Saturday, October 29, 2016

Wired Beauty

Review: Dustin Garza's Crystal Jewelry

Every so often, I am astounded by the hidden talent of the folks who work at the local Chick-fil-A where we eat breakfast. Abby's brilliant voice, for example, would soar above the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. The entreprenurial Don Mallory greeted patrons while contemplating how to market his manual trash-compactor invention. 

The latest is Dustin Garza, who paused in his task of delivering food to tables to show me the lovely pendant pictured here. This is his work, a milky-rose cabochon and several Herkimer Diamonds (doubly-terminated quartz crystals) enclosed in a complex macramé of silver wire. The pendant is posed on the palm-plate of my Chromebook for scale.

I was particularly taken by the braided wire to the left of the cabochon enclosure, and the subtle wave in the herringbone wire that wraps the curve of the pendant on the left. The flip side of the pendant shows a bone plate with a texture that is seldom encountered in siver jewelry, but it provides the perfect balance in this work. 

For the weight and material, not to mention the brilliant composition, I would not have been surprised to learn that the price was north of $1000. Instead, it is less than $100. Dustin invests his jewelry with a philosophic weight it hardly needs for beauty, but if you are into "crystal healing," that has gone into its composition as well.

Since this, I have seen another piece Dustin calls an "Eye of Horus" which also features the braiding and balance seen in this pendant. Keep your eye on him, folks. I suspect we'll see his work on the wider stage one day.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Savoring the Red Bush

Review: Davidson's Rooibos Tea

I learned to love the fruit-laden aroma and creme-soda flavor of South African rooibos tea when I lived for three years in the country. On returning to the US in the late 1970s, I resigned myself to life devoid of this herbal tisane (tea, to all but the purists).

Rooibos tea contains no caffeine, and much lower tannic fractions than Chinese tea. The problem is that unlike "real" Camellia sinensis tea, the Aspalathus linearis plant apparently requires a specific soil and climate ecosystem found only in South Africa's fynbos region in order to thrive.

Cuttings from Oriental tea plants transplanted well to plantations in Indonesia and India, equatorial Africa and the New World tropics. The red bushes of rooibos tea, on the other hand, fail to thrive when planted where the Cape-native soil bacteria and mycorrhizae do not exist. So when apartheid, and the reason for the boycott against South African product exports, finally ended, one of the first things I searched for in US markets was rooibos tea.

Several brands had appeared by the middle 90s, under corporate labels like Twinings and Celestial Seasonings. I had purchased these, and also a South African brand from an import store, in my attempts to recreate that wonderful flavor in my cup. Alas, only the expensive 'native' brand was true to my memory. The 'international' brands sometimes added spices (unnecessary to appeal to my palate) or blended rooibos with other herbs—even Camellia sinensis leaves—to bring down the price point. 

When I saw this tea advertised in Amazon's Prime Pantry, I thought it was time to try again. Hurrah! Here it is, the sublime taste I recall from morning breakfast in Johannesburg. These tea bags are a little over $1 apiece, each yielding a full "company teapot" of 5-8 cups, depending on the size of the service. For my generic porcelain mug from Safeway, I pour 6 full cups.

Served alongside wheat toast spread with honey, or Milton's crackers with fresh mozzarella and a tiny spoonful of black lumpfish caviar, it makes an elegant late supper on a cold winter evening. So civilized!

And with no caffeine, I can indulge right before bedtime.

Spoofing Science Before the Ig Nobel Prize

Review: Science, Sex, and Sacred Cows, from Worm-Runner's Digest, James V. McConnell, Editor

The Ig Nobel Prizes, parodies of the Nobel Prizes, can be veiled criticism or satire, but also point out that even absurd-sounding research can yield useful knowledge.

For example, in the early days of exploration into DNA and RNA, the experimental “tool” of choice was the lowly flatworm, Dughesia tigrina. Hardy specimens were easy to obtain, easy to analyze (behaving like organic NOT gates), and capable of regenerating from axial or longitudinal cuts. Even partial cuts would stimulate regeneration, giving rise to worms with two, three, even ten heads.

The excitement in using flatworms was that they could be “taught” to run a maze, then shown (by Digest editor Dr. James V. McConnell in a disputed experiment) to transmit their knowledge to untrained planaria who consumed their chopped-up bodies. Something in the trained worms acted as a knowledge store. This stuff, named “Memory RNA” by its discoverer, prompted hopes of a “Ph.D. pill” in the future.

The maze-running of such animals to create a trained food-source for investigation was so widespread, it gave rise to the quasi-satiric Worm-Runner’s Digest, published at first as humorous entries in the staid Journal of Biological Psychology. When the satirical pieces began to diminish the reputation of his peer-reviewed items, Digest editor James V. McConnell first printed the humor pieces upside down at the end of each volume, then separated the two entirely.

Freed from proximity to the now-waning furor over college-bound planaria, Digest articles eventually covered a multitude of topics, from archaeology to zoophyly. This particular collection is “more than 50 percent planaria by volume.” I hope we can all learn something from its consumption.

From the initial Questions and answers with Grant Swinger (in which the operations of the “Center for Absorption of Federal Funds” are described) to the final Neil Illusions (showing the panicked urge for new optical illusions to which the researcher’s name might be appended), these are iconoclastic articles. Their primary aim is to amuse, but the secondary purpose is to let hot air out of the pompous image of the scientist.

So we have a Handbook of common laboratory diseases, including 'Apparatophilia' and 'Disbursitis'. The professional patient illustrates the arrogance and impatience of some researchers by casting these qualities onto their human subjects. And F.E. Warburton’s classic, The lab coat as status symbol is reproduced here.

Some pieces require a faint familiarity with other classics of literature and science. A singluar case of extreme electrolyte balance associated with folie a deux uses the style of a clinical report to describe why Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt. The fall of the house of Oozer is a wonderful retelling of the Poe story (complete with an inset spoof of The Raven) with flatworms as the main characters. And in three ends to the tale of The blind men and the elephant, we get a capsule description of the errors that rise from all three modes of resolving committee disputes over scientific fact.

I suspect only worm-runners would find sufficient humor in the radio play by 'Tollan Dymas' titled, Under worm wood: a romp for wrigglers. Perhaps my own deficient knowledge of Dylan Thomas’ works was more to blame. But juxtaposed with this is a charming collection of doodle-quality sperm cartoons, showing, for example, the Ph.D. sperm with a tiny mortar-board and the Jester sperm with a minute belled cap.

Smorr Chen tells of a University of Chicago student’s encounter with the pervasive nature of a charming accent, and what happens when he encounters the antidote. How to teach a cow a damn good lesson details the way a new milker is taught which position to take in the milking barn. (Not for PETA or pet-cow proponents, by the way, although the methods described should be understood as outmoded and no longer in general use.)

There’s more here, most very funny. Like A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown, this collection shows that, whatever else research writers may be, they are certainly not devoid of a sense of humor.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Crude Disasters

Review: Slow Apocalypse by John Varley

Varley's Hollywood-mega-disaster novel begins, appropriately, with a Hollywood screenwriter looking for a good storyline to fuel his comeback. Dave Marshall and his crew of writers had been responsible for a sit-com called Ants, which lasted just long enough to give the Marshall family a taste for the luxurious life in the Hollywood Hills.  

When he learns of an impending disaster (a bacteria spreading through the world distills the explosive fractions from crude oil deposits underground, making it both explosive and unpumpable), Marshall warns his Ants posse and his daughter, but conceals his expensive survival-prep from his wife.

That in itself could trigger a disaster, but the reality of the crisis intervenes in the family drama when LA's Doheny oil field (sometimes called the Beverley Hills Oil Field) explodes. This is followed by widespread, catastrophic fires. Gasoline rationing. Earthquakes. Gang violence. And the hits just keep coming...

My spouse usually loves John Varley, but has an engineer's distaste for continually-pyramiding disaster, so I was reluctant to offer Slow Apocalypse. We had divided reactions just over a year before to The Martian—you can see my opinion in my review The Needs of the One. My spouse, on the other hand, put the novel down about halfway through, saying, "Too many problems. Every time Mark Watney solved one, another cropped up." 

There is a similar compounding of complications in Varley's novel—so much so that I had trouble staying absorbed in the story; I began watching for the next calamity whenever the Marshall family seemed to be about to escape the current one. On the other hand, the characters have a sincere reality that carries the tale. There are no supermen here, and most of the folks Marshall meets as he tries to get his friends and family to safety are true-to-life, neither all evil nor shining pure.

I was encouraged by Varley's resisting the impulse to give in to the pull of political consiracy. There are suggestions of it, but nothing that could not equally be explained as spin or stupidity. In the isolating havoc of the post-apocalypse bubble around the Marshall group, it becomes increasingly obvious that "all politics is local."

The undercurrent of meaning (material wealth is ashes in the wind, but love and friendship prevails despite disaster) is lightly maintained, sometimes overwhelmed by the narrative of collapse and social cataclysm. Yet the message persists. 

Cling to what is real, Varley tells us. Survival and happiness both lie there.

Liner Notes

  • Many readers were surprised by the fact of the oil-fields under the LA Basin. With a little more connection to these reserves and awareness of their extent, I kept waiting for the off-shore deposits to contribute to the catastrophes in the story, or perhaps for the Port of LA or Long Beach/Signal Hill to erupt in the same way the Doheny field had. 
  • California Department of Conservation's interactive map of active oil wells—over 3,000 of them in the LA Basin—bears a suspicious similarity to an earthquake-fault map of the same area. The resemblance is superficial. I hope.

Love that Transcends Death

Brief Review: The Rage of Plum Blossoms by Christina Whitehead

The only reviewers making fun of this Kindle-Scout-selected novel's title will be either cold-hearted anti-romantics, or those who have not read it. 

Rage is a normal response when your world has been irretrievably upset, and Quinn Jones Chang has lost not only her husband, but her best friend, her true love, and her sense of place in the community, all at the same time. It does not help that her husband's family and his best friend "from the womb" Harry Chin all believe, like the police, that Jordan Chang committed suicide by diving head-first from their second-floor balcony.

Like the plum, Quinn will persist through the chill of this emotional winter. She will find support from a strange variety of new friends and continue—despite threatenting emails and near-fatal "accidents"—to seek the real reason her husband died, to find his murderers, to blossom in the midst of this icy disaster.

By the way, guys, I offer a warning. This is a novel that drove me to tears, not once, but several times. If you are in a deep relationship, the evocative way Whitehead describes Quinn's loss may overturn your emotions as well. Fathers (and mothers) will also find tear-jerking moments in the story.

There is power in evoking tears, and power in the persistence of Quinn and her posse. It is the power of plum blossoms to promise the triumph of spring in late winter. It is the power of love that transcends death.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Arc of Triumph, Arc of Pain

The arc of any man's life must always include some courage, some fear, some pettiness and some generosity, some defeat and some triumph. In an exceptional man's life, these arcs are world- or even universe-spanning.

The seven novels of the Seafort Saga by David Feintuch (Midshipman's Hope, Challenger's Hope, Prisoner's Hope, Fisherman's Hope, Voices of Hope, Patriarch's Hope, and Children of Hope) detail these arcs of life for a very exceptional man indeed. I re-read the saga every few years, often just the first two novels. It is enough to recall the entire heroic arc of Nikky, raw young officer, cocky and confident, to aging colonial leader Seafort, full of self-doubt, yet still compelled to be the hero.

Midshipman's Hope

Nicholas Ewing Seafort's arc begins when he is the first midshipman, a minor officer in the heirarchical line of command on a starship whose society is patterned after 18th-century naval life. He struggles with his position in that heirarchy, with the skills he needs to acquire to do his job, and especially with his own conscience. Nikky Seafort is a man by decree and by burden, but a lonely adolescent by age.

In a single disaster, Midshipman Seafort becomes the senior officer aboard UNNS Hibernia. Seafort is a teenager in command of a ship that includes passengers, ordinary sailors and other officers, one of whom is older than Seafort, but not senior in the line of command.

To add to his troubles, the passengers don't understand why the Chief Engineer, an older, much more experienced sailor, or the Pilot, another more-experienced man, cannot take command - especially when there is an alien life form outside the ship, one that appears to have "killed" another vessel, and may have also killed the senior officers of Hibernia.

Seafort must determine where his duty lies, resolve to do that duty, and contend with a host of others - including the ship's "glitched" computer - to see it done. 

The action is well-laid out and the aliens are truly strange (something one cannot always say about science fiction aliens). Seafort's internal dialog contributes immensely to the tale; many of his burdens are self-imposed, and that dialog is the only way we know how heavy those burdens are for the youngster.

The novel can stand on its own, but read as the opening to the entire saga, it is outstanding.

Challenger's Hope

Too young to be confirmed as Captain in his own right, the still-teenaged Nicholas Ewing Seafort is given Commander rank, and placed in command of the UNNS Challenger, which is part of a fleet of ships under the command of Admiral Tremaine. Their goal is to find and confront the aliens Seafort's former ship, UNNS Hibernia, confronted in the space around Hope Nation.

At the outset, Admiral Tremaine is opposed to the young commander: he starts by moving his flag (and flag captain) to Seafort's ship, transferring Commander Seafort to the smaller UNNS Portia. Then he organizes the fleet to make short hops - seven or more - between Earth and Hope Nation, with Seafort's somewhat faster ship preceding the rest of the fleet and then remaining in place until all the others have passed.

What none of them know is that the Fuse drive they use is calling the alien "fish"; Seafort's ship will be exposed more than any of the others.

Further complicating the command he has been given is the crowd of "trannies"; transient street people or transpops, that have been loaded on to his ship. These ill-educated children, none of them out of their teens, are expected to bunk six to a cabin. Even worse, the regular passengers object to sharing a dining room with them.

Seafort's wife and infant son are along. He also has the entire chain of command in which he has been placed in loco parentis. Seafort, whose own childhood was disturbingly lonely and without demonstrations of paternal love, must find a way to be father, commander and pastor to his entire crew - especially after they are all transferred back to the hopelessly damaged UNNS Challenger and abandoned to the fish.

Book 2 of the Seafort Saga is a thrilling blend of action and internal struggle, triumph over despair, and refusal to surrender even in the face of overwhelming odds. Its ending, which leaves Commander Seafort further burdened with his own grief and self-recrimination, sets the reader up for the next novel, but read with Midshipman's Hope, the two are complete on their own.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Breaking the Wall

Review: Matthew Templeton and the Enchanted Journal by Natalie Grigson, Kelpie Dreams by Steve Vernon

One of the hardest techniques for an author of fiction to master is addressing the reader directly. Speaking directly to, acknowledging, or including your audience through the imaginary box of observation is known as "breaking the fourth wall". It takes a very light hand, and is easily overdone. Many readers—myself included—dislike it intensely as an annoying distraction from absorption in the narrative.

It can be done, however. In order to succeed, the narrator must include the reader with asides that share expectations or acknowledge a quiet joke at the characters' expense. It must also be continual; a sudden comment to the reader in Chapter Eight is a jarring occurance, but a string of subtle asides that begin in Chapter One becomes part of the narration. Gentle, quiet, and subtle will be less annoying than sudden, jarring and unexpected

Matthew Templeton and the Enchanted Journal

This novel was a Kindle Scout nomination of mine that was not selected. I bought it anyway, intrigued by the concept of a journal that could bring about anything written into it. (Shades of Stranger than Fiction here; I kept thinking of Emma Thompson writing Will Farrell to death.) Matthew's journal is a birthday present from his librarian, Ms. McCaffrey. 

A thirteen-year-old boy might be presumed to be less than delighted at receiving the gift of "a diary", but it beats what Matthew got from his hideously self-centered and mean parents: nothing. Well, nothing except a promise of military academy, despite his intense wish otherwise on his "birthday match". 

Throughout the tale of Matthew, his only school friend Ryan, and the others they collect on their adventures, we are invited to laugh at the folly of the humans, snicker at the petty evil of Matthew's parents, and enjoy the daft way the journal continually skews what Matthew wants by misinterpreting his written words. Ordinarily I would despise such asides, but Grigson has a sweet way with them. They help the reader along rather than breaking the fourth wall.

This is a tale of revenge and murder, treachery and lies, with knights and their ladies fair, lost princesses, evil wizards, montrous wergs, and rebellious villagers. Yet not one of them is what we expect; every character (except Matthew's parents, perhaps) has a unforseen side. The result is a light-hearted, humorous, and thoroughly delicious novel with the promise of a sequel.

I'll be waiting on the other side of the wall, with bated breath, for Grigson to break it again.

Kelpie Dreams

This novel, by contrast, was accepted as a Kindle Scout publication. It had a HOT label on it from the first, and I understood why when I read the concept: a paranormal romance novel (kelpie librarian, 200-year-old sea captain, zombie lighthouse keeper, sea hag villain) for folks who HATE to read romance novels. That's me! I thought, and nominated it. (Besides, I had nominated Vernon's A Blurt In Time, bought it when it was not selected, and enjoyed it a little. Surely I would enjoy this one a bit more?)

I barely read the excerpt, I was so taken with the concept. If I had, I would have noticed the blaring asides, the all-caps shouts. (And paragraphs of hyphenated stuff, breaking oddly due to my font-size settingI should have remembered them from Blurt.) I was never allowed to simply become absorbed in the tale, but was constantly dragged from my observer's post to get involved in the action. 

Perhaps it would have been less annoying if the asides and comments weren't so crude and gauche. OK, there's a bit of a snicker in someone's mother wanting to name her Hemorrhoid. But:
Can you actually imagine spending your entire lifetime constantly spell-checking your own name? Go ahead—just try to close your eyes and spell out H-E-M-O-R-R-H-O-I-D without having to resort to a discrete peek at a medical dictionary. I dare you.

If that was the only such, I might have forgiven the writer and moved on. But there is scarely a page without a similar observation, blatantly breaking the fourth wall to drag me, the reader, into the character's head. I don't come to discover the main character's motivation, I am drenched in it:
My son had died picking his nose in a stolen neon yellow Audi. Try and think about that, if you will. Let the thought crust and dry, and let it stick to your mind’s finger like a hard and completely unflickable booger of undeniable truth. I had always thought that the word irony was the opposite of wrinkly, but if this wasn’t ironic, I don’t know what else it could be.

OK, I'm not with it. I don't get it. Except occasionally, I do, and then I regret every one of the break-wall asides I got annoyed at when I come upon something really cool and evocative:
I stared right back. I was not going to give the man a single inch of leniency. I mentally tried to evoke a psychic soundtrack of all of the Ennio Morricone background music from all three of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name westerns. Ooeeooeeoo . . . wah-wah-wah. Ooeeooeeoo . . . wah-wah-wah.

Eventually, having battled nearly half-way through the up-and-down narrative, I quietly closed the book and abandoned the effort. That was mid-May. I told myself, Steve Vernon shouldn't have to suffer a bad review because of my inability to get past his brittle-wall syndrome. It wasn't until I read Matthew Templeton and the Enchanted Journal that I realized breaking the wall doesn't have to throw the whole labor onto the reader.

Vernon has a readership, and my comments will come late in the stream, easily ignored by them. But this is one time I'm really glad I didn't pay for a book.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Paging Through History

Review: Paper by Mark Kurlansky

Its invention lost in the mists of time, the humble sheet of paper was once a groundbreaking, world-changing technology. We aren't accustomed to thinking of paper as "high-tech," and yet its use was once a peerless indicator of civilization. Paper lies at the root of record-keeping, and that is the sine qua non for complex societies.

Mark Kurlansky has superlative talent for presenting history in context, not only of its own time, but how the times and cultures he describe support what came later, what we use today. That expanded context makes a basic technologymaking and using papercome alive as a sophisticated invention.

Before paper, and usually long after it, parchment was the quick medium for records. Think about that, Kurlansky bids us—to make a record, we needed only to wait until the animal whose skin we want to use is full grown, has been butchered and skinned, and has had its hide tanned, scraped thin, and bleached. No wonder records were routinely erased from parchment to provide a palimpsest for new writings.  

Of course, there were older modes of writing, in mediums like fired clay and stone. But until the advent of paper, nothing could be recorded lightly, spur-of-the-moment. No jottings, no idle doodles. No revisable blueprints or scratch engineering diagrams. Gutenberg's invention waited on a disposable medium, and literacy, the expectation that everyone would be able to read and write and freely trade ideas, waited on Gutenberg.

As I read, I learned about an invention that had been created over and over, wherever human society advanced far enough to require it. "Real" paper composed of pressed, matted, randomly-oriented plant fibers has had its substitutes: tree bark, crushed and rolled to make it pliable; long stems of papyrus or young bamboo, split and opened to provide a strip of writing surface; silk fabric; thin plates of slate or metal; whole leaves; slats or thin shingles of wood. All were used, along with parchment and stone; but nowhere did reading and writing become part of everyday life until paper was widely available.

"If you can read this, thank a teacher," reads a popular bumper sticker. No, this book argues, if you can read it, thank Gutenberg. 

And for Gutenberg, thank the invention of paper. 

Pas-de-Deux with a Semi-Fictional Nureyev

Review: Dancer by Colum McCann

Rudolf Nureyev. The name is synonymous with ballet. 

But before the multiple entrechats, before the defection to the West, before the notable evenings in Paris and New York, there was a confused little boy who wanted two things from life: to dance, and to find approval.

McCann's Dancer is a loose grouping of snapshots, scattered in time and location, that serve as well as anything can to illuminate the tempestuous life of the dancer Nureyev, the little boy Rudik, the homosexual Rudi. 

In this arrangement, the author agrees with the opening quote:
In any case, when talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw. —William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

We see the child, slight and shivering, dancing to entertain shell-shocked soldiers returning to a hospital from the Western front. Rudik barely knows his returning father, and is repelled by the fish his father expects him to gut. The boy who dreamed of his father until he met him again, now only dreams of a stage with a red velvet curtain. 

What was flung onstage during his first season in Paris (1961):

  • ten one-hundred franc bills held together with an elastic band
  • a packet of Russian tea...
  • white lilies... perfectly weighted to reach the stage...
  • sixteen pairs of women's underwear, a phenomenon that had never been seen in the theatre before...
  • broken glass thrown by Communist protesters...
  • death threats
  • hotel keys
  • and on the fifteenth night, a single long-stemmed gold-plated rose.

Rudolf Nureyev defected while in Paris that year—not for political reasons, but because he had discovered the active homosexual life of 1960s Paris, and rejected the warnings of the commissar charged with watching the ballet dancers. He was sentenced to seven years' hard labor if he should ever return to the USSR. But Rudi was having too much fun, and it would be decades before he would consider a return to his motherland.

Watched All in the Family then cabbed to Judy and Sam Peabody's to see Nureyev (cab $2.50). Nureyev arrived and he looked terrible—really old-looking. I guess the nightlife finally got to him. His masseur was with him. The masseur is also sort of a bodyguard... —the Andy Warhol diaries, Sunday, March 11, 1979.

The book is neatly divided into four parts, like separate boxes of photos in a trunk. Book four brings Rudolf Nureyev back to Russia in the time of detente. "How come they let you back?" his life-long friend asks, and Rudi replies simply, "Raisa Gorbachev."
And are you still dancing? I asked.
They will put me down dancing, he said.
I couldn't help but believe him—one day they would exhume Rudi and find his bones set in an attitude of leap...

The snap-shot mode is difficult to parse at first, like a neophyte's understanding of ballet. But in the end, it is perfect for this tale, perfect for the dance we are invited to join.

Monday, October 17, 2016

High Tea and Romance

Review: Tea With the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy

Oolong—black China tea—gets its name by combining the characters that mean "black" and "dragon." So when Martha Macnamara, Gaelic fiddler, joins Mayland Long, an intriguing dark-skinned oriental gentleman with curiously long fingers, for tea in his elegant, book-stuffed hotel room overlooking the Pacific Ocean, she is startled by an outstanding sculpture of a black dragon. Long tells her, "It's Oolong."

Yes, the tea is black China, and the sculture is a black dragon named Oolong. So, it rapidly becomes apparant, is Mayland Long. 

When he sets aside his scholarly search for the truth and his master, which he had been prophecied to find in San Francisco, to help Martha track down her daughter, he will put his own long life in jeopardy. 

I first read this book in the mid-80s, when I was just getting into computer programming. MacAvoy expertly wove a a tapestry of fine design by combining computer technology with the poetry of Zen philosophy and mythical Chinese dragons. I was rapt in the romance of a dragon's study of humankind, and taken with Long's life among books. Who would not want to be the dapper, wealthy, studied, elegant dragon in his hotel-room tower?

Reading it again in the Kindle edition for the first time in a decade, I now see more of the appeal of Martha Macnamara, and the romance between these two older people, both slightly alienated from the push and thrust of modern life and modern technology—especially now that my own years are advanced! It helped to be familiar now with San Franciso, although MacAvoy's descriptions of the city are so evocative that this knowledge adds only a minor gloss to the tale.

Either way, the book has not lost any charm due to the slight dating of computer tech in the modern half of the story, but has only acquired more polish from its age. Make an appointment to enjoy this high tea, whether it is your first sip, or a familiar refreshment. Oolong does not disappoint, and neither does MacAvoy.

A Powerful Story So Seldom Trumps Editing

Review: The City Below by Kevin George

Winner in the category Most words between a character's introduction in the Prologue and his inclusion in the story

I nominated this novel on the basis of a very strong excerpt from the prologue that opens the story. I wanted to read this book; if it had not been selected as a Kindle Scout offering, I would have purchased it anyway.

And while I wasn't disappointed, I wasn't thrilled, either. The intriguing characters introduced in the prologue simply vanish from the tale with the opening lines of Chapter One.

The reason I wasn't disappointed was that the story replacing what the prologue promised is a strong one, also filled with people I want to read about. Dystopian, post-apocalyptic societies are often set in a barren wilderness, or underground. The City Below satisfies both conditions; its tunnels and chambers were carved out below a vast, cold expanse of snow so long ago that only folk stories recount the existence of "white nothingess" and "the great blue above" beyond the underground city.

The next generation of the city's leaders were exposed to these "old wives' tales" through Artie Peters, the scion of the Fifth's leading family. Artie is a complex character, wanting to satisfy his father's stern work ethic, but drawn more to reading and study than the rest of the stoic, hard-working tunneling community of City Section Five. 

Emma Weller is the daughter of the founder Weller family, whose Section Three supports the scholars and engineers of the city. The last generation saw their section's, and the city's, history modified by the city's ruler to remove most references to the Weller family from the account of how the city was founded. 

Emma is less concerned with that and more focused on impressing her crush, Chad Upton, the son of the leaders of Section Two, which grows most of the vegetables and grains for the city. Even so, Chad is as misplaced as Artie; he yearns to build a vehicle he has engineered to explore the little he has learned about the vast space beyond the city's boundaries.

Then there is the ruling section, One, with the best access to the power provided by lava. One, where the principle product is guards and soldiers to suppress and force compliance from the other sections. One, whose ruling Jonas family has the ear of the Lord, styled "King" (and Your Illustriousness) and "Queen," and whose Prince Oliver, Olly to his young colleagues, is equally drawn to the adventure represented by the Great Beyond.

Section Four of the city below has no inhabitants (except, perhaps, ghosts). We learn that they died in the illness that still continues to plague the city. It is a disease that, curiously, has no symptoms until the day the afflicted person is taken into Quarantine by the guards from One. The diagnosis comes from "the Lord and Jonas," the irrefutable source of all policies and commands.

This novel, though powerful and engrossing, needed more editing. For one thing, it is needlessly long. Some topics are beaten to death. Others are repeated until the reader could recite them with the characters who voice them. Emma and Olly are two-dimensional at first, and Emma never gets much more complex. Oliver, however, gradually becomes a more-developed person, even if never as compellingly involuted as Artie or Chad. 

Strangely, the concept that gave such power to the prologue is given short shrift amongst all these words. The reader has almost forgotten it when it is reintroduced, much later. Yet the story is so persuasive, so compelling, that one forgives the technical problems. 

I was left with three massive cliff-hangers, and an immense desire to read Book 2 of the series. Alas, I will have to wait. 

Perhaps I will try George's previous novels, the 12-book Comet Clement series. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Who is Most Evil: Yul Brynner or Ed Harris?

Review: Westworld (HBO Series) with Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden —vs— Westworld (1973 MGM Film) with Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin

Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crickton, the 1973 Westworld film (directed by Crichton) featured a loose-jowled, black-clad Yul Brynner as the cold-eyed gunman robot in a theme park designed to thrill guests with gun-fights, saloon-girls, high-stakes gambling, and outlaw-hunting. Brynner's robot was programmed to be threatening, but unable to kill any human. It was designed to lose in the end to any guest who challenged him.

It isn't until that programming "goes wrong" that robots begin to kill the human guests.

In the HBO series, the gunman who loses is still a "host" (this version's name for the robots), and the shooter is still a human. But this time, the black hat and dead-soul stare over the gunsights belong to the human, Ed Harris. And what an evil fellow he is, too! This nameless guest is determined to find a way to stay in the park, killing with abandon, and indulging all the base appetites a man can possess.

Others have commented about the rich world-building of the HBO production, and the casting of star-class film actors Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and James Marsden, plus small-screen stars like Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, and Luke Hemsworth. If we've seen the 1973 film, we have a general idea of the storyline and its destination. So I'd rather focus on why Ed Harris' gunman is so much more sinister than Brynner's was.

I think the first reason is simple. A robot is amoral by nature; its motivations and goals are not its own. They come from its programming, which is, in the end, a human product. Any "evil by design" host in the HBO series came from the workshop with that vileness built in.

Harris, on the other hand, has chosen to be vile. He can have a dead-soul stare because he had a soul to kill in the first place; he has stepped onto the path to hell of his own free will. As a robot, Brynner had no free will to make a choice. Even his "evil" actions are the result of human error, not his own.

In addition to the philosophic difference, the truth is that the Westworld of the HBO series is darker than the one we saw in the 70s. Even the "white-hat" guests are encouraged to indulge vices. None of them are expected to be saints, and the park is designed to offer darker and darker "narratives" to accomodate their slide from virtue. Thus, the evil espoused by Harris needs to be crueler, more heartless, than the ordinary sinners who pay to live out dark fantasies for a few days.

Finally, Harris is tall and lean, sharp-cut, a steel knife of a figure. He is physically more menacing than Brynner could be in this role. Coupled with the human evil he represents, the dire threat offered by the gunman in black is as obvious and bone-chilling as a rattler's warning. 

Or perhaps more so, in this playground where rattlenakes are mere scenery, and "only man is vile."

Liner Notes:

  1. Listening to the the player-piano music in Episode 1, I was surprised to hear the classic "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden (one of my favorite pieces of music), followed by the Stone's "Paint It Black." By Episode 2, I was listening intently during all the saloon scenes, and was rewarded with Radiohead's "No Surprises." 
  2. It was nice to see actor Jimmi Simpson in Episode 2, playing the nebbish part he has done so well in multiple TV shows before this. He seems more balanced in it than the similar role played by Richard Benjamin in the MGM movie version.
  3. Keep an eye on the young boy character who has shown up several times now. Is he a human guest? Or a memory of Anthony Hopkin's character, made flesh?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Typical Tepper: Excellent Enigmas

Review: The Companions by Sheri S. Tepper

I sometimes feel that every review of a Sheri Tepper novel should be subtitled, "Dances With Words." Even though I rarely agree with the writer's philosophy, the astoundingly graceful way in which she spins words into story is seductive, and subliminally persuasive:

The moss world... was a Victorian parlor of a planet, everywhere padded and bolstered, its cliffs hung with garlands, its crevices studded with cushions, every cranny silk-woven, every surface napped into velvet. Here were peridot parklands where moss piled itself into caverned outcrops of sapphire shade. There were violet valleys, veiled in lavender and wine, across a mat of miniscule, multi-colored moss beads...

I first read this book as soon as it was released in paperback, in September 2004. In addition to Moss, another mono-cultured world like Grass, which I reviewed in 2014, Tepper has introduced conquering canines, vat-cultured concs (concubines), a burkha-clad populace on Earth trying desperately to stay sane in the crowded conditions, and the siren comfort of the world of Moss, a pillowed and bolstered place that may (or may not) have inhabitants.

The most wonderful characters in the book are the six talking dogs rescued from Earth by the linguist Jewell. Together Jewell and her companions Scramble, Behemoth, Dapple, Titan, Wolf and Vigilant contact the intelligent life of Moss, and are "dognapped" to a world where canine-forms rule (and where Jewel is reduced to pet-status while her companions are lauded). Together they must solve the ultimate mystery posed by Moss and a dozen other worlds: where have the ancient races gone? 

You need not subscribe to the eco-crisis, feminist vision of Tepper to thoroughly enjoy the disturbing pleasure of her writing. Like scarlet moss, it carries the reader to ever-higher transports of delight. And if a Tepper novel does not exactly provide a happy ending, at least, like a well-composed fugue, it will always provide closure.

Big Fun in Little China

Review: Big Trouble in Little China with Kurt Russell, Kim Catrall, James Hong

Traditional wuxia, films in a martial arts fantasy genre that originated in Hong Kong, feature melodramatic acting and slapstick humor, along with silly story lines interspersed with elaborate fight scenes in which the combatants can literally fly, or pause midair in slo-mo. John Carpenter took these crucial elements of Chinese film-style, coupled them with a goofy American hero (Kurt Russell), an abrasive and clumsy activist lawyer (Kim Catrall), staged it in San Francisco's Chinatown, and had an American hit on his hands.
Is this gonna get ugly? I hope not cause I thought what we were, racial differences notwithstandin', was all friends here, all Californians.

The interesting thing is, this movie came out in 1986, 14 years before the critical cross-over success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and 13 years before the state-of-the-art special-effects blockbuster, The Matrix.

Little China has all the necessary components for wuxia: magicians and ghosts, monsters and flying sword fights, gods of storm and lightning, virtuous maidens and their heroic lovers, and wise old-men teachers masquerading as peasants. Chinatown provides a colorful venue for these adventures, with white-slavery rings, gambling, tongs and tea parlors as extra spice.

Even at its age, the movie is hardly dated, mostly because it is actually set in the romantic past. The era that informs Little China is the 40s, a time when the "yellow peril" could be discussed without any snickering or PC outrage. (In fact, a radio talk show in the background over the opening credits features a caller arguing that "Chinese immigration" imperils the American worker.) This, despite Russell's Jack Burton character, who seems hardly to notice the ethnic of his gambling buddy Wang Chi.

While hardly as athletic as a Jackie Chan movie, or as beautifully scripted as Jet Li's Hero, Little China is one of the few movies of its kind that I can watch over and over again. This is an underrated classic
even in its adopted genrewhich continues to succeed because, despite the wild action and fantastical plot, the main characters are likeable and we can identify with them.
You just listen to the ol' Pork Chop Express an' take his advice on a dark and stormy night when some wild-eyed eight-foot tall maniac grabs your neck an' taps the back of your favorite head up against a barroom wall. An' when he looks you straight in the eyes and asks you have you paid your dues? Well you just stare that big sucker right back in the eyes and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this. "Have you paid your dues Jack?" "Yessir, I have, the check's in the mail."

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Ebola, Marburg and HIV-AIDS

Review: The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

A classic NCIS episode1 I watched again this week focused on an anthrax attack that took down two of the agents. Marburg deaths have been slowly increasing in Angola over the past decade and AIDS statistics on the continent continue to amplify. Whether news or fiction, virulent infections capture our attention.

The fear of plague is deeply rooted in us. The thought of a disease that wipes out one in five, one in three, or nine of ten panics us, even when the infection is happening in a remote part of the world and is nominally under control. 

How much more terrifying is the realization that there is no part of the world remote enough to contain contagion? That these agents enter our borders daily, taking up residence in our population centers, smoldering unrecognized?

The chilling tale in Preston's book is a true story, lightly fictionalized in its details, and vastly amplified in the disturbing coincidences it presents. It opens with the description of a death in western Kenya, a horrifying account of how the Marburg virus kills. We meet Charles Monet, who dies in a gruesome fashion in a hospital in Nairobi. We meet the physicians and nurses who contract the disease from him. 

More horrifying, we learn that Marburg is the least lethal filovirus of three related agents. Ebola Sudan, which surfaced in the war zone of southern Sudan, kills half of those infected. Ebola Zaire kills eight to nine of ten infected. In this context, Marburg is relatively safe, killing "only" an average of one in two infected. (Unfortunately, one current strain in Angola is much more virulent; in May 20052, for example, the WHO reported that 276 of 316 reported Marburg cases were fatal. That's 87%, beginning to rival Ebola Zaire!)

I first read Hot Zone in 1999, when bioterror was a collegium topic rather than a keyword in current events. The tale of the discovery of a fourth filovirus—Ebola Reston—in a monkey house on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. was an eye-opener for all. Preston's dry, matter-of-fact style gives the already-chilling tale a liquid-helium twist. See, he says on more than one page, we dodged the bullet this time. Next time, we might not be so lucky. The tale of the discovery, containment and disinfection of the building is interspersed with equally factual tales of the devastation wrought by Ebola and Marburg in Africa.

We are already seeing the slow spread of a much more lethal agent, HIV-AIDS3, through the human race. AIDS is more successful than Marburg or Ebola, Preston argues, because it doesn't kill so swiftly and nastily. The virus has much more time to transmit itself. As horrifying as death from AIDS can be, the early stages of the disease may actually make the victim more capable of infecting others, especially in cultures where a slender physique is considered attractive.

Even so, the plague Preston details in this book is terrifying enough, an Ebola-like infection that travels through the air like the common cold, killing 100% of the non-human primates who are exposed to it. This particular game of Russian Roulette turned out to land on an unloaded chamber for the human race.

Do we really want to keep playing?

Liner Notes

  1. It was NCIS Season 2, Episode 22, "SWAK." Tony got the anthrax-laden letter.
  2. The most recent Ebola outbreak was brought under nominal control in June of 2016.
  3. In July 2016, WHO warned of growing HIV-AIDS drug resistance.

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Review: The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus: All the Words Volume 1 and Volume 2

Whether you post your opinions at a site that allows comments, or read social media posts, sooner or later you may be puzzled by references to the legendary walking tree of Dahomey1, or  E. Henry Thripshaw's Disease2.

Maybe it's simply a snide aside about "Mrs. Betty Teal and her lover in Boulton." Actually, it probably wouldn't be them; Mrs. Teal paid the requested £15, so the name of her lover in Boulton was kept secret. But it might be one of the other hapless victims of BLACKMAIL, a Pythonesque parody of a Candid Camera-style game-show.
PRESENTER: Hello, sir, hello, yes. No sir, no. I'm sure you didn't. No, it's all right sir, we don't morally censure, we just want the money... Yes, and here's the address to send it to:
(caption read in voice over)

Perhaps you see a plea for the words to "The Lumberjack Song", but by the time you've fired up your VCR, fast-forwarded through the wrong 18 episodes to find it, transcribed the words and got back to your computer, six other people have already answered.

Dear Sir, I wish to complain in the strongest possible terms about the song which you have just broadcast, about the lumberjack who wears women's clothes. Many of my best friends are lumberjacks and only a few of them are transvestites. Yours faithfully,
Brigadier Sir Charles Arthur Strong (Mrs).
P.S. I have never kissed the editor of the Radio Times.

Help is here in the two volumes of The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus: All The Words. Here is the complete dialog of the "Parrot Sketch", the entire menu recitation that sets off the Vikings in the "Spam Sketch", the five Bruces of the "Philosophy Department of the University of Woolahmooloo".

Fourth Bruce: No. Right, well, gentlemen, I'll just remind you of the faculty rules. Rule one—no pooftahs. Rule two—no member of the faculty is to mistreat the Abbos in any way whatsoever if there's anyone watching. Rule three—no pooftahs. Rule four—I don't want to catch anyone not drinking in their room after lights out. Rule five—no pooftahs. Rule six—there is no... rule six. Rule seven—no pooftahs.

Both books include a complete cross-referenced index; items from the other volume appear in italics in the index of each book. What isn't in these volumes is the brilliant cartoonery and illustration of Terry Gilliam, nor the bizarre credits that sometimes reflected the insanity that went before. (Some of Gilliam's graphics are described, where they are essential to the story or critical to the joke.) An insert of photos from the well-known episodes is also included in each volume.
Cardinal Ximenez: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

I've been enjoying these volumes for years, and find them essential to my reputation as a Python-quoter. I recommend them for any Flying Circus debater who wishes to reach the next level.

Liner Notes:

  1. Nicholas Parsons, for whom the Pythons named the walking oak, is a long-time (long-running?) British game-show host and radio personality, seen in the US on The Benny Hill Show. To my astonishment, the 92-year-old Parsons still lives near London.
  2. I actually purchased an E. Henry Thripshaw's Disease t-shirt, and wore it often in the 1980s. Alas, it no longer fits.
  3. My favorite bit is The Poet Ewan McTeagle, with its allusions to pompously-hammy Shakespeare sonnet readers and the real Scottish doggerel poet William McGonnagall.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Short-cut to the Library

Review: Bookworm by Christopher Nuttall

Legions of schoolboys would love to believe that they could fall asleep on a pile of schoolbooks, and wake having absorbed all the required reading within. But for Elaine, who loves to read, a curse has handed her this result. Not for her schoolbooks, but for the entire contents of the Empire's Library, a repository of magical tomes—some of which are banned.

Elaine became a Librarian because her level of power for practicing magic was quite low. Without any more power, she now has a deep and complete understanding of magic, as well as the Empire's history, and secrets that have lain hidden in the Library's Black Vault. 

This series follows by several centuries the tale of Emily, who brought physical, chemical science to this world from Earth, as told in Nuttall's 10-volume Schooled In Magic series. This later Empire is still linked by Emily's steam-engine trains, but the old tension between "town and gown" remains. In this world, however, "gown" is the garb of the magic-user, while the "town" is filled with "mundanes" who possess no magical powers.

To make matters worse, the capital city has entered into a time of chaos between the death of one ruling Grand Sorcerer and the selection of the next. The Inquisitors who would normally answer to this ruler are now free to enforce the regulations without oversight—and it is strictly illegal for Elaine to have the knowledge the curse has planted in her mind!

Nuttall has crafted another delicious story of a world where magic follows strict rules, just like any other "science," and where people do not become superhuman just because they possess powers we do not. If anything, most of Nuttall's magic users are surpassingly petty and unempathetic. 

Not excluding the heroine Elaine. 

In fact, the tale's most empathetic and thoughtful characters may be the ominous Inquisitor Dread, whose task it seems to be to catch Elaine in a crime, and the socially active Daria, her roommate and friend, who has assigned herself the role of matchmaker for the socially awkward, shy Elaine.

I look forward with great anticipation to the next three books in the series. If they are as intensely engrossing as this first, I will be finished reading them shortly!

Liner Notes:

  • Inappropriate for younger readers. This novel contains several graphic sexual scenes and multiple comments about diverse sexual practices. While not totally gratuitous, these scenes can easily be skipped if your taste, like mine, is for less detail in such matters.
  • Some character's names (and backstories) are obvious nods to other novels. One contender for the Grand Sorceror title comes from a kingdom named "Gor," for example, where "women are expected to remain silent and obedient." His name is (snicker) "Vlad Deferens."
  • The author uses the British term "revise" where American English users would write "review." Since the opening scenes of the novel portray anxious students cramming (swotting) for exams, a jarring multiple occurrence of the term finally sent me to the Kindle dictionary. After, unfortunately, I had already marked it twice as a typo.