Friday, January 31, 2014


So tonight I went to a basketball game.

I’d never been to one of those before.  Ever.  Not in high school.  Not in college.  Not for any professional team at any level.  While this came as a shock to Kim, it had never struck me as anything I needed to correct, really.  As I’ve said before, any sport where teams routinely score a hundred points in increments of two is clearly irresponsible and can be dismissed out of hand.

But for this game, I had Powerful Incentive.

For tonight’s matchup between Local Businessman High School and their league rivals in the next town south of us, they invited the fifth-grade band members from most of the elementary schools that feed into LBHS – a category that includes Not Bad President Elementary – to join with the LBHS pep band.

Lauren has been practicing for weeks on her clarinet, honking away at Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” which everyone refers to as “The Hey! Song” because that makes a whole lot more sense than “Rock and Roll Part 2.”  Frankly it makes more sense than Gary Glitter in general, but there you go.  She’s also been rehearsing the “Let’s Go [TEAM]” song that everyone plays at these things, so it has been quite the peppy time around here.  She got to be pretty good at them, too.

I dropped her off at the appointed time so she could join the rehearsal before the game, and then I went back home to pick up Kim and Tabitha.  We returned to LBHS, paid our admission (only the performers get in free and “I’m with the band!” doesn’t cut it, even if you produced one of the band members out of your own flesh and blood, not that I am complaining or anything), and settled down in the bleachers to wait.

It was a long wait.

The JV squads were having their game when we got there.  It was midway through the third quarter and the two teams were apparently having a rather spirited back-and-forth contest, with a number of lead changes and some quite athletic plays, none of which made any sense at all to me.  “Why did they blow the whistle this time?” I’d ask, and Kim – who actually does understand this game – would answer that question with an explanation that might as well have been in Attic Greek for all the good it did me.  This went on for a while until it became clear that further questions weren’t helping anyone.  For example, “How is that a foul?  There’s no blood!” is apparently not an acceptable thing to say at a basketball game.

Who knew?

I think I’ll stick with hockey.

But eventually the game wound down, with the visitors pulling out what was no doubt a thrilling victory for those whose knowledge of the game extended to more than seeing which score was bigger.  As they did so the band filtered in and took their seats in the bleachers across the way.

And then they began to play.


We had a grand time cheering along.  They played their songs quite a few times, each time getting the appropriate shout-out in response, and it was an energetic and happy evening.  And then suddenly it was time for the varsity teams to come out and commit further acts of basketball, so we left and got ice cream.  Because it’s January in Wisconsin and 11 degrees outside and we’re under a winter storm warning and that’s just what people here do under those conditions when there is celebrating to be done.

Well done, Lauren.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Service and Safety

Lauren’s term as a safety down at Not Bad President Elementary ended this week.

They only serve for a semester, down at NBPE, and then they have to step aside so the new group can come in.  There’s a period of training so they can pass on their bits of wisdom to the incoming safeties – the official things that make up the manual, and the little things that the teachers may or may not choose to acknowledge that they know – and then it’s over and they melt, Cincinnatus-like, back into the regular population.

She has really enjoyed being a safety.  For one thing it forced us to get out of the house a little earlier on school days and anything that gets people off the dime is a good thing, really.  But more than that, I think, was the fact that it gave her a job to do, one that she could see was clearly helping others.  There’s a satisfaction in that.

We live in service to others. 

This is a lesson that you would think is largely forgotten today if all you did was listen to the political ranting of the Galt cultists, those whose ideal human is the diagnosably sociopathic atomized individual fanatically pursuing his (and it’s almost always “his”) own self interest without regard for his neighbors.  Such cultists hold a lot of sway here in the 21st-century US, far more than any civilized culture ought to give them.

But they forget the simple human fact that we are a social species.  We derive meaning from our relations with others, and the heights we reach depend on the depths of our commitment to our communities and the people in them.  All of the people in them, and not just the ones that look and think like us.

Service starts at the beginning.

I’m glad Lauren has been a safety these past few months, shepherding the younger kids across the street in front of NBPE.  She is learning at a very young age a lesson that so many adults seem to have forgotten, and if she is lucky it is a lesson that will stick with her for the rest of her life.

Good work, Lauren.  I’m proud of you.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Unreal Times

There is an element of unreality that invades your world when you’ve had several snow days in a row.

Of course they’re not snow days this time.  They’re wind chill days.  For the second time this month the air temperatures have gotten down around -20F here in Our Little Town, which is unusually cold but not unheard of in this part of the world.  But the winds have been high as well, and we had several inches if light fluffy snow over the weekend – snow just begging to be blown into a whiteout haze – and when you add those things together it’s just better for everyone to stay home, drink warm beverages, and hunker down. 

The semester was supposed to have started this week down at Home Campus.  It started last week for my online course. 

For the online class I’m just administering someone else’s design – that’s how those classes work.  There’s a Lead Professor, who designs the class – most of the work in an online class happens before the students ever show up – and then the online folks open up a bunch of sections to handle the enrollment.  The Lead Professor gets one, and they farm out the rest to other professors.  We go in, customize things a bit to our liking, and then handle the day-to-day work for the class.  I’ve taught this class in two different versions, and I have to say I really like the one that’s up now.  It’s well designed and thought out, and if it requires a fair amount of grading and feedback for my students from me, well, that’s what good classes do.

For my own class, I’m rewriting the last third of it this semester.  Any class whose title ends with “…to the present” needs to be tinkered with every year, and after a few years of tinkering it gets to be unwieldy and you have to rewrite the thing from the ground up, especially if – as is the case with my US2 class – my thinking about how the last fifty years or so of American politics works has changed since the last rewrite.  Squeezing the old material into the new framework has gotten harder and harder to do, so it’s time to pull it apart and build it anew.

So I’ve got a lot to do.

But everything’s on hold.

The online class is in its opening bit, before I have any real grading to do.  I just have to monitor it for now.  And the weather has been so bad across the state that my own class has yet to meet.  Meanwhile the local schools are rightly closed, which means my children are home (or at least are not in school – Lauren has been shuttling from friend’s house to friend’s house the last few days for sleepovers), and not many people really want to hold meetings or if they do they’re okay with phone meetings, so Kim has mostly been home as well.

It feels like semester break still.

Except it isn’t.

There’s all sorts of work to be done.  The clock is ticking on the semester. 

And here I sit.

It’s been a strange winter.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Low Down on Set Up

There was a time when new televisions were a simple process.

You bought the television – perhaps after doing some comparison research on the various brands and models, or perhaps after simply walking into the store, pointing to the nearest one to hand and saying, “That one!” – and you lugged the thing home.  You set it up in whatever space was allotted for it.  You plugged it in.  You turned it on.  And from there it was just the sweet, sweet sensation of your every neuron liquefying into uselessness as you sat on the couch and ate things which could only be classified as food by virtue of the fact that you were putting them into your mouth and not dying then and there.

That was then; this is now.

This month Kim and I came to the conclusion that our current television was becoming a bit too idiosyncratic for our tastes, so we looked at our various change bins and decided that this was the time to get a new television.  This is how we do it around here – we dump our spare change into jars and at least one bright orange ceramic pig, and when it all hits critical mass we buy a television.  And then we start over.  Our last three televisions have been purchased this way, though we usually take the coins over to our bank for processing beforehand.  Someday we’ll just hand over a bucket of nickels and see what the salesman says, but that day is not today.

If you’re going to buy a new television, the week before the Super Bowl is the time to do it.  Everything is on sale.  The one we got was about half price, and came highly recommended by a number of reputable review sites, none of which seemed to be making any money off of such recommendations.  It is the same size as our old one, which made it easy to site, and we’re hoping that it won’t be subject to the random fading to black that the old one featured as part of its “intensify the drama” feature.  We’re not that into drama.

The buying and the bringing home parts are actually easier than they used to be, since the new televisions are both lighter and more easily handled than the old CRT models.  I rediscovered this when I traded out the very old tv upstairs for the slightly old tv that had previously been downstairs and then had to haul the very old tv into the basement, where it will replace the supremely old tv we had when we lived in our apartment in the mid90s.  Those things are heavy, those old CRTs.

So we got it home.

I took it out of the box and spent a half hour or so reading through the startup guides and getting the base screwed on so that it would stand up nice and pretty. 

This was followed by an event I like to refer to as The Swapping Out Of The Cables.

Because your modern televisions are not simply televisions, nosirreebob.  They’re entertainment centers.  They’re integral parts of component systems, the way stereo units used to be.  Everything plugs into them by way of a bewildering maze of cables and power cords, all of which look just enough alike to be confusing but not quite alike enough to get you where you need to be.  There are HDMI cables.  There are component cables.  There are audio cables.  There is probably a trans-Atlantic cable in there somewhere that I may have inadvertently disconnected in my mad flurry of activity, so Kaiser Wilhelm?  If you’re listening?  Stay out of Belgium and stick to the original plan.  Trust me, the war will be shorter that way.

The Swapping Out Of The Cables took well over an hour.  It involved a fair amount of labeling in order to overcome the looking-like-all-the-others problem as well as the what-on-earth-does-the-other-end-of-this-connect-to issue that one gets when connecting multiple devices into a single hub.  And since no two televisions have precisely the same number or arrangement of ports for these cables, there was a certain amount of rearranging followed by a trip to the local purveyor of electronic goods, wherein I discovered that every other piece of hardware we own is antiquated and only compatible with the new television through either an intermediary device or wholesale replacement, the latter option not really having been budgeted for in the coin-saving process.  So intermediary device it was, which entailed further instruction reading and plugging in and any number of other adventures that would probably sound much better of the storyteller had access to a fine glass of whiskey and a hearty fire made from burning the various packing materials that all this came in.

Gather ‘round, kiddies!  Grandpa gonna tell yiz a story.

But eventually the previous television was sitting forlornly off to the side and the new one was proudly occupying the space it had vacated.  It was fully cabled.  The new intermediary device allowed us to have all of our devices plugged in rather than hot-patching them in as required, which is probably good.  It was time to watch some television!

And that’s when I moved onto an event I like to refer to as The Raising Of The Blood Pressure, though no doubt the engineers who devised this thing call it “set-up” or “programming” or something similarly benign to hide the sadistic and evil ways in which you have to contort your mind in order to get back to the viewing experience that you had before you started this whole process.

That’s the thing, really.  It’s a lot of work and contortion just to get back to square one.  But a more brightly and consistently lit square one, and perhaps one that will last a bit longer than the previous one did.

There has been all sorts of set-up happening here.  Gobs of it.  I have gone through more menus than a mall food court.  I have set levels for things that were bumpy and bumped up things that were level.  I have told it to scan for channels and signs of alien life and was vaguely relieved when both came back negative.  And after another hour or so, there was a picture.  And, mostly, sound (that’s still ongoing).  I did have to call the cable company to find out how to get the Universal Remote to recognize the new television (either that or rebrand the thing the Particular Remote), but with the notable exception of the Mute button that all seems to be working.

Then I took to old television upstairs and swapped it out with the very old television, as noted.  This process went through the Cable procedure and the Blood Pressure procedure, and in the end it gave us exactly what we had previously only rather bigger.  So there’s that.  If I want it to be fully realized in all its productive glory I need to go get another intermediary device – one that the good folks at the cable company plan on charging me a monthly fee to have.

And then I get to move on to Round 2 of this process.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

News and Updates

It’s been one of those weeks, as the illusion of plentiful time was cruelly and definitively shattered by the approaching semester.  Suddenly, all the things I thought I had weeks – weeks – to do had to be done yesterday or sooner.  But ain’t that just life?

1. We had our semi-annual All Day Meeting down at Home Campus this week, in part to bring us up to speed on whatever is going on around campus that has changed since August and in part to discuss the new ways in which the state government is working hard to eliminate education in Wisconsin and what the odds are that we might possibly survive in the near term.  On the plus side, there was also lunch. 

2. I think I have my classes set up now, which is good since the online class started on Monday.  The new version of the course software has turned out to be pleasantly useful and convenient despite its occasional troubles, a fact that has caused me no end of surprise and delight, and my online students are a cheerful group so far.  That goes a long way in a class where you never see anyone face to face.

3. When you are an adjunct lecturer on multiple campuses at the same time, you might want to think twice about reading a novel about a day in the life of an adjunct lecturer on multiple campuses at the same time, no matter how funny it is or how accurately it calls up images of your home town, as such novels do tend to make you question your life choices.

4. We got a new electric teakettle to replace the one that we burned out through overuse, which is the proper evolution of such things.  The new one is a far more serious machine than the previous one.  It has a brushed steel exterior instead of the cheery white plastic of the old one, and when you press on the big lever at the bottom a bright blue light turns on and the kettle sounds like a jet engine taking off.  I feel like I should be making more of an effort than I am, just to keep up appearances.

5. This week I had a friendly and entertaining conversation about the issue of guns in the US with someone who is on the other side of that debate.  It can happen.

6. As a coin collector, it is always a good day when someone crosses your palm with silver.  I am now the proud owner of a 1963 Roosevelt dime, which is probably worth about a buck and a half but is still pretty cool.

7. It’s been really, really cold here in Baja Canada, with air temperatures well below zero Fahrenheit and wind chills even further down on the scale.  But, as the Swedes like to say, there is no bad weather, only bad clothes.  We’ve dug down into our sweatshirt and corduroy supply, fired up the new teakettle, and kept ourselves toasty.

8. I discovered this week that the little red indicator on Kim’s car does not, in fact, refer to the battery even if the battery did need changing.  Despite being square and having two little buttons on top that looked very much like the contacts on a battery, the icon actually alerts you that the coolant system is failing.  So now we have a new battery and a new radiator, and eventually the car will call to mind the old joke about George Washington’s axe.

9. It’s strange how old songs just come bubbling up out of the back of your mind to haunt you for days, and how it’s so rarely the song itself that makes you stop and think but the context – when you heard it, who you were with, what you were doing.  This happens more and more as I get older, and someday I suppose I will just get lost in a fog of those songs and never find my way out. 

10. This is the season when all the book gift cards come home to roost.  It’s a pretty good season that way, whatever the weather.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bumper Sticker Angel

Some days are more surreal than others.

Every weekday I go over to Not Bad President Elementary School to pick up Lauren.  I park in my usual spot, just up the road, and I wait for the bell to ring. 

Usually I read my book while I wait – it’s one of the prime reading points in my day, where I quite literally have nothing else to do with my time, and I treasure it for that reason – but sometimes I poke my head up to see the cars going by.  A couple of times a week my Cowboys fan buddy will pause as he drives past, and we’ll talk football.  I’ve come to recognize quite a handful of other vehicles too, as the usual suspects parade by.

Recently I’ve noticed a car that has a fairly distinctive bumper sticker.  It’s one of those pink breast cancer ribbons that you see all over, only it’s just a pink outline.  And in further outlines there is a pair of wings, a head, and a halo, combining in all to form an angel.

It looks a lot like like this:

I’m guessing that the significance of this sticker is that someone has lost somebody they knew and loved to breast cancer and would like us to think about that, either as a call to action to keep similar losses from happening to others, or simply as a memorial.  I’m okay with that.  It’s kind of touching, really.  Part of me wants to take off my baseball cap as it drives by, the way you would to show respect at a funeral.

Part of me, however, looks at that bumper sticker and thinks, “Man, that angel really needs to pee.”

It makes me feel like a heel, but what can I say?  The person who came up with this particular bit of graphic design really didn’t think this one all the way through, I think, and that kind of mixed signal sort of detracts from the message of the thing, at least for me.  Surely there is a better graphic for this purpose than that.

But you can’t really go up and say anything to the people in the car – “Did you know that your angel looks like she’s three large coffees into an all-day road trip?” – because they’ll think you’re not taking their cause seriously enough or, worse, actively being a jerk about someone they loved. 

So I sit there as it drives past, wondering idly about the flaws in the design process that allowed that particular image to go unchecked, and the flaws in my thinking process that allow that design to impinge on my consciousness in precisely that manner, and the days pass slowly by.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Deflooberating the Jujingas

So apparently the new update to the online course software that we use down at Home Campus has a few glitches.

Who knew?

At the moment the glitches appear small from my angle – mostly the fact that things that appear in one order in one place on your course site appear in a very different order in another place on the site despite the fact that the latter place is supposed to dictate the order of things at the former place.  This can be problematic when you are trying to direct students to a specific item.  Or at least it could be if you assume that students actually pay attention to such things.  Most of them do, though not all.  And for that latter group, well, the transition is probably just as seamless as they could have hoped.

All this is for the section I’m teaching on someone else’s course design.  I haven’t even begun to set up the website for my own class, which I will have to do from scratch.

Every year this happens. 

I finally get the hang of whatever changes and improvements were made the previous year – a process that generally involves several weeks, a fair quantity of whiskey, and the full tapestry of profanity that I learned from my grandmother, an artist in the field.  I suppose in that way I am simply passing down the family craft, and for such opportunities the historian in me ought to be grateful.  And with sufficient whiskey, perhaps I could be.

Having gotten the hang of it all, cleaned up my language and put away my whiskey, I spend the next semester or two bludgeoning my way through the system.  I may not be able to do things in the most efficient or effective way, but I can create a course page that satisfies my demands and makes at least some sense to my students – enough that they generally can figure it out after a few classes.  Things are going well.

And then the engineers decide to optimize things.

“Just think!” they crow.  “If we deflooberate the jujingas and kahoomerize the flotwhilers, we can add all these cool new features that nobody has ever asked for but might one day!”

So they do.

Meanwhile all the features that were already being used get scrambled, because once you’ve deflooberated the jujingas you cannot possibly expect the flotwhilers to run as they used to run, especially after they’ve gone through the kahoomerization process.  And don’t even get me started on the zulwoo modules.  Your zulwoo modules, you know, they’re pretty sensitive things, and tweaking the jujingas in any way is enough to make them just give up and collapse into quivering little balls of semi-random code.  If you do it just right, you can turn them into a pizza-ordering app, which is a feature I would definitely use.

So now I have this new system all full of TEH SHINY that doesn’t quite work, and classes start in mere days.

Pass me my whiskey, cover your ears, and step back.

Monday, January 13, 2014

All The Little Fishies

Grammy’s car comes with bun warmers.

My parents traded in their two older cars this fall and got one new car with all sorts of space-age extra features.  There’s more computing power on the dashboard of this car than it took to get to the moon (which, granted, isn’t saying a whole lot, since – according to any number of grouchy editorial columnists who don’t hold with all this spending money on educational technology – the entire moon exploration program was calculated by engineers using an abacus, a #3 pencil, and a Big Chief notebook and that ought to be good enough for your children too), it has a heads-up display as if you were in a dogfight in the skies over Baghdad, and so on.  But the heated seats were the things that genuinely impressed those of us who had just driven in from Wisconsin, particularly as the weather got colder every day we were there.

She let us borrow the car while we were visiting, and we took it across the Delaware River to Camden.

Stop laughing!  Camden is more than just a run-down collection of punch lines these days!  It also has an aquarium.

We like the aquarium.

We got there in the early afternoon, shortly after we should have had lunch.  Fortunately, right as you park your car there is a little food cart staffed by a guy in a floppy hot-dog-shaped hat and bearing a sign with the astounding – and quite accurate, it turns out – claim that his food is cheaper than what you will find inside the aquarium.  So we stopped and purchased several soft pretzels shaped like braids and as long as a Roman sword, as well as a few hot dogs for the non-pretzel-eating set.  And having properly doused the pretzels in mustard, the way God and Nature intended them to be eaten, we set off toward the aquarium proper.

It was a cousin-intensive field trip, with Josh and Sara joining us first, followed by Matthew and Aaron, along with everyone’s respective parents (and, in Rolane’s case, at least one grandparent).  It is amazing, as a parent, how often you get reduced to being simply an adjunct – a means of transportation – and how little that bothers you.

If you’ve never been to the Camden Aquarium, well, you should go.  There are a lot of things swimming about in vast acrylic-enclosed bodies of water that you can walk right up to and be fascinated by.

Some of which are not, strictly speaking, aquatic.  Although given current climate trends and the fragility of the Arctic ecosystem, perhaps that is only a matter of time.

Plus there are any number of wide, shallow pools where they let you try to touch the critters swimming around inside.

We spent a happy afternoon there, communing with the fish (and, for a while, with the two hippos that lumber around one of the bigger enclosures).  It was crowded, as you would expect such a place to be during the holidays when school is not in session, but there were all sorts of little nooks where you could get away from it all.

Every once in a while it is a good thing to go see some of the other creatures that inhabit this globe with us, just to remind yourself that there are such things.  It provides a bit of perspective that otherwise tends to get lost.

And there’s always the chance you can score a soft pretzel as big as a Roman sword along the way.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ten Positive Things About Having Thinning Hair

1. Dries almost instantly after showering.

2. Caps fit more snugly – important in winter!

3. No longer assumed by others to be student when walking around on campus.

4. Still have time to develop strategy for avoiding dreaded “Reflecto-Ray of Death” problem.

5. No time to comb?  No problem!

6. Static-electricity Mad Scientist Effect possible with far less voltage.

7. Quarterly shampoo purchases.

8. Constantly mistaken for someone far more dignified.

9. Trips to barbershop can be squeezed into commercial breaks and halftimes.

10. Abundant career opportunities as Ben Franklin impersonator if the teaching thing doesn't work out.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Books Read in 2013, Part IV

And now, the thrilling conclusion.


Tiger’s Curse (Colleen Houck)

Kelsey Hayes is a teenager living with a foster family after the death of her parents.  When she takes a temporary job with a local circus her world quickly becomes immensely complicated because the tiger she is caring for is actually a centuries-old prince from India, under a dark and sinister curse.  Ren can turn back into a man for six minutes a day, and he has a minder of his own – Mr. Kadam, an elegant man as old as Ren himself, who nevertheless remains a man.  Eventually the whole plot shifts to India where Kelsey, Ren and Mr. Kadam set out on a quest to overturn the curse and restore Ren to his manhood.  This is complicated by two things, neither of which is the curse.  First, there is Ren’s brother, Kishan, whose relationship with Ren is rather tense.  And second – as you would expect in this YA novel – the strictly chaste romantic relationship between Kelsey and Ren that also gets rather tense.  Lauren and I read this as a bedtime story and it was actually quite pleasant up until the last quarter of it, at which point Kelsey’s rampant insecurities and overthinking took over the narrative and made us both want to slap her with a dead fish, tell her not to be such an idiot, and just kiss Ren and be happy for a change.  This sort of crisis probably speaks to its target audience of 14-year-old girls, but neither Lauren nor I were all that anxious to move on to volume two of what is probably a four-book series.

The Apocalypse Codex (Charles Stross)

Bob Howard is a computational demonologist working for the Laundry – the top-secret black-op agency of Her Majesty’s Government in charge of protecting the realm (and by extension the rest of us) from the sorts of Lovecraftian alien intelligences that hunger across the dimensions.  In this installment of the Laundry Files (I still think Stross missed an opportunity by not calling it the Laundry Cycle), Bob finds himself tasked with overseeing two external contractors as they try to infiltrate an American evangelical megachurch that is more sinister than it appears.  It’s a rollicking story, as most of these volumes are – full of action, dry British humor, and interesting mash-up sections where the world of James Bond meets that of Edgar Cayce.  Stross clearly finds the kind of extreme fundamentalist Christianity so popular in the US to be distasteful at best and reprehensible at worst – the novel pulls no punches in this regard, and the deeds of this particular magic-infested church are only very thinly disguised from the sorts of things those churches do anyway – and the action can get a bit confusing if you haven’t read the other volumes in the series recently, but as with all of the Laundry books it is well worth the effort.

Metatropolis (John Scalzi, ed.)

This is actually an interlocked set of five short stories by fairly recognizable SF/F authors (Jay Lake, Tobias S. Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder, and Scalzi as well) centered on the theme of future cities, though with the usual dystopian angle of stories on this theme played down somewhat.  They share a world in which resources are scarce, sovereign nations have lost the battle for power against multinational corporations, and law and order is a private, fleeting thing.  These stories range from an exploration of what happens when chaos – in the form of a person – comes to an environmentally-conscious off-the-grid city, to stories of grim determination in the remains of current cities, to a fascinating if not all that comprehensible look at virtual cities overlaid on top of not only real cities but each other as well.  They’re all well done and the fit together in a fractal sort of way, though one wishes for a longer-form look at this world   Perhaps someday.

Halting State (Charles Stross)

It takes a clever writer to pull off a novel in the second person from three different points of view, but Stross manages to achieve that here.  It’s sometime in the near future, not too long from now.  Scotland is independent, police officers are recording their actions and posting them to CopSpace – a digital world where they can share information – and immersive role-playing games whose sophistication dwarfs anything like those now are the cutting edge of the new digital age.  When a virtual bank is robbed inside one of those games, the consequences quickly become very real – one suspects, in fact, that Neal Stephenson had this book in front of him when he conceived the basic framework of REAMDE, which takes a very similar idea in a very different direction.  DSS Sue Smith of the Edinburgh police force, forensic accountant Elaine Barnaby, and programmer Jack Reed all get caught up in the aftermath of this crime – a swirling morass of espionage, theft, deception, terrorism, and slowly-building paranoia where new vistas of trouble open up pretty much every time you think things have settled down.  It’s a generally well-written story – the pleasure of the novel mostly makes up for the abrupt and rather too tidy ending – and I think I shall have to pursue the rest of Stross’ output sometime soon.

The Science of the Discworld IV: Judgement Day (Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen)

Like the other volumes in this series, this is a popular science book framed by a slight Discworld story in alternating chapters.  The Discworld chapters are short and, for all practical purposes, expendable – bait, in a sense, to lure people into reading the science chapters.  Those are long, complicated, and very well done.  In this book the science chapters focus on cosmological issues – the size, shape and nature of the universe itself – and they are some fairly high-order stuff.  Stewart and Cohen do not cut the reader much slack, though their explanations are clear and comprehensible.  The central conceit of these chapters in Judgement Day [sic – this is a British book, with spelling and measurement units to match] is the distinction between human-centered thinking (mythology, most people’s everyday life, and religion) and universe-centered thinking (science).  It’s an interesting division and they apply it very well to a number of issues, though the last chapter devolves into a full-fledged polemic in favor of atheism that I found unnecessary for their larger point.  As for the framing Discworld story, it concerns a legal struggle between the wizards at Unseen University (the closest thing on Discworld to scientists) and the priesthood of the Church of Latter-Day Omnians (a thuggishly fundamentalist church obviously meant to stand for religious zealots and extremists everywhere) for the rights to own the Roundworld (our universe).  It is consistent with the general theme of the book that the authors have the Omnians refuse to change their minds even when their own god Om comes down from the heavens in manifest glory and tells them they are wrong.

The Savage Humanists (Fiona Kelleghan, ed.)

I don’t normally read short story collections, in large part because I’ve always felt that it is harder to write a good short story than it is to write a good novel and I get tired of being disappointed.  Very few writers can pack a decent tale into something less than thirty pages long.  Most often you get a piece of a story – a snippet that hints at a larger tale that you’re not getting.  Or you get something that covers an entire plot but without much of the connecting tissue that makes it more than just a summary.  This collection also suffers from the handicap of an introduction by the editor, a manifesto that is nearly seventy pages long – more than 20% of the entire volume – and which could easily have been cut by three-quarters without sacrificing anything of note.  That said, there were several high-quality authors in this collection and a few stories worth reading.  Topping that list was Gregory Frost’s “Madonna of the Maquiladora,” a powerful and angry look at how economic injustice and political repression find an ally in quietist religion.  Robert J. Sawyer’s “Flashes” was an interesting meditation on what happens when all of life’s questions get answered and yet life goes on anyway, and James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like A Dinosaur” explored the moral question of what exactly constitutes a murder in a society that can duplicate individuals perfectly.  Many of the other tales, though, were just snippets or outlines, suggestive rather than satisfying.  Kelleghan chose these authors and stories to make a cultural – and, in modern America, inevitably political – point.  They are all, she said, devotees of reason over faith, humanism over dogma, and Enlightenment vitriol over comforting bromides.  It’s an interesting collection.

The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum)

When Dorothy arrives in the land of Oz from Kansas, her one wish is to go back home.  But before she can do that she must first befriend the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion, and defeat the Wicked Witch of the West.  All that is well known from the 1939 movie, but the book is different.  There is no setup prior to the cyclone – no farmhands, no professor, no Elvira Gulch.  The shoes are silver, not ruby.  And once the Wizard sails off in the balloon Dorothy and her friends have still another adventure – to the South, where the Quadlings are ruled by Glinda, the good witch of the South (not the North).  There she finally gets to click her heels and go home, but this engaging YA story is sufficiently different from the movie that it reads somehow fresh.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (Gregory Maguire)

A much more complex and nuanced look at Oz than either Baum’s original or the popular musical based on Maguire’s book, this is the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West became who she was, told from her point of view.  It is, in essence, the story of a failed revolutionary – an outcast in a society that treats outcasts harshly, a cog in a larger movement aimed at justice, a lost soul (though she would question whether she had one) once that movement fails, a woman whose struggles to understand herself and to make her world better as she defines better are in some sense doomed from the start.  Where the original is a fairy tale and the musical is about the stories that exist behind the stories we tell, this book is a long and at times profound meditation on the nature of good and evil.  It starts with the birth of Elphaba – a strange green child ill-suited for her world or her family (a pious but hapless minister for a father, a sensuous mother of minor nobility now falling apart under the weight of poverty).  It follows her to the university at Shiz, where she meets shallow Galinda and falls under the intellectual spell of Doctor Dillamond, a sentient goat whose research promises to upend the Wizard’s cruelties.  It takes her to the Vinkus, the isolated and impoverished western section of Oz, where she falls in with the widow of her lover.  It takes her to meet the Wizard, an interloper from another world and a man so far removed from concerns of truth or morality that he has attained an odd sort of serenity.  Eventually Dorothy arrives and while the events themselves follow along Baum’s pattern, more or less, the motives and reasoning behind them are all different.  Perspective is everything, and by shifting the story to that of the Wicked Witch of the West and fleshing out her reasons and her life – by naming her and seeking to understand her – Maguire provides a fascinating new way to think about a very old story.

Son of a Witch (Gregory Maguire)

Not long after Wicked ends, Maguire picks up the story of Oz by focusing on Liir, the “son of a witch” referenced in the title, who had been a small boy in Elphaba’s household in the Vinkus when she died.  The story follows two separate but converging storylines for most of the book.  The first is the story of a broken and severely injured young man, comatose and lying in a mauntery (the convents of the Unnamed God in Oz), being nursed slowly back to health by a young maunt named Candle.  The second is the story of how Liir got that way, starting with where his life picked up after Elphaba’s death and continuing through his ill-fated service as a soldier of the Emperor and a messanger of the Birds.  After the storylines meet there is an interlude with Candle, a return to the Emerald City, and a quest for some kind of justice and redemption.  Liir is a grade-A mope – passive, lacking confidence, and probably diagnosably depressed – and only slowly and partially does he overcome this.  Along the way Maguire continues his melancholy exploration of the good and evil that people do to one another and to the world around them, never straying far from the bittersweet or the ruefully humorous.  In some ways this is a tone poem more than a book, but it is a well-written and carefully plotted one at that.

A Lion Among Men (Gregory Maguire)

In this third installment of Maguire’s Oz books, the character who looms largest over the story never appears.  It is nearly a decade after Liir’s disappearance, and the Cowardly Lion – a dandy, a spy, a failure at almost everything he attempts – sits at the Mauntery of St. Glinda interviewing Yackle, a woman born as a crone and who cannot seem to die no matter how much she wills it.  Most of the book is told in flashback form, as Yackle and the Lion reveal their stories over the course of a couple of days and as the armies of Oz and Munchkinland draw ever closer.  Into this comes the Clockwork Dragon, the Grimmerie, a character long presumed lost, and a new direction based on old wounds and stories, but all of it revolves around the missing Liir, the hole in the donut of this story – what happened to him, where he has gone, and how the characters (including the long-vanished Elphaba) pinball off of him.  As with Son of a Witch this is more of a tone poem than a straight-forward novel, a portrait in somber hues of lives twisted and toyed with by forces outside of their control and yet grimly hopeful.

Out of Oz (Gregory Maguire)

In this concluding volume of his alternate version of Oz, Maguire departs from the more contemplative and reflective tone of the previous two books and returns to the plot-driven action of Wicked.  The story opens with Rain – Candle and Liir’s daughter, Elphaba’s granddaughter – being raised by Glinda at a time when the armies of Oz, in the person of General Cherrystone, have come to take over Glinda’s house.  When push comes to shove Rain ends up on the road and eventually she runs into all of the familiar characters from earlier: Candle, Liir, Nor, the Cowardly Lion, the Clock of the Time Dragon, Mr. Boss, Little Daffy (formerly Sister Apothecaire), and so on.  At Shiz Rain meets a young boy named Tip who joins up with them.  Dorothy also returns, dropped into Oz by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  Adventures are had, observations on the human condition are made, and the story hums right along.  Maguire spends the book wrapping up loose ends in a manner that is both fast-paced and somehow quietly still, with the war between Loyal Oz and the Free State of Munchkinland being the backdrop to it all.  Everything gets resolved, more or less – including issues that have permeated throughout the series – though perhaps not as those involved either wanted or could have foreseen, and Maguire ends the story on a rather ambiguous note that manages to stay fully in character.  It’s a worthwhile ending to a fascinating series.

Un Lun Dun (China Mieville)

After I read this last year I squirreled it away in my mind as a good candidate for bedtime reading with Lauren, and this year we read it together.  It’s the story of Zanna and Deeba, two young girls in London who fall through to the UnLondon of the title – a parallel city under attack by the Smog.  Zanna is the Shwazzy – the Chosen One (translate it into French and then run it back through a working-class London accent) – but when things go wrong it falls to Deeba (“the UnChosen One”) to set things to rights.  It’s a fascinating story of friendship and pluck, and of what happens when the prophecies are wrong and you have to do things anyway.  Deeba turns out to have a fair bit of gumption to her that surprises both her friends and herself.  Mieville fills this YA story with all sorts of oddness and Other, as well as a few small jokes for the adults (in UnLondon there is an old folktale about how the Smog’s attack on London in the mid-20th century was foiled by a magic weapon known as “the Klinneract,” which makes more sense if you say it slowly out loud), and the book held up well to a second reading.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage (Bill Bryson)

William Shakespeare is both the most famous of all English authors and one of the least known, as even the most basic facts about his life are often shrouded in mystery.  Into this yawning abyss of knowledge steps Bill Bryson, who cheerfully runs through the highlights of what is known about the life of Shakespeare while equally cheerfully examining the gaps in that knowledge – not filling them, particularly, just examining them and pointing out the foolhardiness of those who would speculate overmuch on what went on in those gaps.  Along the way he breezily covers much of the broad social milieu of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, situating Shakespeare nicely into his times.  In the final chapter that is worth the whole book, Bryson takes on the cottage industry of the Shakespeare Deniers and pokes holes in the various claims that Shakespeare could not have actually written Shakespeare.  It’s a short book – less than 200 pages – and Bryson’s brightly readable prose provides an entertaining and informative introduction to this most enigmatic of authors.

Intelligence in War (John Keegan)

Warfare is a physical thing.  It pits one side against another in a struggle for dominance that can only be decided by blows.  Given that starting point, what role is there for intelligence to play?  How much does information – whether taken from the enemy by spies and signals analysis, or distributed to your own side through whatever means – determine the outcome of individual battles or entire wars?  The answer, says Keegan, is not very much.  It can shorten battles or avoid them.  It can allow forces to position themselves away from pursuit or in the face of it.  It can give to one side or the other a small advantage.  But using examples ranging from Nelson’s pursuit of the Napoleonic fleet to JEB Stuart’s Shanendoah Valley campaign to both of the World Wars and beyond, Keegan’s point is depressingly consistent: intelligence can help or hurt, but not decisively.  What matters is the fight once joined.  It’s not a bad book, really, if you discount the fact that the maps that accompany each chapter are basically useless (which may have been some kind of sly commentary on his part, now that I think about it), but it is not a very rewarding book either.

Zero History (William Gibson)

Imagine if John LeCarre wrote for Vogue magazine and you've pretty much got the setup for this spy thriller - it's an action-packed, high-tech drama centered around, well, not much.  Fashion.  Military contracts for uniforms.  Things like that.  It's also not an easy book to read at first - Gibson simply drops you into the story without bothering with the kind exposition that fills in who the characters are or why they are doing what they're doing, and you spend most of the book with the nagging feeling that this is a sequel to something else - but as the story gets rolling it pulls you in and you find yourself caring about the characters.  Bigend is a shadowy figure, a man in charge with fingers in every pie, and he wants the name of a designer of legendarily secret clothes.  Hollis has worked for him before and she wants no part of him again, but gets drawn in.  Milgrim - a former addict and now something of a bemused simpleton with flashes of his sharp old self - works for Bigend as well.  There are a lot of odd names (Bigend, Inchmale, Sleight) and some strange militaristic twists, but it is a fun book and, much to my surprise, one that held my interest.  If you can make it through the first seventy-five pages or so with any sense of what's going on, it rewards you well.

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (Carlo M. Cipolla)

The history of this little book (only 71 post-card-sized pages, many of which are either blank or devoted to simple graphs) is almost as interesting as the book itself.  Originally written by the PhD economist author back in the 70s and circulated in hand-written copies among his friends, eventually this bit of samizdat literature became a real book.  His position is fairly simple - stupid people are everywhere, in constant proportion, and they will destroy society.  In five basic laws and an assortment of graphs, you get an academic description of just how.  It's oddly compelling and a lot of fun to read.

Stand-in Superstar (Nat Gertler)

Self-published books are always works in progress, and this novella is no exception.  It could have used a bit more copy-editing and perhaps another draft or two to iron out some of the rough spots and flesh out some of the bare spots – really, this seems at times a precis of a much longer book that would function better with the additional material.  But the general story is interesting, and the writing is fun to read and really, what more can you ask of a story?  Andy is a waiter in Hollywood, and unlike every other waiter in Hollywood he isn't just doing it until his big acting break comes through.  He likes being a waiter.  But he's generally on hold, not really living much of a life.  Through a series of events that can charitably be described as improbable, he ends up being hired by a major Hollywood movie star to be his stand-in - not in films, but in real life.  Julius Morton is a good guy and is tired of reading all the lies about his supposedly wild and debauched life in the tabloids, so Andy is there to live that life for him.  With an odd sidebar plot about two losers trying to frame Andy for drug possession to escape from a bad debt to a worse person, that's pretty much the book.  Andy will of course learn lessons, and even find what might well be love.  Fortunately, Gertler keeps his characters and his stories honest – there are no magic epiphanies, and for as weird as things get they stay fairly grounded.  I would be interested to see this expanded and polished in a future version.

Hyperbole and a Half  (Allie Brosh) 

I first encountered Brosh’s work on her website of the same name, and it made me laugh out loud for days.  This collection of her long-form story-and-comic-art tales didn’t have my favorite (“The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas”) but it still made me laugh and think.  Brosh has a sharp eye for a story and her deceptively simple drawings complement those stories better than you’d think on first glance.  If you haven’t discovered Brosh, you need to do so quickly.

Paradise News (David Lodge)

Bernard Walsh is another sad sack British academic in the tradition of Lodge’s Philip Swallow character.  An Irishman, a bachelor, and a failed priest, he is teaching a theology he no longer believes to students at another of the colleges in Lodge’s fictional English university town of Rummidge when his long-estranged aunt Ursula contacts him from Hawaii to say she is dying of cancer and would like to see him and his father.  What follows is part “fish out of water” comedy, as Bernard and his father adjust to a society that is about as different from England as it is possible to get, part family tragedy, as Ursula’s story spins itself out both forward and backward in time, and part romance, as Bernard gradually falls in love with a woman his father quite literally runs into.  Throw in Bernard’s sister Tess and a bleakly eccentric cast of fellow travelers on holiday with him, and events unfold from there.  It is a story of love and forgiveness, of finding faith in the everyday events of this world rather than in the hopes of the next, and if it wraps up as neatly as most of Lodge’s books seem to do at least Lodge keeps his characters and his situations honest.  Not many authors can write about love in the hopefully regretful sort of way that he does.


Total books: 82
Total pages: 30,477
Pages per day: 83.5

Happy reading!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Books Read in 2013, Part III

Part next…


While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction (Kurt Vonnegut)

This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – a collection of early short stories written when Vonnegut was still honing his craft by churning out works for the magazine trade.  If you like Vonnegut’s writing (and I do), you will like this collection, though it is definitely geared for those already fans rather than those new to Vonnegut.  All of the stories are well done.  None stand out particularly.  Probably the most interesting snippet I got out of the book was from Dave Eggers’ introduction.  Most modern short stories, Eggers writes, owe their structure to photography.  What they portray is realistic, and the artistry lies in how that reality is framed.  These stories, on the other hand, come from an older tradition that Eggers labels “mousetrap stories” – stories where all of the details, from the characters to the setting to the plot, are carefully artificial and lined up just so in order for the final bit to snap shut on the reader with a satisfying jolt.  That is a useful distinction to know.

This I Believe (II): The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (Jay Allison and Dan Gediman, eds.)

In 2005, National Public Radio launched a project to have people submit short (350-500 word) essays outlining one core belief that they held.  The result was an astounding outpouring of essays – thousands of them – some of which were printed in this second collection.  You can’t read this without marveling at the depth and complexity of ordinary people – some of the contributors are people you may have heard of, but most are not – and the willingness they have to share that with others.  Cynicism has no place here, and once in a while that is a welcome respite.

The Vintage Caper (Peter Mayle)

On the surface, this is a straightforward and rather light whodunnit mystery.  The plot is fairly simple.  Danny Roth – Hollywood entertainment lawyer and Generally Unpleasant Person – owns a serious wine collection, and early in the book it is stolen.  Eventually the job of tracking it down falls to Sam Levitt – former ne’er-do-well turned investigator and also a trained wine connoisseur – who travels to France to unravel the case.  It is a one-level plot, with no undue complications or terribly surprising subplots – everything works, everyone ends up happy, more or less.  But the main point of the book isn’t really the plot.  The plot is simply an excuse to have Peter Mayle – author of A Year in Provence – revisit his old stomping grounds and describe in great and lascivious detail all the wines and food consumed by his characters.  It’s a pleasantly undemanding story that way.

Iron Sunrise (Charles Stross)

Early in this book, the planet Moscow (named for the town in Idaho, not the one in Russia – one of the many odd little details that pepper this book) is destroyed in a deliberate act of war, an act that Stross chronicles in loving scientific detail.  This sets off a breathless interstellar diplomatic whodunnit as a survivor nicknamed Wednesday, a journalist nicknamed Frank the Nose, and a UN diplomat named Rachel (no nickname given) frantically try to avert the revenge of the dead planet on a blameless nearby planet, even as another group known as the ReMastered (with all of the Nazi overtones fully intended) push to make it happen.  Stross is a very good writer who keeps the plot together even as it hurtles from one crisis to the next, and he wraps things up on a suitably ambiguous note should he ever want to revisit this universe.  Apparently this is a sequel to an earlier book, which I suppose I should read now.  Also, the wonderful thing about buying second-hand books is that you get to read all the lists and reminders that people scrawl into the margins.  Whoever owned this book before me led a busy life.

The World of the End (Ofir Touche Gafla, translated from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg)

Ben Mendelssohn writes endings for a living, fixing what other writers can’t do well, but when his wife Marian dies unexpectedly he finds himself with an ending he cannot handle and, like many a bereaved spouse, he commits suicide in order to be with her.  The afterlife turns out to be rather different from what Ben was expecting, however – bureaucratic, secular, comfortable in the mindless style of a cruise vacation, and utterly devoid of Marian.  Gafla’s story quickly becomes, by turns, a detective novel, a pointed and many-layered commentary on relationships and humanity, a meditation on the interactions between the living and the dead, and a heartbreaking tale of irreplaceable loss.  It is a complicated and thought-provoking story well worth the time it takes to figure out some of the more obscure passages.

Dodger (Terry Pratchett)

Dodger is a young man living in an only slightly fictionalized mid-19th-century London, a tosher by trade – one of the abjectly poor who survives by scouring the underground sewers for lost coins and other valuables – and a determinedly optimistic and good-hearted soul.  Early in the book he rescues a young woman from a vicious assault, and from there the story spirals out.  In the process of trying to keep the young woman – whose actual name is never revealed – safe from her pursuers, Dodger will meet any number of rather famous Londoners (Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Sir Robert Peel, etc.), become an unwitting hero several times over, and slowly ascend from the sewers to a more secure sort of life.  This is a book full of bright hopes never dashed, of calm wisdom dispensed with good will (much of it from Dodger’s landlord/friend Solomon, perhaps the most interesting character in the book), and happy if not predictable endings. 

Between the Bridge and the River (Craig Ferguson)

A picaresque is a story whose energy comes from putting the main characters through a string of loosely related adventures rather than a single coherent plot, and this book definitely qualifies.  There are a number of main characters – Saul and his brother Leon, George and his childhood friend Fraser – and a number of strong minor characters, and they all get mixed up in various ways, some related and some not.  It’s a book filled with copious amounts of sex, religion, and surreal details (the ghost of Carl Jung comes up repeatedly), and there are times when it seems that the main reason Ferguson wrote it was to put into one central location all of the little bits of things that were cruising through his head.  Every character, no matter how minor, gets introduced with a capsule biography (often extending into the future beyond the book), for example.  But it’s a fun ride.  Ferguson is an engaging writer not afraid to take on both joy and sadness in a single moment, and his main theme in this – “help each other” – makes an easy hook for an entertaining book.

Sharps (KJ Parker)

Scheria and Permia were ruinously at war for decades before a fragile peace took hold.  Now, in what is billed as a goodwill tour to a fencing-mad nation, four of Scheria’s best fencers are blackmailed into becoming a team.  They are joined by a similarly involuntary manager and a political minder, and sent by coach toward the Permian border.  Given that set-up, Parker’s typically grim story really can go nowhere positive.  None of Parker’s stories do – the pleasure is in the writing and in finding out just exactly how things are going to go wrong.  And go wrong they do.  Parker creates a rich, textured and believable world and fills it with fully-realized characters.  The ending is a bit thin compared to Parker’s other books, but even at that it is an excellent read.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
(J. Maarten Troost)

Maarten Troost and his girlfriend Sylvia were young, broke and frustrated living in Washington DC in the 1990s, and when Sylvia got a job working for a nonprofit agency on the island of Tarawa they jumped at the chance for adventure in the Pacific.  But Tarawa – the largest of the islands that together make up Kiribati (pronounced “Kee-ree-bas”), the former Gilbert Islands – is a miserable place, full of poverty and sickness and lacking in electricity and plumbing.  This is the story of the three years they spent there, slowly growing accustomed to the natives and their lifestyle.  Troost is an entertaining writer – there are parts of this that are howlingly funny, particularly when he goes off on one of his tirades against Air Kiribati, the world’s least reliable airline – and this makes this “fish out of water” story more interesting than most in the genre.

The Last Dragonslayer (Jasper Fforde)

Once more, as a bedtime story.  I like reading stories to my daughters, especially stories that are well written and feature strong female lead characters.

Give War a Chance (PJ O’Rourke)

Nothing ages quite as quickly as political humor, and this collection of essays from the early 1990s stands as proof positive of this.  O’Rourke made his name as the party-boy’s conservative, gleefully skewering the foibles of the liberals of the 1980s, and all that is on display here.  But the facile stereotypes and the constant juvenile name-calling wear thin very quickly, the sheer pettiness of these essays – particularly compared to the paranoia and outright bile of the modern American right wing – makes them hard to take seriously, and about a third of the way through this collection I decided that I didn’t have to this to myself, so I put it down.

Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbor One Siren at a Time (Michael Perry)

Michael Perry is a First Responder – a volunteer firefighter and about a half notch below an EMT – in New Auburn, Wisconsin.  He’s also a writer who has moved back to the town of his childhood after more than a decade away.  These two things combine into one of the best books on what it means to respond to distress calls that I have ever read.  Perry does not glory in the action – few people do, and as he points out most of those who do tend to drift off fairly quickly after they discover how much grunt work is involved.  Instead his focus is on the community he serves and how being such a volunteer enmeshes you in that community.  It is a book populated by memorable characters, haunted by ghosts, enlivened by the kinds of shenanigans that you get used to in volunteer firefighting, and sobered by the things you see in that line of work.  There are parts that are laugh-out-loud funny, and other parts that are utterly heartbreaking.  I spent five years as a volunteer firefighter – all of them deeply unheroic and mostly filled with the mundane tasks that had to be done to be ready for the action when it did come (they also serve who stand and roll hose, after all) – and this captures that time incredibly well. 

Kushiel’s Dart (Jacqueline Carey)

Phedre no Delauney is one of the more compelling characters in modern fantasy, and the world that Carey creates around her is no less fascinating.  Terre d’Ange – roughly where modern France would be – is quite literally the Land of the Angels, the place where the Blessed Elua, born of Mother Earth and the blood of Jesus, roamed with his angelic companions.  The key precept of Elua’s worship is simple: “Love as thou wilt.”  On this Carey builds a version of seventeenth-century France, full of courtesans and nobles, Gypsies and war, but with largely medieval technology (there is no gunpowder, for example).  Terre d’Ange is home to the Tsingani (more or less Gypsies) and surrounded by Skaldia to the east (with its Germanic/Scandinavian warrior culture, circa 1000CE), Caerdicca Unitas (more or less Renaissance Italy), Alba (Celtic Britain), and other more far off lands.  Into this comes Phedre, a divinely appointed masochist and a prostitute (a sacred calling in Terre d’Ange, given the precept of Elua), trained in the arts of diplomacy and scholarship, all of which she will need as she is sent scrambling through this world with her appointed bodyguard, Joscelin Verreuil and her Tsingano friend Hyacinthe.  Carey is clearly fascinated by both sex – there’s a lot of it in here, most of it quite involved, some described in rather lengthy detail and some left implied – and the tangled political intrigues of dynasties and aristocracies, and when combined with a writing style that can only be described as “lush,” it makes for a good story.  This is not a series for everyone but for those willing to ride along it is a grand time.

Kushiel’s Chosen (Jacqueline Carey)

The second installment in this series finds Phedre venturing even further afield than she did in Kushiel’s Dart.  Now comfortably settled after the events of the previous year, Phedre gradually becomes aware of the continued threat to Terre d’Ange posed by her former patron, Melisande Shahrizai.  In pursuit of this threat, Phedre and her companions will venture to La Serenissima (a version of Renaissance Venice), where things will get complicated, and thence to Illyria (roughly the Ottoman Balkans, or perhaps earlier) and Kriti (Minoan Crete), where they will get more complicated still.  She will meet priests and warriors, kings and peasants.  She will fall in with pirates.  She will find imprisonment and release.  She will get to know the Yeshuites (this world’s Christians, a minority sect modeled on the Orthodox Jews of our world).  And she will encounter both faith and betrayal in places unlooked for.  Carey continues to walk the fine line between lush and purple prose, and Phedre continues to be both diplomat and courtesan.  It’s a compelling tale.

Kushiel’s Avatar (Jacqueline Carey)

This concluding volume of Carey’s initial Terre d’Ange trilogy (there are three of these trilogies) takes place a decade after the events of the first two books, as the various loose ends of those novels come up for resolution.  Tying them up will take Phedre even further from home than ever before – to the Menekhetan city of Iskandria (roughly Egyptian Cairo during the Ptolemaic period), the realm of Khebbel-im-Akkad (medieval Persia), Jebe-Barkal and its capital city of Meroe in east-central Africa, and from there to the land of the lost tribe of Israel, which is even further into Africa.  Along the way Phedre and Joscelin will have to rescue Melisande’s lost son Imriel (with all of the dynastic and political consequences attendant upon that) and find the Name of God – a necessary precondition to resolving the fate of Hyacinthe (left hanging since Kushiel’s Dart).  This is a sprawling, complicated tale, written in the narrow space between baroque and overwrought, and whose deep world-building and interesting characterization is just barely enough to overcome the gratuitous cruelty of the middle third of the book.  Again, not a series for everyone, but worth the trouble in the end.

Kushiel’s Scion (Jacqueline Carey)

With this volume Carey’s world turns into a multi-generational saga.  Imriel, son of Melisande and foster son of Phedre, is now the narrator of events.  The first time I tried to read this that fact irritated me and I stopped about a quarter of the way into the book – Phedre is one of the more interesting lead characters I’ve run across, and I was sorry to see her relegated to a background role.  But that now makes more sense, as there is only so much adventure one can pile onto a given character before they become mere caricature.  So this is Imriel’s story, and Phedre stands behind him as a shadow, patron, and guide.  On the one hand, this makes the story rather different.  Imriel is neither a courtesan nor the chosen of Kushiel, which means that the sex has been toned down a bit and more space given over to the political intrigue that Carey so dearly loves.  On the other hand this story is clearly a continuation of the earlier trilogy rather than a new story, and events from earlier books are both immediately relevant and constantly referenced – unless you are familiar with the first trilogy you’re not going to get much out of this one.  Imriel is in his teens when the book opens, happy with his adopted family and still a bit out of place among the nobility of the realm.  The early part of the book is mostly about his tempestuous quest to come to grips with himself, a process only partially successful and fraught with much agitation.  Eventually he reaches his majority and sets off for Tiberium (this world’s version of Rome, a much poorer and more diminished place in keeping with the general sense of Caerdicca Unitas as roughly Renaissance Italy) to lose himself abroad and perhaps find himself as a scholar.  There he finds friendship and loyalty, intrigue, war, maturity, self-knowledge, and – yes – a fair amount of sex.  He will also begin to plumb what it means to be Melisande Shahrizai’s son, which sets us up for the next book.  Carey’s writing has matured a bit here and is not quite so breathless, but her world-building remains captivating.

Kushiel’s Justice (Jacqueline Carey)

Imriel no Montreve de la Courcel, third in line for the throne of a nation whose sole religious precept is “Love as thou wilt,” has somehow managed to find forbidden love.  He has promised to wed Dorelei of Alba to cement the political alliance between Alba and Terre d’Ange, but his heart belongs to Sidonie, the Dauphin of Terre d’Ange.  And therein hangs a tale.  It is a tale that takes Imriel from being a self-absorbed and (despite his experiences in Tiberium) still rather immature and mopey young man into a complex and honorable maturity, from Alba to Terre d’Ange to Skaldia and beyond to the new Yeshuite kingdom of Vralia (roughly medieval Russia), and from vengeance to forgiveness but with justice throughout.  It’s a more subtle book than the previous volumes in this series and a more thoughtful one, with the moral complexities that bound this world made both starker and gentler than usual, particularly in the character and fate of Berlik of the Maghuin Dhonn, and Carey’s prose manages to tone down somewhat to reflect this new seriousness.  There is swordplay, political intrigue, a few breathless passages, and a fair amount of sex, of course – the book wouldn’t belong in this series without those things – but here they serve the larger story rather than define that story.

Kushiel’s Mercy (Jacqueline Carey)

The final book of Imriel’s trilogy opens with him an outcast in his own land, yet still much beloved by Sidonie.  But when emissaries of Carthage (based on the actual city-state though of no particular period that I could see) visit Terre d’Ange they leave chaos in their wake – chaos that Imriel, of course, will need to resolve in Carey’s standard fashion: by traveling far from his homeland, giving him and the reader a chance to explore Carey’s world and see what else is out there.  His quest takes him from hurried alliance with his oldest d’Angeline enemy to the home of his exiled mother, Melisande Shahrizai in Cythera (Phoenician Cyprus) and from thence to Carthage and Aragonia (early modern Spain), where events unfold with ever-increasing speed.  As with previous volumes there is sex and politics aplenty, though the prose and plotting continues its transition away from breathless and toward intricate.  And when it all comes home to Terre d’Ange, the stakes get even higher.  A fitting end to a well-written trilogy, though not really meant for those who missed Phedre’s tale, this volume continues Carey’s exploration of the themes of love and redemption.

Naamah’s Kiss (Jacqueline Carey)

With this book Carey’s world moves from multigenerational to historic and from Terre d’Ange to the wide world of Carey’s imagination.  Moirin mac Fainche lives in Alba, four generations removed from the events of the previous books.  Phedre, Joscelin, Imriel, and Sidonie are long gone – a wise move on Carey’s part, as it allows her to let them rest and enjoy some peace before they became mere action caricatures.  Instead, the events of their lives are now lost in myth and legend and all that remains are the stories told of a bygone age of heroes, one that we saw unfold in all its messy uncertainty but which now achieves a clarity that can only be gained by distance and ignorance.  Moirin is the great-great-granddaughter of Alais, Sidonie’s sister, now revered as “Alais the Wise” in Alba.  She is also one of the Maghuin Dhonn, a no less proud but much more penitent people in the wake of Imriel’s story.  When it becomes clear that Moirin has a destiny she must follow, she leaves Alba for Terre d’Ange, immersing herself in dire events there even as she seeks her d’Angeline father and becomes deeply involved with the feared Queen, Jehanne.  As usual with Carey’s books, there are no pure villains – characters are complex and motivated by ideas that mix the wise and the foolhardy, and the idea that the Maghuin Dhonn should be the heroes of this story after their role in earlier books is of a piece with this.  And when things come to a head in Terre d’Ange, Moirin finds her destiny leading her far afield, to Ch’in (roughly early Ming China), where she will find love and war in the eyes of a dragon.  The plotting is a bit thinner and the sex a bit more ramped up than the Imriel books, but Carey keeps the whole thing moving forward crisply and entertainingly and I’ve always had a weakness for stories that continue much older stories.  As a historian, such stories are my life.

Naamah’s Curse (Jacqueline Carey)

Picking up almost immediately after the previous volume left off, Moirin heads off across the Tatar steppe to find her beloved Bao.  But as one would expect, this quickly becomes complicated.  There are at least three separate stories in this picaresque of a book – Moirin and the Tatar Horde, Moirin and the Yeshuite patriarch of western Vralia, and Moirin and the Falconer’s Wife of Kurugiri – and all of them give Carey room to explore her favorite themes of love, redemption, and the fact that the gods use their chosen ones hard.  Moirin finds love and acceptance in places unlooked for, corruption in other places unlooked for, and – as you would expect in a first-person narrative – eventual triumph, though occasionally a sideways sort of victory.    The Yeshuite section is perhaps the most cuttingly written of the three – Carey has a lot to say about the gaps between the original gods and those who seek to rule in their name, and it is hard not to see this section as a bitter condemnation of the kind of right-wing Christianity that so distorts the message of Jesus in modern American politics. The trials of the Tatars (roughly the Mongols of the Golden Horde) and Bhodistanis (Mauryan India, though leavened with both Tibetan Buddhists and a more broadly diffuse Nepali element) seem almost simple in comparison.  The sex remains fairly intense, sometimes by its presence and sometimes by its yearning absence, and the world-building gets broader and shallower as we go, but Moirin remains a fascinating character – a less-intense, more impulsive version of Phedre, just as Bao often channels a similarly attenuated version of Joscelin.  Wheels within wheels.

Naamah’s Blessing (Jacqueline Carey)

Jacqueline Carey’s books tend to follow a three-part pattern.  The first section – usually about a quarter of the book – takes place at home or wherever the main character ends up at the end of the previous book.  There is a slow build-up and then a medium-sized crisis that gets partially resolved but with a twist that sends the main character out into the larger world of Carey’s imagination – a world that gets bigger with each volume.  This main section introduces newer, more serious problems to solve, but their resolution is not the end of the book.  There is a third section wherein the characters return home to tie up the loose ends from the first section, and thus the story comes full circle.  In this book Moirin starts out in Terre d’Ange and ends up befriending Desiree de la Courcel, Jehanne’s young daughter and a tragic figure in her own right.  This brings her into conflict with the regent of the kingdom, and that conflict sends her out across the Atlantic to Terra Nova, to the empires of the Nahuatl (roughly the pre-European-contact Aztec Empire) and the Tawintinsuyo (the Incas of the same period).  There the disparate strands of Moirin’s tale are sewn back together and Carey’s theme of redemptive love takes over – it is not an accident that the villains of Phedre’s and Imriel’s stories (House Shahrizai and the Maghuin Donn) become the saviors in this one, nor is it accidental that the conflict begun at the outset of Moirin’s stay in Terre d’Ange must be resolved in a very different South America.  Eventually Moirin and Bao return to Terre d’Ange, tie up matters there, and head off to Alba where Moirin’s saga truly began.  Carey ends Moirin’s tale on a quiet note – a gift to a character who has travelled from one end of her world to another in order to find herself back where she started.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Books Read in 2013, Part II

And the saga continues…


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain)

Not everyone wants to be the life of the party.  Some of us would rather stay home and read, or hang out with one or two close friends.  In the relentlessly extroverted culture of the United States this makes us odd and, as Susan Cain points out, is often seen as a diagnosable condition requiring a cure.  In this book, Cain portrays introversion as a natural personality type, one with benefits of its own, rather than as a pathology.  And I appreciate that.  She’s a lousy historian (her first chapter seems to indicate she has never heard of Benjamin Franklin or Herman Melville) but a fascinating psychologist and sociologist, and she makes a strong case that American society’s condescension toward introverts is both short-sighted and fundamentally flawed.  While some of her arguments are a bit on the thin side, her general point is sound.

Half Magic (Edward Eager)

When four siblings find an ancient talisman that grants wishes, they think they have found the answer to the problem of their dull summer days.  But quickly they discover two things.  First, that it only grants half of each wish, and which half can be rather tricky.  And second, that wishes have to be managed carefully or they will be more trouble than they’re worth.  This is a charming little story – written in 1954 and set sometime in the 1920s by all evidence – and aimed squarely at its audience of chapter book kids, but one that adults will enjoy for its cheerful writing and odd flashes of humor.  This was both a recommendation and a gift from a friend, and well worth the time on a grey rainy day.

Mercury Falls (Robert Kroese)

Christine is a reporter for the Christian newsmagazine The Banner, where she is the Apocalypse specialist, writing stories on whatever cult leader has prophesied the end of days most recently.  Mercury is a renegade angel – not a rebel, really, but not thrilled with his role in the grand scheme of things either.  Karl is the Anti-Christ – a 37-year-old loser who lives with his mother and was chosen for the role by the folks behind the Charlie Nyx series of books (a clear Harry Potter reference) as a way to profit from the religious opposition to those books.  When it turns out that Karl really is the Anti-Christ and that there is more afoot than even Mercury suspects, it becomes a frantic race to avert (or, perhaps, encourage) the Apocalypse.  Fast-paced, intelligent, and often laugh-out-loud funny, this self-published novel deserves to be widely known and appreciated.

Mercury Rises (Robert Kroese)

“The most highly anticipated sequel to Mercury Falls ever published!” says the blurb on the cover, and ‘tis true, ‘tis true.  It’s not long after the events in Mercury Falls.  Christine is trying to recover her life.  Mercury is trying to get out of trouble.  And Jason Slater, FBI explosion expert and self-described Asperger’s case, is trying to figure out what happened at the Anaheim stadium at the end of Mercury Falls.  Meanwhile Eddie Pratt is looking for the ghostwriter of the Charlie Nyx series so that he can deliver the seventh volume in order to complete the Apocalypse and also trying to keep up with a tough talking female private investigator named Cody.  Interspersed with flashbacks to Ancient Babylon and a long sidetrack with Noah and the Ark, the story eventually ends up in Africa, where an eccentric billionaire’s biodome project turns out to be more than it seems.  Like the first volume in this series, Mercury Rises is fast paced and funny, with bits of wisdom thrown in for good measure.  It’s not quite as good as the first one, but that is quite a high bar to be judged against.

Mercury Rests (Robert Kroese)

The concluding volume of the Mercury trilogy picks up with Mercury stranded on a plane of reality far in the distant future with only Job, Cain, and a handful of pessimistic angels for company, while Christine and Jason are headed back to the US.  Events quickly turn weird again, as Lucifer and Tiamat try for a third time to bring about the Apocalypse, this time by manipulating the United States into launching a direct military assault on Heaven itself.  Meanwhile Eddie Pratt finds that his writing is becoming more and more metafictional, to the point where he can no longer tell the difference between what has happened to him and what he creates in his writing, or if any such difference is meaningful at all.  Fast paced, somewhat more serious than the previous two installments, this is a fun and fitting conclusion to a series that deserves far more attention than it has gotten.

Wintersmith (Terry Pratchett)

Continuing our bedtime tour of Tiffany Aching’s corner of Discworld, this volume finds Tiffany getting entangled with the Wintersmith, an elemental who creates the winter.  No good can come from that.  Mostly, though, we read for Tiffany – a strong and sensible young woman – and for the Nac Mac Feegles, who are definitely strong and only sensible within narrowly defined contexts.  I’m glad we can share these stories, my daughters and I.

Good Omens (Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett)

After reading the Mercury series, it seemed only natural to reread this book.  Aziraphel is an angel.  Crowley is a demon.  They’ve been on earth for millennia, waiting for the Apocalypse, and like many field operatives from opposing sides of conflicts, they like and respect each other far more than they do their own superiors and they’ve come to a mutually agreeable arrangement regarding their conduct toward one another.  But when the prophecies of a 17th-century seer named Agnes Nutter start to come true – as they always do, since Agnes is the only prophet ever to have a 100% accuracy rating, which is why her book never sold very well – they are going to have to figure out how to avoid the end of their cushy assignments here on Earth.  Throw in the Anti-Christ (a boy named Adam who, through a mix-up at the hospital shortly after he is born ends up being raised as a perfectly normal English child even if you include the modestly confused Hellhound he inherits from Below), Anathema Device (a descendent of Agnes Nutter), the pathetic remains of the Witchfinder Army (now down to two rather dented souls), and the return of the Four Motorcyclists of the Apocalypse, and you’ve got yourself a party.  If you’ve ever read Gaiman or Pratchett, you’ll want to see them team up here.  And if you haven’t, well, you’ll want to read this even more.

The Last Dragonslayer (Jasper Fforde)

Jennifer Strange is a foundling – an orphan – in an odd alternate Britain where dragons still live, where magic is just another skilled craft, and where the multitudinous Ununited Kingdoms squabble unremittingly.  In this YA novel, Jennifer is just shy of 16 years old but nevertheless runs Kazam Mystical Arts Management, arranging for her wizards and sorcerers to do odd jobs to pay the bills and keep the roof over their heads in the prolonged and somewhat mysterious absence of their boss, the Great Zambini.  When word gets out that the last surviving dragon will die shortly, Jennifer’s world gets turned upside down.  She discovers that she will be the Last Dragonslayer, and that this position will get her more rewards, threats, challenges, and insight than she ever dreamed possible.  She will learn who she is, and what she (and the dragons) are made of.  A charming and thoughtful story with a strong heroine, with flashes of Fforde’s trademark wit and allusions, this is the first of a series.

The Song of the Quarkbeast (Jasper Fforde)

Some months after the events of The Last Dragonslayer, Jennifer Strange is still trying to get Kazam back onto sound financial footing and still trying to find the Great Zambini.  When she accepts a commission from a mysterious stranger to find a ring that does not want to be found and then keeps the ring, things start to get out of hand.  Eventually there will be a contest between Kazam and their rivals, iMagic, for the heart and soul of magic in the Ununited Kingdoms.  The secrets of the Once Magnificent Boo, the Transient Moose, and the Price Brothers (Full and Half) will be revealed, and Jennifer may or may not get to go on a date.  Fforde has created a nicely rounded character in Jennifer, one who makes it fun to tag along on her adventures.

In One Person (John Irving)

Bill Abbott is a young teen at the beginning of this novel – stuck in a private school in 1960 or so in a small town in Vermont, slowly coming to the realization that he is bisexual, and surrounded by a colorful cast of characters who all seem to have some secret relevant to that last fact.  His grandfather likes to play women onstage.  His father is long gone.  His best friend – a flat-chested girl named Elaine (all of the women in this book get described by the size of their breasts at least once) – is as much of a misfit as he is and quite possibly the most sympathetic character in the whole novel.  And everyone from Elaine to Bill to most of the rest of the boys at the school is entirely infatuated with Kittredge, a beautiful and casually cruel young man on the wrestling team.  Thus begins what poses as a memoir – Bill provides the voice of the story from the vantage of 2010, when he is nearly 70 – that eventually ends up as a powerful meditation on the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.  It takes a long time to get there however, as the first half of the novel is rambling, discursive, and often needlessly padded, while at the end it feels equally needlessly truncated as the story sort of stops rather than concludes.  Along the way we eventually meet of the usual suspects of Irving’s writing – prep schools, wrestling teams, Vienna, and (in an odd sort of way appropriate to the basic theme) bears.  John Irving is one of my favorite authors, but this is definitely one of his lesser books.  Even lesser Irving is better than most of the books out there, though.

The Folklore of Discworld (Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson)

The Discworld series is one of the most heavily allusive bodies of work in all of SF/F.  There is an entire file online dedicated to tracking down and explaining the references that Pratchett puts in these books.  It’s one of the things that makes that series work on so many levels – beyond the mere events of the story, there are allusions and references that operate as almost parallel stories, adding depth to the narrative.  In this book, Pratchett and Simpson – a professional folklorist – go through some of the folklore roots of many of the ideas and tropes in the Discworld, showing how the ideas Pratchett uses draw on legends, tales and ideas from all over Europe and, in some cases, the world.  If you are a dedicated Discworld fan, this is a fascinating read.  If you’re a historian on top of that, it’s even better.  If you are at best a casual fan or at worst have not really discovered or liked the Discworld books, you would be better served by taking the money you would have spent on it and buying popcorn.  I enjoyed it immensely, though.

REAMDE (Neal Stephenson)

This is a book that manages to be both sprawling (Neal Stephenson gives tremendous value in his books, on a “words per dollar” basis) and tightly focused (except for a brief prologue and epilogue, the whole thousand-page-plus story unfolds over the course of three weeks, with each chapter corresponding to a day).  Richard Forthrast is a megazillionaire, the brains behind the largest and most popular online multi-user game in the world.  His niece, Zula, has just come to work for him when the prologue ends, except that a) her boyfriend Peter has gotten her entangled in a bad bit of petty crime, and b) related to this, there is a virus (the “REAMDE” of the title) in Richard’s game that Chinese hackers are using to extort money from users.  These two plot lines converge with surprising suddenness as Zula and Peter find themselves unwillingly transported to Xiamen, China for the first half of the book – a city where nobody is quite who they seem and where every set of bad guys seems to get trumped by a bigger and badder set of bad guys.  Gradually the cast of characters widens to include a Hungarian hacker, a Chinese woman who only wanted to be a tour guide, Russian mafioso, a nest of jihadists, captive corporate authors, American survivalists, and a number of British intelligence agents, among others.  After some brutal (though well integrated) violence the surviving cast members wind their way out of China and converge on the Pacific Northwest, where the final epic battles play out.  There is no real way to do justice in a short space to the complex ins and outs of this Dickensian plot full of coincidence, interesting characters, and suspense played out across the high tech world of the 21st century, and I’m not even going to try.  It’s an intense story and generally up to Stephenson’s high standards, though the virus angle – and indeed much of the online game itself – does get sort of lost in the swell of events.

Disenchanted (Robert Kroese)

King Boric the Implacable has a problem.  Surprisingly, being dead isn’t it.  He knows he is supposed to be swept off to a Valhalla-like afterlife of mead and feasting with the spirits of other dead warriors, but his sword is cursed and he can’t let it go and nobody gets to the feast with their earthly sword.  So he – or, rather, his wraith – sets off on a quest to break the curse of his sword and enter the afterlife properly.  Kroese’s slight tale is clearly meant as both a parody of second-rate heroic fantasy (most of the characters, place names and races have titles – The Witch of This, the Wastes of That – and the fractured kingdom of Dis is full of the requisite dwarves, elves, gnomes, ogres and humans) and a gently sarcastic critique of the values of that genre, and at times it succeeds all too well.  There is a fine line between parodying something and becoming that same something.  But Kroese has a light touch and a good sense of humor, and the book never quite slides into the Pit of Despair.  It’s not up to his Mercury series, but it was a fun read.

Red Dwarf (Grant Naylor)

The thing about books that compare themselves to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on their back covers is that you spend most of the book comparing it to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and rarely positively.  It’s just such a high bar to set, really.  David Lister is an interstellar loser who went out for a pub crawl in England and woke up in a luggage locker in a mining colony on one of Saturn’s moons.  Eventually he finds his way onto the Red Dwarf – a giant of a spaceship whose destination, eventually, is Earth – but when things go wrong he ends up stranded with a hologram and a highly evolved cat three million years in the future.  And then it gets weird.  It’s not a bad book – there are a number of funny moments, and the ending is a weirdly unresolved feel about it that gives it at least a bit of depth – but it isn’t up to the grand claims on the back cover.

I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett)

Once more, this time as a bedtime story.  It’s only when you read this out loud to your children that you realize how much Tiffany Aching has grown up over the course of this series, and how dark and mature the things she has to deal with are – Lauren, at 10, didn’t catch a few of the references, and that wasn’t entirely a bad thing.  But you also realize how strong of a character she is, and for that reason alone this is a good story to read to your daughters.

Utterly Me, Clarice Bean (Lauren Child)

Clarice Bean is a girl with a problem.  Her teacher hates her.  Her best friend is missing.  And she’s stuck with – gasp! – a boy as her partner on the big class project.  All she’d rather do is read her favorite books – the Ruby Redfort series, centered on a wealthy, independent detective who just happens to be a girl about Clarice’s age but without the annoying family to stop her from having adventures.  This book is really aimed at readers like Clarice – 10-year-old girls – but Lauren Child is a wonderful writer who gives Clarice a distinct and often funny voice that I just loved, and as you watch Clarice solve the various problems (as you know she will, although perhaps not quite as haphazardly as she actually does) it is mostly the voice that pulls you along.  We live in a golden age of YA fiction, even on the younger end of that genre, and perhaps I will read the other books in that series that we have about the house as well.

Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Geoffrey Kabaservice)

In this densely written and exhaustively documented account, Kabaservice traces the process by which the party of Eisenhower became the party of Bachmann – how a political party with diverse points of view and a proud history of being both conservative and Progressive, often at the same time, was forcibly transformed into a cesspool of screeching right-wing insanity.  It’s a process that began in the early 1960s with what amounted to a Bolshevik takeover of the party by right-wing extremists (who did, in fact, study the Bolsheviks to learn their tactics) willing to sacrifice both party and nation on the altar of ideological purity.  The vast majority of the book is focused on the 1960s, when the bulk of the transformation takes place – only the last two chapters deal with anything after 1971 – and Kabaservice’s portrait of the modern ideologically-driven, ever-narrowing, and frantically extremist Republican Party is all the more damning for its dispassionate tone and mountains of specific evidence.  Not that evidence means much to the troglydites now in charge of that party – people who have repeatedly and explicitly vowed not to pay attention to any facts that might contradict their precious worldview.  This is a book that needs to be read by people who would like a sane conservative alternative to the modern Republican Party, but which likely won’t make much of a difference as the screechers now control all of the levers of power and finance in that debauched organization.

A Blink of the Screen: Collected Shorter Fiction
(Terry Pratchett)

This is exactly what it says it is – a collection of the shorter works published by Pratchett over the course of his career, generally with a paragraph or two of introduction explaining some of his thinking regarding the piece.  It’s divided into two big chunks – Discworld stories and Non-Discworld stories – and they range from amusing to thought-provoking and back again.  I’d seen most of the Discworld stories before, online, but it is nice to have them all in one place.

American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Chris Hedges)

This is a sobering look at one of the most important developments of recent American politics – the emergence of the radical Christian right wing, a movement that espouses a particularly blasphemous offshoot of Christianity known as Dominionism that preaches the sacred duty of these “Christians” to take over all the world and forcibly convert it to their blinkered version of faith.  Hedges has essentially two points in this book – that the Dominionist Christian right wing is a form of Fascism, and that they are winning.  The book opens with a long introduction describing Fascism as an ideology and its chapters are organized accordingly.  What emerges is a portrait of an ideology deeply and fundamentally at odds with democracy, with an open society, and with the American Constitution, a movement feverishly – and openly, if anyone bothers to pay attention – working to impose theocracy on the US and the world.  This is a worthwhile though disturbing book.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

In this crystalline novella, an unnamed grown man returns to his childhood village for a funeral.  The deceased is also unnamed, though clearly someone of importance to him.  Overwhelmed, he escapes to the Hempstock farm, his old neighbors, and there he remembers.  He remembers a miserable childhood and a friend, Lettie Hempstock, who redeemed it in part.  He remembers an adventure that spanned worlds and time, one grounded in that place and that stretched far beyond it.  It is a story of love and sacrifice, of friendship, hurt and healing, of safe places, returns and memory.  It is, more than anything else, a story of moments glimpsed through a glass darkly, yet beautifully lit.