair broader that Twain's companions' and his own. These folks speak from the elevation of their knowledge to tell monstrous lies. There is the doctor, whose attempts to speak French are doomed by the lack of that tongue in the peasant he addresses. She turns out to be English.

Still, the travelers do get some thrills from their trip:
We recognized the brown old gothic pile (the Cathedral of Notre Dame) in a moment; it was like the pictures.

I feel much better now. Refreshed. I can tackle some writing of my own, so that a resounding "NO!" will be the proper answer to Twain's wry question, "Is... is he dead?"


Jacob's Ladder With Rungs Missing

Review: The Capital of Latecomers by Nina Nenova

Ever watch the cultish 1990 film Jacob's Ladder with Tim Robbins? Remember the queasy sensation that every scene in the movie was designed to disguise the truth? When I watched it again, it only confirmed the feeling that I was being conned.

I was barely a quarter of the way into this novel by Bulgarian Nina Nenova before I began having the creeping suspicion that I had been here before. Not to the oasis in the middle of the desert with its dozen millionaire inhabitants, but to the mental space of the too-clever writer whose descriptions are engineered to confuse and distract the reader.

I knew the author's background, so initially I excused the tortured storyline as a result of being translated from her native tongue. (And despite the translation from other-than-English, the language itself was stellar; no typos, good command of grammar, excellent choice of words.) Eventually, though, I became convinced that this was another Jacob's Ladder, and the dust being thrown was intended to obscure comprehension.

At the end, this was a confused mystery/suspense thriller with a lot of mystical confetti and pseudo-physics tossed into the mix. Before I had reached the midpoint, I recognized the con game in process. I no longer cared who-dunnit. In fact, I didn't care which characters lived or died. Poisoned by maguffins, I gave up without regret, thumbed forward to the reveal and the expected post-climactic twist.

I am very glad I got this as a Kindle First freebie. I would have been mortified to have paid to be a victim of this con.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Cardinal Colors

Review: A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield
For thousands of years artists met with disappointment as they tried to reproduce the flaming scarlets and deep crimsons they saw in nature. The best red these artists knew was ochre, the Cro-Magnon’s pigment, which produced a color that was muddied with orange and brown… cinnabar, mercuric sulfide… was expensive, poisonous, and had a disconcerting propensity to turn black with exposure to light… As far as Europe was concerned, the only trouble with cochineal was that Spain controlled the supply… Kings, haberdashers, scientists, pirates and spies—all became caught up in the chase for the most desirable color on Earth. —Prologue to A Perfect Red

The words “crimson” and “vermilion” both mean a shade of scarlet, and both carried connotations of royal or religious authority in the Middle Ages. Both words have a root meaning of “worm.” Cochineal, the red dye brought by Spaniards from Mexico to Europe, takes its name from a common Spanish euphemism for wood lice, cochinilla. The royal purple (actually, this was probably dark red) of the Roman Caesars was made from a shellfish.

Until coal-tar synthetic dyes were discovered in the 19th century, the rich red colors of blood and power were obtained from various insects of the scale family, or from Murex and Purpura shellfish. Rare and difficult to gather, these dye materials were expensive. If you could afford red ribbons, you were well-to-do. The truly wealthy had entire garments in various shades of red.

So closely did this color become identified with authority that Medieval sumptuary laws prescribed what kind and color of dress, and of what quality, might be worn by particular classes. Red garments were reserved for royalty and the upper “nobility” of the Catholic Church, although red sleeves might be worn by lesser nobles. Commoners had to settle for the duller earth-tones produced by vegetable dyes.

To this red-classified society, the well-developed Mexican cochineal industry, acquired during the Spanish Conquista, promised incredible wealth. Curiously, as Greenfield points out, the conquistadores did not realize the potential of cochineal at first. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (and Charles I of Spain), loaded with debts incurred in managing the loosely-associated principalities and kingdoms of his empire, was more interested in gold and silver, and in converting the Indians of Mexico to Catholicism. Spanish soldiers, “paid” by encomienda grants to whatever they could obtain from their Mexican properties, either did not know enough about the dye trade to recognize the treasure on the Mexican cactus, or were uninterested in the slow cultivation of and cyclical market for cochineal.

But European dyers (even the French, whose nationalistic preference for French-grown madder root—which produced only orange and reddish-yellow shades—was enforced by edict) wanted the superior red color and longer-lasting dye-fastness of the cochineal dyestuff, particularly for coloring silk. Within two decades, demand for the New World's red dye had spread as far as China.


Carmine (cochineal) dye is ultra-natural, right?
At first, traders simply went to Mexico and made deals for the cochineal with the Indian dye-traders. Phillip II, inheriting debt-laden Spain upon the abdication of his father Charles, passed a law against foreign trade in cochineal, punishable by death. He commanded the loading of treasure ships from “New Spain” with gold, silver—and cochineal. Then, as John Donne observed, came pirates, who “doth know / That there come weak ships fraught with Cutchannel, / That men board them.” We think of pirate treasure as gleaming gold “pieces of eight”; actually, it was just as likely to be bags of tiny black grains, dried cochineal insects.

When Napoleon swept into Spain in the 18th century and installed his brother Joseph as King, he hoped to acquire the lucrative New World trade with that victory. Unfortunately, famine in Mexico, and the increasing ascendance of British sea power, prevented him from realizing that profit. (And his successors in France, in the age of the guillotine, would prefer the proletariat reds that could be produced from French madder.) Mexico’s hard-won independence from Spain might have signaled the rebirth of the cochineal industry, its monopoly in different hands, except for one significant development.

The insect had escaped Mexico’s borders.

This book may remind you of Mark Kurlansky’s epic Salt: A World History, in the way it traces the far-reaching impact of a single commodity. From the discovery of progressively-better dyes to create the desired rich red colors, to the political and social upheavals that accompanied (or were caused by) them, A Perfect Red is a sumptuous trip through history, wrapped in crimson silk, and tied with a big red bow.

Snapshots from In Country

Review: Goodbye Vietnam by Robert W. Wood


Deceptively slim, this book. Goodbye Vietnam is fiction, but it tells truth. Written as a series of vignettes, the book becomes a photo album, snapshot after yellowing Polaroid of the absurdity and horror that was the American experience of the Vietnam conflict.
Today all the Americans are hiding in their bunkers because this is Vietnamese National Kill-All-The-Dogs On-American-Facilities Day. An American soldier was bitten by a dog and had to get medical attention…. The Vietnamese decided it would please the Americans if they killed all the dogs… We do not wish to see this because we are extremely nice people.  — from “Things Which Will Die and Make You Sad”

The fictional Marine whose photos we face in Wood's book learned many things In Country. Chief among these was betrayal; the traitors dwelt in huts and crept along the trails, they stood up suddenly in grass and bought death at his hands, they slept in Pogue country in officer’s tents and strode proudly along the streets of back-country camps. The hardest traitors he deals with live in his own skin.
The radio is on. Johhny Unitas has come in to win the game. No shit here. No need for silence. No need for need for stealth. You want us, you got us. It’s a damn good hill… Johnny U has just lost to the Jets. This cuts it for me. I think we are about to lose, too. We won’t get to play tomorrow. I would take you on a hill Johnny Unitas. Twenty stitches and still playing. The greatest compliment that can be given is, “I would take you on a hill.” —from “But Can You Play Here?”

Respect is pictured here, too. Our Marine admires and respects the sergeants, the drill instructor, the grimy veterans of In Country who confront him in his novitiate, the Hated-Cong he will oppose when he, too, is In Country. There are also officers he respects, a few—chiefly, it seems, because his sergeants respect them.
The Gunny is standing ramrod straight and saluting someone. Is General Westmoreland here?… The Gunny knew Jesus when He was a corporal. They served in Korea together. (“Now there was a real war!”) He has four Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts. —from “The Salute”

Again and again, the snapshots display uncomfortable pictures. Blood on a cherished photograph, insane actions taken to preserve sanity, death as a feared and a longed-for state. These images are not for war, nor against it, they simply depict what was. Room enough in this album for people on both sides of the argument.
The woman takes a good picture. She is sitting on an anti-aircraft gun somewhere in Hanoi. She is pretty in a tinsel, plastic-coated-for-your-protection fashion. Her face holds a vacuous smile demanding some intense, identifying cause to fill up her empty time… She kills her thousands with the jawbone of an ass… Eighteen year old Marines know ignorance when it is thrust on them. Do they not suffer boot lieutenants every day of their lives? —from “No More Clowns”

The most uncomfortable images in this album have no blood in them. No explosions, no great weapons of war speaking power into the night. They do not assign blame, as much as describe events that ought to be crimes, but are not.
We are at ease with the city children because they do not embarrass us with their humanity. The children of the country have eyes of wonder, and they are fragile and easily broken by the clumsy green giants from across the sea. After they are broken, they are put together again with hard little eyes, and the used minds of advertising executives. Only death will break them again. —from “People New to Kill”

Wood follows the fictional account (informed by his own experiences In Country) with an informative and philosophical essay, The Vietnam Conflict: Lies, Misconceptions and Half-Truths. Here he deals briefly and definitively with pictures of the war that “did not match the views of the average combat veteran.” News media bias? “The truth does not necessarily sell if it is boring.” Success of the ’68 Tet Offensive? “…one of the most devastating defeats for any modern army in the 20th century.” Agreement of Army and Marine goals in the war? “The Army’s concept rested on the idea that the body count is the most important element to achieve victory… The Marine concept rested on the idea that the most important element to achieve victory in a guerilla war is to maintain the population in safety and deny food, support and other resources to the enemy…”

Its concluding paragraph deserves equal place with the poetic images of Goodbye Vietnam:
All wars cannot be won in a year or two years or five years, and there are some wars worth fighting no matter how long it takes to get the job done. America is now paying a heavy price for our enemy’s belief that we only fight in short installments when victory is assured with minimal casualties, and we will run if our nose is bloodied.

Weightier tomes, volumes, entire libraries have failed to convey as much in such poetic density. Wood’s snapshot album succeeds—precisely because of its brevity—in making it possible to contemplate both the horror of war and its occasional, distasteful necessity.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Odds Are Against Us

Review: Caliphate by Tom Kratman


Those who are concerned about the current flood of "Syrian" refugees being predominantly single and male may be missing the point of the danger they represent. 

Kratman's novel Caliphate explores the future of Europe as a Muslin-dominated society, its Christian population relegated to second-class citizens. Multiple factors are the cause: different reproduction rates of the two groups, failure of Muslim immigrants to assimilate into the society they have joined, and the basic philosophy of Islam as antithetical to democracy. (In the afterword, Kratman adds another: the widespread choice of Christian Europeans for present-day benefits over the welfare of their grandchildren.)

You may debate Kratman's conclusions, but information that triggers his story is incontestable. When I was a youngster, a similar tale by Cyril Kornbluth was titled Marching Morons. Whether the out-producing parents are Muslim or moron, the result is the same: you get more of whichever you breed more of. Eventually, moron or Muslim values and goals prevail, and society changes irrevocably.

I first read Caliphate in 2009, and enjoyed it more then as military sci-fi than as societal commentary. The story is gripping: two Christian children are removed from their parents in payment of the tax assessed on non-Muslim citizens in Germany. The boy becomes a janissary, "reverts" to Islam—and then becomes a rebel secret Christian again after he is forced to crucify a priest. The girl becomes a slave, first as a companion for a favored Muslim daughter, then as a sex slave in a brothel. Unlike her brother, the girl is allowed—even encouraged—to continue to display her Christian faith, as a titillation to her rapists.

Kratman avoids the "Evil Nazis/Good Allies" trap. The nastiest characters in the story are Christian (or at least non-Muslim) scientists eager to produce a biological weapon in exchange for money and "objects of lust." Slavery of the obvious kind is practiced by Christians from South Africa in support of the native slavery in the Muslim world. Chinese and Americans opposed to Islam use "chipped agents"—humans enslaved by control circuits built into them—to infiltrate the Islamic countries.

The action reads like a mashup of Spartacus, Where Eagles Dare, Andromeda Strain, and The Giver. But however you read the novel, you are left with the queasy realization that, while it may be fiction, it is far too close to real-world events to sleep easy at night.

Delivery (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

"I would do anything for love," Meat Loaf assures us intently, "but I won't do that."

The swain tells his sweetie, "I could not love thee half so much, loved I not honor more."

Are there limits to love? Ought there be? Certainly, we all have limits, and one lover may be capable of more than another, but beyond those individual boundaries, there may be common-sense or philosophical extents to the expression of love.

Whatever those limits may be, I am happy my parents did not stint their love, did not limit themselves to the "normal" family size. I am willing to bet my youngest brother, coming at the other end of that line of 11 children, is even more grateful than I am! Because the end result of an act of love is a years-long requirement for more of the same. The pain and effort to deliver a child is a walk in the park compared to the marathon of raising that child to be a human capable of love.

In the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge prompt this week, we are challenged to explore the topic:

September 16, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a love story. Explore what feeds love. It can be romantic or platonic. It can be devoted or damaged. It can be recovering or enduring. Focus on characters or setting, weaving a 99-word love story.

My flash looks at this from the perspective gained by observing my parents and realizing that any loving effort can be summed up in the same way. Whatever we love requires more from us than philosophy and limits. "In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." But pain and sorrow, loss and disappointment are possible in any endeavorwhatever we invest with our love.

_____________________________________


Delivery

An intense cramp shot through Carrie's back. Just a little more, just one more push, and she'd be free of the burden she carried. She turned her head to see Jacob watching with concern. They had begun the loving task together, but this pain was hers to endure. 

A bead of sweat trickled; damp hair clung to her brow, but she had no energy left to shake it from her eyes.

Reaching the edge of the field, Carrie dropped her rock. Across the new field of the farm they both loved, she saw Jacob's plow turn up another stone.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Quick Recipes For Dummies Like Me

Review: 30-Minute Meals For Dummies by Bev Bennett

I’m a sucker for cookbooks with a twist, and this super compilation of quick recipes in the For Dummies series, Bev Bennett’s 30-Minute Meals For Dummies, is certainly skewed far enough to suit my tastes. 

I also love a chef who shares my own approach to cooking, in which many favorite recipes begin, “Open a can of…”

Bennett starts with a brief review of why family mealtimes are important. In addition to the family bonding that takes place at the table, she stresses the importance of nutritional control, and the dietary training that starts in the kitchen. 
She avoids being preachy by delivering this message with humor:
  • Assumptions about my readers: You buy every book with a black-and-yellow cover that you run across…
  • Packaged foods don’t all come in the macaroni-and-powdered-cheese variety. You don’t have to eat like a 7-year-old when you cook from a box.
  • In case you’re thinking about double-duty, a “poached salmon in the dishwasher” recipe occasionally makes the circuit of Internet message boards and spiral-bound school fundraiser recipe books. It’s not a technique that I endorse. I tried it, and my dishes smelled fishy for weeks…

I wasn’t tempted to poach salmon in the dishwasher, but I did try Bennett’s Hot Sweet Chicken over rice from this chapter, and although my prep time ran 10 minutes instead of the 5 she estimates, with the 20-minute cooking time, it still came in at a half-hour. This dish was such a hit, I’ll try it with the pork tenderloin variant next time!

Like the Working Stiff Cookbook (reviewed under What's for Dinner? [And Who's Cooking?]), this cookbook spends a chapter recommending the contents of a well-stocked pantry to help speed the task of cooking. Beans, grains, and canned fish and tomatoes top the list of pantry-stuffings, with spices and herbs for the seasoning cupboard. 

Among other recipes, the vegetarian Kale and Canellini Bean entree shows the value of having ingredients ready to hand. Canned canellini (white kidney) beans are a favorite of mine because of the way they fall apart in a slow-cooker, making a delightful thick soup. Matched with garlic and kale fresh-picked from the garden, this soup-pot meal took less than the 27 minutes estimated (mainly because I used pre-minced garlic). I’ll probably convert it to a slow-cooker recipe in the future.

Dining Once, Eating Twice is Bennett’s suggestion for the occasional restaurant meal. In response to super-sized servings of steak, fries and roasted chicken, she recommends eating a sensible portion, then bagging up the rest with an eye to recipes that rock out on leftovers. My favorite in this chapter, I have to admit, is French Fry Soup. Knowing that fries are basically inedible once they cool and lose their crisp “tooth” leads many of us to eat the entire serving. But with this clever, quick recipe, you combine those cold, limp leftovers with a large can of chicken broth, some dill, garlic and pepper, and get a super soup in just over 10 minutes. It’s much easier to stop cramming fries down long after the satiation point when you know the rest will be reborn in this tasty dish.

The next chapter, Cooking at Warp Speed, advises how to use pre-packaged meals to reach a nutritional conclusion in a short cooking time. Restaurant risotto is a dish that takes a long time to prepare. The rice is stirred slowly over a low heat, so that the grains develop a slightly sticky consistency—definitely not a candidate for a quick meal! Yet packaged risotto mixes can be prepared in much less time, yielding a similar result from your “home cooking.” The Bacon and Vegetable Risotto was the first recipe I tried from this cookbook, since I had a package of plain risotto mix and uncooked bacon already. Because I needed to cook the bacon first, it took me 20 minutes, as opposed to Bennett’s estimate of 1 minute prep-time and 15 minutes cooking time when pre-cooked bacon is used.

Bennett even includes a list of time-saving equipment to boost your kitchen productivity. From silicone spatulas to parchment paper, these items can help reduce prep and cleanup time, making your cooking time more effective.

I have a final word for Bev Bennett. Don’t be so quick to dismiss the blue-and-yellow box! Packaged macaroni and cheese is available as Kraft Easy-Mac, in microwave-quick servings. I make Kickin' Kraft Easy-Mac by stirring chopped jalapeños and a small can of drained tuna into two of these single-person packages after cooking. The result is a hearty adult meal for both of us in just under 5 minutes.

Bon appétit!

Liner Note:

30-Minute Meals For Dummies is available for Kindlealthough who buys a cookbook on Kindle?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Finding a Berth in the New World

Review: Looking for a Ship by John McPhee

Three hundred and forty-one ships owned by Americans sail under foreign flags. Some of the owners patriotically refer to these ships as the Effective U.S.-Controlled Fleet, a term regarded as a risible euphemism… “A ship owned in Chicago, with a Burmese crew and Spanish officers, will not go where you want it to in an emergency…”

John McPhee has made a specialty of writing illuminating essays on intriguing topics. His work is very journalistic, reflecting his long career in writing for Time magazine and The New Yorker. So when he follows Andy Chase in his search for employment aboard one of the last remaining American-flagged merchant marine ships, the result is a thoroughand very enjoyableexploration of the history of the U.S. Merchant Marine service.

The first challenge is finding a berth. Andy Chase has a “ticket,” a National Service Card that shows he’s qualified, and that he’s been looking for work for ten and a half months. This is nearly a “killer card.” For another month and a half, he will have seniority, but at twelve months, the card rolls over, and he goes back to the end of the line.
As we approached the Ben Sawyer Bridge, we saw that it was open. Andy turned off the engine, and we sat in the line of cars… Andy said, “Last year, down here in the Charleston Hall, I saw a guy come in with an eleven-months-plus-thirty-days killer card and take a ship an hour before his card was to expire.” I said, “A lot of good that card would do him if he’d been stuck behind this bridge.”

Once Andy Chase gets a job, Second Mate on the S.S. Stella Lykes, he needs to arrange for McPhee to come along. But these challenges pale in comparison to the job itself.

The sea is an uncertain work environment and, for a merchant ship, the ordinary dangers of storm, navigation and collision in crowded waters are only part of the tale. The contents of the ship present their own problems: Valuable shipments attract pirates. Poorly-stowed cargo may shift in high seas, putting the ship in danger of being scuttled by her own contents.

Some containers do not contain what is listed on the bill of lading. Contraband cargo may bring a merchant ship under the hostile scrutiny of a government in whose waters she sails. Mislabeled containers can even pose a risk of explosion or fire, fatal to a ship at sea. Stowaways become the responsibility of the ship, even if they are packed inside a shipping crate marked “Perishable Goods.”

The dangers at sea are equaled by the problems faced by the crew once they make landfall. McPhee uses advice for travelers from Rand McNally’s South American Handbook to illustrate some of the dangers of foreign ports: 
Mugging, even in daylight is a real threat. You shouldn’t take a taxi that has 2 or more people in it as you may get mugged or robbed. Don’t get into… conversations… with any locals if you can help it. Stand your glass on the ice cubes rather than putting them into your drink. You can be fined on leaving the country for staying too long.

McPhee discusses foreign travel with a mariner named McLaughlin. After he shares the points from the South American Handbook, there is a long quiet on the bridge. It is finally broken by McLaughlin, who says, “One of the foreign ports where I never go ashore is Miami.”

One of the most memorable segments is the passage through the Panama Canal. At the time the book was written, control of the canal had just been returned to Panama. McPhee notes that with the transition, the mosquitos had returned. 
“Eventually there won’t be a Panama Canal,” says one canal pilot. “Anywhere in the world, if you fool with Mother Nature, she’s going to get you… We’re back to the yellow-fever days.” Another disagrees. “The Japanese will run it. The Japanese bank is the only one that didn’t close when others did.” The ship’s captain agrees, “We can get along without this canal. Japan and Russia can’t.”

All Fall Down

Review: Ashes of Foreverland by Tony Bertauski


The finale of Bertauski's Foreverland trilogy ties together all the loose ends from the previous two books. If you haven't read The Annihilation of Foreverland (which I reviewed in Islands Are for Experiments), or Foreverland Is Dead (reviewed in Not Dead Which Will Not Die), this review will contain spoilers.

***************

Annihilation was about boys on paradise-island shutting down the lure of Foreverland to avoid being severed from their bodies. Dead had girls escaping from their cold concentration camp to evade the same fate.

Now in Ashes of Foreverland, those who got out of their prisons are beginning to wonder if Foreverland is still waiting for them somewhere. A journalist, Allesandra, has started to investigate the crimes of the cabal that organised Foreverland, and part of her story is an interview with Tyler Ballard, in prison for life for his original Foreverland experiments, the ones that eventually killed his son and hospitalized his wife. What Alessandra discovers brings her entire world into question:

  • If Ballard is in prison, why does everyone around him—including his guards and the wardendo his bidding?
  • Why has his comatose wife Patricia been moved into the same building where there are ongoing Ballard-style dream experiments using apes and other animals?
  • What draws Alessandra so strongly to this building, to the dream-state lab?
  • Who are the Foreverland escapees, Danny and Cyn, and what are they to Alessandra?
  • Who is the mysterious doctor-director of the dream-state lab?

As Ballard works to create a world-wide Foreverland, Alessandra fights to find a path through an increasingly confusing world that may not be as real as anyone—Ballard, Danny, Cyn, or Alessandra herself—thinks.


Together, the three novels of this trilogy present a powerful statement about reality and the lure of dreams. The Foreverland Boxed set was my first encounter with Bertauski, and I will definitely be looking for more of his work.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sweet Love Story

Review: All Over the Guy with Adam Goldberg, Christina Ricci, and Sascha Alexander

Can there be a “chick-flick” about the relationship between two gay guys? I never thought so, until I watched an IFC channel airing of 2001’s All Over the Guy. It has all the earmarks: focus on relationship, heart-wrenching love problems, hanky-required resolution.

This movie caught my attention because of its "also with" cast, which includes Andrea Martin, Doris Roberts and Christina Ricci. Once I was tuned in, the story kept me interested and involved. Goldberg plays Brett, a furniture designer who meets a sensual woman, Jackie Gold (Sascha Alexander, whom I knew from NCIS). 


Brett tells Jackie the love seat he designed is “buttercup,” and she says he must be gay. He says no, but he does have a gay best friend. Jackie sets up her gay best friend, Tom (Richard Ruccolo), on a blind date with Brett’s gay best friend Eli (Dan Bucatinsky, who also directed the film.) 

The story supposedly revolves around the efforts of these four people to decide if they have met “the one.” Actually, once Tom and Eli meet, the story zooms in to focus on them, using the straight relationship mainly as counterpoint. At one point, Eli muses, “Do you think they’d ever make a movie about gay men in love instead of just having sex?” Exactly, Eli—this is that movie!

Bucatinsky also wrote the screenplay, so perhaps some of this is auto-biographical. I hope not—Eli’s mother (played with subdued insanity by Andrea Martin) has some of the most controlling-Mom moves I’ve ever seen. Eli calls her “Dr. Wyckoff,” not Mom (except in one revealing slip of the tongue). His account of her efforts to get Eli comfortable with saying “penis” and “vagina,” using Barbie and Ken dolls (told in flashback), is screamingly funny.
TOM: I always thought Ken was gay.
ELI: He was after I got through with him.

I was impressed that neither of these guys were portrayed as effeminate. Also, sparks do not fly from the moment they meet. In fact, like many blind dates, they can’t wait to get away from each other. Then they spend several days trying to find out, through their straight friends, what the other really thought of them. When they do meet again, by chance, the path is open for some real exploration. In a flea market rather than the meat-market bar of the blind date, they can begin to see each other as people.

Jackie and Brett head on a straight-line path to their wedding. Tom and Eli, on the other hand, move in and out of touching distance. Tom’s desire for shallow encounters hurts Eli; Eli’s wish for commitment scares Tom. On this level, the movie gently reveals that gay love is identical to straight love. (That’s love, not sex.) Yet the story would not work if straight characters were substituted for Tom and Eli—the reasons for their rocky relationship are inextricably bound up with their lifestyle.

Look for great support characters, too. Doris Roberts as a free-clinic receptionist is wonderful, and essential to the resolution of Eli’s problems. Christina Ricci as Eli’s sister puts a word into his ear that turns him around. Christian Gann has a walk-on as a bridal-shower stripper, and Brett’s goofy brother Mitch is played by Bev Land.

By concentrating on the growing relationship between the two men, All Over the Guy avoids the usual gay cliches, and rises above even the chick-flick level. Like a Necker cube, your perception of the meaning of the title flips in and out, and—however straight you may be—you want these two guys to fall in love. This is a good one. 

I’d even watch it again.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Diving Into the Front Range

Review: Sand Omnibus by Hugh Howey; Dunes Over Danvar by Michael Bunker


Hugh Howey's Wool Omnibus was the last trade paperback I bought before I bought a Kindle several years ago. I had planned to read it on a one-week business trip that ballooned to five weeks, necessitating the eBook reader purchase. (No way I could pack all the books I'd read in five weeks away from home into a single suitcase.)

Instead of adorning my mind, it lay on an end-table, unread from then until now. 

It took a recent acquaintance, Michael Bunker, to reawaken my interest in Howey. Looking for something else after Pennsylvania (reviewed last month as Unsettling Future Settlers), I found Bunker's novella written for the world of Sand, and decided I needed to read Sand Omnibus first.

You know how the Inuit, who live in a world defined by snow and ice, are said to have a thousand words for snow? The natives of Springston and Low-Pub live in a world of sand. They have a different term for each of sand's behaviors and habits; scoop and sift and sag and spill, rush and cake and stonesand, gunk and matte and grit

Sand is onmipresent in their lives; it defines their status. Lords live on the wall that holds back its westward march before the never-ending wind, while in Shantytown shacks are built on layers of sunken structures that have vanished into the ever-deeper sand. Sissyfoots carry a quota of buckets each day to keep the well clear and pay for their schooling. (The name is an obvious echo of "Sisyphus," a  signal of the unending nature of their task.) Between Springston and its Shantytown lies the Honey Hole, a brothel/bar where beer is cheaper than water. After all, beer can be brewed from water that isn't fit to drink.

Howey's background in yachting can be clearly seen in his treatment of the sand as a kind of solid ocean. Pirates and brigands and working people alike sail across its expanse, and the wealth of its waves is harvested by divers. The sand-divers don special suits that let them carry their air to depths beneath the dunes, down to the buried sandscrapers of an ancient city to scavenge what they can.

The waves of sand, the infinite wind blowing always east-to-west, the dry, dust-laden sky, the line of stone mountains to the west, and the three towns in a line along the mountains called up my memories of the geology west of Denver. Specifically, I remembered Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Flatirons farther north. The hundreds of feet of oxidized sand that made these iconic formations had piled up at the feet of the ancestral Rockies, blown on a dry wind that carried them endlessly west to be tumbled out of the sky by the mountain barrier.

I knew the fabled city the sand-divers were seeking, once a mile high, now buried "a mile deep under the sand." How it began to blow was unimportant. With the fluid waves of sand, with the divers and sarfer-borne pirates, with the sand-laden vocabulary, Howey gets the picture just right. The world of Sand is still a human world, and people are still people.


Dunes Over Danver

This novella-length piece by Michael Bunker takes the world of Sand in a slightly different direction than the original omnibus. We meet Poet, a man who values himself highly, and Peary, a sand-diver who rescues the nearly-dead Poet from the sands. Poet is a duplicitous user of "lesser" folks like sand-divers, and we spend the entire story wondering when and how he will next trick those around him to his advantage.

Bunker expertly uses the sand and the predators who sail over it, and the penultimate catastrophe from Howey's novel, to tell a story of courage and redemption, a neat counterpart to the tale of survival and human triumph in Sand

In looking back, I am surprised that I did not think once of an iconic older tale of sand and the culture that sprang from it, Dune. I believe this is because the themes of Herbert's novel are so distant from those of Sand and Dunes Over Danvar. Not even the final event in both stories brought Dune to mind—a clear indication of the solid world-building Howey accomplished, and the seamless way Bunker stayed in that world with this novella.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mapless (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

We travel here, there, relying on maps and GPS to bring us home again; but most of our travel is still done around a home base in a circle no larger than 25 miles in circumference. We're usually treading familiar paths: much of the time, we pull up at the same stoplights, park at the same shops, drive through the same neighborhoods.

We wonder at previous generations who lived and died within 50 miles of the place they were born, and forget that some percentage of them settled whole new continents, fought wars in distant lands. explored jungles, surveyed entire mountain ranges that were previously unknown (except to settlers who had found them on the way to somewhere else.)

We walk our dogs past the same neighbors we had last yearlast decade—and ride our bikes on the same trails our children rode when they still lived at home. Like the pigeon or the migrant duck, we find our way back to the nest, but not because we have a homing instinct. It's just familiar, this way home. We've been there before so many times we need no map.

Even when we tread unfamiliar ground, with today's technology it's hard to be off the map. So I found this week's Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction prompt particularly challenging:

September 9, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about someone or something that’s lost. It can be lost in a setting (storm, darkness, ocean) or it can be a feeling. Is there a recovery? What are the consequences of remaining lost? What are the opportunities?

One of the symptoms of Alzheimers is being lost in a familiar place. Onset can be gradual, or it can happen all at once. When it does, we have no instinct to guide us. How terrifying to be completely lost, to be suddenly mapless!

___________________________________


Mapless

Gwen placed her handbag on the seat and backed from her driveway, looking left where the only traffic would be, here at the end of the cul-de-sac. She had left herself precisely enough time to drive to her weekly Ladies League luncheon. Many of the ladies no longer drove, but Gwen loved still having her license.

A honk behind her shook her reverie as Gwen pulled into the space in front of the restaurant. Suddenly terrified, she stared out the car window. Why was she here? Where was she? 

She pawed through her purse seeking clues, or a map.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What’s For Dinner? (And Who’s Cooking?)

Review: The Working Stiff Cookbook, Bob Sloan


It’s 8 PM and you just got home from work. What’s for dinner?

Far from the halcyon Fifties, when a working stiff walked in the door, shouted, “Honey, I’m home!” and sat down to a meal cooked by a stay-at-home spouse, the responsibility for making evening meals has devolved upon Swanson, Dominos, and the food court at the mall. In The Working Stiff Cookbook, Bob Sloan shows us how to take back control over the family dinner.

This cookbook is like a Joy of Cooking for the new age. Like that older cookbook, this one doesn’t assume that we know how to stock a pantry or select a good skillet. Sloan tells us, with several quick essays at the beginning. From the 33 items found in every well-stocked pantry, to the 11 pots and pans and four knives no kitchen should be without, he sets us straight on the basics.

Then he launches into the (mostly) simple, quick-to-prepare recipes. He focuses on main dishes, because “as a Working Stiff myself, I realize you’re pushing yourself to the max just getting the entrée together.” Having said that, though, he provides some staging tips for side dishes, and includes recipes for complimentary starches, vegetables and even a few desserts.

The cookbook, wire-bound underneath a strong cover, is divided into four encouragingly-titled tabbed sections: Instant, One-Pot, Pasta, and Soups, etc. A typical recipe page under the Instant tab, for example, is “Sole in Foil” for two. The three-ingredient recipe for the sole is supported by a side-bar that explains cooking in foil, a footnote that suggests variations in seasoning, and a recipe for Rice Pilaf that can be made while the sole is in the oven. The whole meal takes about 20 minutes to make, including prep time.

One-Pot recipes can be as pedestrian as a tuna casserole, or as sophisticated as Sloan’s “Paella Rapido.” Despite a slightly-daunting list of ingredients (compared with “Sole in Foil,” anyway), I was encouraged to try this recipe by the frequent repetition of my favorite recipe phrase: “Open a can of…” The author acknowledges in the sidebar that this will not be exactly like the classic Mediterranean dish made with just-caught fish and shrimp, but I can testify from my own trials that it comes close enough! Prep time is less than 15 minutes, but cooking time after the paella is prepared is 45 minutes.

The Pasta tab covers more than just the starch, of course—although I found Sloan’s tips on cooking pasta very helpful. This section shows us some quick and tasty ways to use pasta as an ingredient in such one-dish meals as the vegetarian “Thai Vegetable Noodles.” I liked the looks of this recipe because it gave me a more-creative way to use the other half of a red pepper, once it’s been sliced open. (This dish would also make a good destination for left-over broccoli, green beans and cauliflower. If we should ever have any, that is.)

The tab isn’t big enough for the full title of the final section. Under Soups, etc. we find recipes for soups, salads, and sandwiches. Nothing is too simple for Sloan to include; “Grilled Cheese Sandwich” has a page, and so does “Eggs for Dinner.” My favorite, though, is the “Sausage, Escarole & White Bean Soup.” Since this recipe uses canned white beans, it takes very little time to make, but it tastes as if it’s been simmering all day.

This isn’t a large cookbook. It really doesn’t need to be; its best use is to break us of the flop-into-an-armchair, dial-Dominos-for-dinner habit. Over 50 entrée recipes give plenty of options for a month’s worth of meals with no repeats, even if you don’t like all the menu options Sloan offers. A complete Index makes it easy to find recipes to match the contents of your refrigerator.

The cute 50s-cookbook-style illustrations by Michael Klein are great seasoning for the no-nonsense recipe writing. Sloan understands, 
...this may not be the cookbook you curl up with at night. I don’t describe the aromas emanating from rustic soup pots simmering on Tuscan farmhouse stoves.

That is true—he just makes it possible for us working stiffs to smell them first-hand! The author knows that most of us are too busy to cook the way our grandparents (or even our parents) did. We don’t even shop the way our forebears did, why would we prepare meals that way?

Like my other favorite cookbook, Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipes, this cookbook takes a simple approach that makes it easy to give up the bucket from KFC or bag from Burger King as your default dinner option.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Splashing In the Shallows

Review: The Familiar: A Paranormal Romantic Comedy by Jill Nojack


Some books are deep, engrossing, life-changing works that take your life to a place it could never have existed before you read them. Others are about as deep as a rain puddle.

So while I love to read the intense mind-warpers, I have to acknowledge that sometimes it is just sheer fun to splash through the shallows. That was me last night as I sat down to read The Familiar, a book I got for free because I nominated it on Kindle Scout. Three short hours later, I closed my Kindle, sated from playtime, and soaking wet to the knees.

I live with cats, so "Tom's" antics were recognizable. The man-turned-tomcat (plus sex slave) was playing it strictly for laughs, with no deeper issues (like cheating on your life partner, willingness to tolerate abuse, or even the dangers of letting pet kitties roam outside at will) to spoil the fun. I'm reaching even to think of problems Nojack might have introduced in her story, but did not.

Instead, the problems are a creepy peeping warlock, Tom's struggles to communicate with his new owner (a sweet young thing on the rebound from a broken relationship), and the girl's battle to clean up the magic supply business she inherited from her granny witch.

Don't look for anything except fun here! I will be watching for the next book in the Bad Tom series, ready by then for another gleeful dance through the puddles.


Sunday, September 6, 2015

Medieval Mystery Is Amazing

Review: The Fifth Knight by E.M. Powell


I remember the chest-tight thrill I experienced while reading Umberto Eco's monastery mystery The Name of the Rose, and the hope of triumph, but fear of failure in Antonio Garrido's birth-of forensics novel The Corpse Reader. I kept flashing on one or the other as I devoured E.M. Powell's story of the 12th-century murder of Thomas Beckett.

Like Rose, this novel is a mystery wound around the intersection of the Church with medieval politics. Unlike Eco's ponderous, slow-paced tale, though, this is a gallop through the chilly winter streets of Canterbury and the countryside between the cathedral town and the port of Southampton. 

In pace and suspense, it is much more similar to Garrido's novel of the Chinese gravedigger-scholar C.I. Song. Powell's presentation of real life for peasants and the poor in a medieval culture provides further reminders.

The story opens with the confession of Canterbury anchorite Sister Theodosia to the grim monk, Brother Edward, who is also assistant to Archbishop Thomas Beckett. The nun has a terrible temper, and fights with it daily, using constant prayer, and denying herself food and sleep to meet her own expectations of becoming meek and humble.

Theodosia's attempted piety will be put to naught by the arrival of five knights who have come to murder the Archbishop. We know the story to this point; we've seen the 1964 movie with Burton and O'Toole. In Powell's telling, the story diverges; these knights are here for Sister Theodosia and her mother. Beckett's murder is a sideline.

Theodosia must escape the murderous group or she will be tortured to discover the whereabouts of her mother. And aid will come from an unlikely source: one of the five knights who arrived to murder Beckett.

The writing has authentic flavor; characters develop along realistic lines for their time and culture. The story is gripping, with a well-written mystery or three underlying the action. In fact, although I read it straight through without a pause, I could hardly bear to finish the novel. Fortunately, there is a sequel, The Blood of the Fifth Knight, so I could learn what happened to Theodosia and her knight after the end of the first book.

One of the few books that has made me wish to be able to award a sixth star, this. You don't have to know the history; even if you've never heard of Beckett before this, you won't be able to put it down. It's just that good

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Dang! That's Annoying!

I was reading a book set in medieval England at the time of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, about a third of the way through, when suddenly I realized that I had just read six chapters without a single urge to report an error.

No typos. No laughable homonym mischoices. No jarring hyphens-as-emdashes, no wide-spaced period-strings used as ellipses. Verb numbers that matched, and tenses that did as well. 

It was only in the absence of such pinpricks that I was able to relax and sink into the story. Good story and excellent character development can do a lot to excuse bad grammar and typography, but it doesn't release the reader to immerse in the experience.

Please, writers, consider before you send that book off to be published. Spend a little time and effort to proofread; spend money to hire a proofreader; wrangle your reading friends into proofreading for you—and then do it again after the epublication is ready.

Because if you send your book out into the world festooned with invitations to report content errors on the Kindle, you will not only look like a poor writer. You will also bar your readers from full enjoyment of the story.