Monday, January 14, 2019

News and Updates

1. So the Eagles will not repeat as champions, which is a bummer really.  They squeaked into the playoffs when nobody (including me) thought they could do it, won a playoff game that I watched happen and still don’t actually believe what I saw (“double doink!”), and very nearly beat a better team in a game they had no right to be playing in the first place, and if that isn’t the ideal way to end a season it’s not all that bad really.  They put up a good fight and left it all out there on the field and fulfilled all those sports cliches that actually matter when you see them done right.  Fly, Eagles, fly.

2. We’re back down to three people in the household now that Tabitha has returned to college.  It was really nice having her back for the semester break.  You get used to having everyone home again, and then they’re not.  I’m not going to like this whole empty nest thing once they both move away for real, I can tell you that.

3. I’m trying to stay more on top of the blog these days.  The last six or eight weeks have been kind of iffy that way, with a few comments left unresponded to for too long.  It’s been that kind of time.

4. It’s hard to keep reading a book when you know what’s going on better than the characters do and it’s really obvious that they should just stop whinging and get on with things.

5. Lauren has decided that the kneewall behind her closet would make an ideal movie-watching space, and I can’t really see it but if she wants to put in the work and make it happen then you go girl.

6. Part of me wants to rant and rave about the current depravity in Washington but the rest of me values my sanity a bit too much to give in to that wholeheartedly.  We have a foreign agent in the Oval Office who has done a masterful job of destabilizing both the United States and the entire post-WWII international order and 40% of Americans are just fine with this.  Poor Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – born 70 years too soon.

7. It’s been a really uninspiring winter here in Baja Canada.  No real snow, not even any real cold temperatures.  Now that everyone is where they need to be in my family and nobody needs to be traveling anytime soon, I think I’m ready for a good blizzard followed by some bitter cold weather where all the Manly Men can burst through the snowbanks in their V8 Hemi all-wheel-drive Compensators to put in a full day’s work at the office while the rest of us sip whiskey by the fire at home.

8. We’ve taken down the Christmas tree, and the living room looks empty and sad now. 

9. Tabitha and I spent some time sorting through the foreign coins in our collection – a large and motley assortment of things that are not particularly valuable but are still rather cool, we thought.  The United States has the world’s most boring money.  Also, I have no idea how we ended up with so many French francs and centimes, since I have spent a grand total of 16 glorious hours in that country and that was after they switched over to the euro.  Also, what is it with countries and their triple-thick coins? 

10. Have you ever seen a pre-euro Dutch dime?  They’re about half the size of an American dime.  You have to be careful not to inhale sharply around them. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Books Read in 2018, Part 3

And now the exciting conclusion!

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Early Riser (Jasper Fforde)

This one hadn’t actually come out in the US when I read it – we found it at the Science Fiction Bookstore in Stockholm when we were there in August and Kim was willing to schlep it across the Atlantic, and a good thing too because it’s a fun book.  Charles Worthing is about to become a Winter Consul – one of the hardy band of misfits, loners, and short-lived caretakers who watch over most of the human race as they hibernate through the long and bitterly cold winters.  This is a world where much of Britain is simply unsurvivable in the winter unless you hibernate, and the occasional asides about global cooling only reinforce that.  The story starts on a train, flashes back to how he got into that situation, and then moves quickly forward into a deeply noirish and not a little surreal mystery of financial crime, murder, identity, and dreams.  Tasked with bringing a nightwalker – someone whose mind has been damaged beyond repair by the miracle drug that allows most people these days to survive hibernation by suppressing their dreams – into Sector 12, in an alternative version of Wales, Charles finds himself embraced by the weirdness of that sector (the Wintervolk, Villains, fellow Consuls, Hibertech employees, and something called the Gronk, which may or may not be mythical) and constantly turned around as he seeks to get to the bottom of whatever is going on around him.  There is a viral dream going around, and when Charles starts to have it – and when bits of it seem to be coming true in his waking life – it draws him deeper and deeper into the madness.  The plot twists and turns, but much of the fun of the book is Fforde’s trademark loopiness and humor – if you enjoyed the Thursday Next books (as I did), you will enjoy this one.  I especially liked the quotes from histories and memoirs from this world at the beginning of each chapter, which give the whole thing a realistic kind of air until you think about it a bit.  The book does seem to be a one-off story, but perhaps Fforde will revisit that world without having to worry about Charles.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World (Tim Marshall)

Geography is making a comeback.  For a long time it was fashionable in political circles to downplay the impact of geography, but recently people have come back around to the simple truth that where you stand depends a lot on where you sit, and this is nowhere more true than in international politics.  Marshall does tend to err on the side of “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks more or less like a nail” with his analysis, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have important things to say.  And his basic point is this: modern nations work within the limits of what their geography allows and paying attention to that will help you figure out why they do things and why that isn’t going to change.  As he says, since the formation of the Russian state it has been bedeviled by the same problems of defensible frontiers, and a thousand years from now whatever entity inherits the mantle of the modern Russian state will still have to deal with that problem.  His ten maps are nothing special – simply geographical maps of various regions – but he goes through them and lists such challenges as ease of internal transportation, resources, climate, ocean access, and yes, defensible frontiers, and how these have impacted the nations within those regions.  Russia is the most obvious example of how his analysis can be useful, followed by the United States and perhaps Latin America.  In other regions he tends to fall back on description and let the analysis slide.  Either way, though, it’s a useful thing to think about if international relations, economics, or strategy are interesting to you.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O (Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland)

The thing about collaborative novels is that so often you can imagine the collaborators gathered around a table piled high with beer bottles and the remains of vast meals, egging each other on to greater and greater heights of absurdity in between gales of helpless laughter.  Sometimes (hello, Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow and The Rapture of the Nerds!) this just gets you a literary mess.  Other times you find yourself drawn into the fun.  This is one of those other times.  At the outset of the novel, Dr. Melisandre Stokes is a put-upon adjunct instructor in the Harvard University Department of Ancient and Classical Linguistics – struggling with her classes and her pompously dismissive Chair, Dr. Roger Blevins, who is a poster child for both academic misogyny and Dunning-Kruger Syndrome.  Quickly she meets Tristan Lyons, who – he later explains to her – works for “a shadowy government agency” that could use her talents.  It turns out that magic once worked and had a long and open history but began to fade during the Enlightenment before fizzling out entirely in 1851.  Since then its very existence has been suppressed.  Tristan wants Mel to work on uncovering that history and then – once it has been uncovered (no great spoiler, really) – to set up the Department of Diachronic Operations (DODO) – a top-secret US military organization dedicated to using magic for its own ends.  They recruit allies – Erszebet Karpathy (a Hungarian witch), Frank and Rebecca Oda, and a few others – and soon they have embarked on the main plot engine of the book: using time travel to alter history in ways advantageous to the US government.  This works for a while and then, inevitably, things get fouled up.  The novel is, more than anything else, a cautionary tale of how immense technologies can be turned against their wielders, how bureaucratization and militarization blind people to inevitable consequences, and how competing loyalties and people working at cross purposes can turn a manageable problem into a crisis faster than anyone involved might think possible.  It’s an enjoyably written book, told in a semi-epistolary style that encompasses diary entries, incident reports, email exchanges, and even at one point a medieval-style lay.  It pulls you along nicely, even if it does end rather abruptly, as if the food and beer had run out and the authors suddenly remembered they needed to return to their normal lives.  They do make it obvious that there will (or at least they plan that there will) be future volumes in the DODO saga, so I will look forward to them.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (Hank Green)

April May – design student, self-proclaimed dairy-equipment heiress, social-media-savvy young person scrambling to survive in New York City with her lousy job and small but cozy social circle – is about to make First Contact.  While walking down the street at 3am she finds a giant robot, whom she names Carl.  And since she is the first one to say anything about it on social media, she becomes the spokesperson for what turns out are a lot of Carls, all of whom appeared simultaneously in many of the major cities on Earth.  April’s story is one of public relations and identity in a world driven by “likes” and internet content, and it takes its toll.  On the one hand, she finds fame and fortune.  On the other, it wreaks havoc on her life, gets her tangled up in national security, and spawns an equally media-savvy hate group dedicated to destroying her.  This engagingly written first novel is a thinly-veiled satire of modern American cultural politics, and it is clear which side Green favors (full disclosure: the same one I find myself on, if I have read this correctly) even if he does have the grace to make April a deeply flawed and occasionally maddening (if sympathetic) heroine.  Who are we, Green asks, and how will we survive each other?  Green ends this book on a note which clearly suggests that there is a sequel coming, which would be interesting to read.  This book was an unlooked-for gift from a past student, and it was a lovely thing to receive.  Thank you!

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Anthony Bourdain)

With every book of his that I read or reread I miss Anthony Bourdain more.  His was a unique voice, willing to call out the bullshit that permeates modern life – even, or perhaps especially, when he was the source of some of it – and to celebrate that which should be celebrated.  This is a collection of short pieces about various things that set him off enough to write about them, and if you like Bourdain this is the sort of thing you’ll like.  Perhaps my favorite bit is the last story, where he walks through some of the people we met in Kitchen Confidential and lets us know Where They Are Now – as a historian, I find that sort of thing irresistible.  But mostly it’s about food and those who prepare it, and you should read this and all of his books.

No Touch Monkey (And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late) (Ayun Halliday)

For all that she is a good writer, Ayun (pronounced “Ann”) Halliday would probably be a miserable travel companion.  Entitled, obtuse, overprivileged, and full of the Romantic obsession with Authenticity at the expense of enjoyment or even civility toward the string of traveling companions who populate these chapters, she tries to pass off her trials and tribulations as humorous learning experiences but mostly I learned what a chore it can be to get through a short book, even one as well written as this one.  The chapters are arranged by lesson in roughly chronological order and track her adventures in places where one can travel cheaply as an American (mostly in Africa and southern Asia).  She is accompanied by a string of boyfriends, miscellaneous companions, and on one occasion her mother, and she spends most of the time longing for, well, something other than what she has.  She has adventures, gets sick, meets people, schemes to meet other people, and rarely seems glad to be there.  She travels lightly – usually with just a backpack – and on the cheap (she is constantly referring to how little money she has, even thousands of miles from home in exotic locales), and because I spent most of the book wanting to throw wet noodles at her I likely missed most of what the back cover promised me would be an abundance of humor.  Oh well.

Odds Against Tomorrow (Nathaniel Rich)

Mitchell Zukor is an analyst.  Fairly early in this intriguing novel he gets recruited out of his comfortable but frustrating job to be the lead researcher, primary salesman, and second employee for FutureWorld – a company that specializes in presenting worst-case scenarios to other companies as a way to help their clients escape liability for them, which is a growth industry after the destruction of Seattle by earthquake early in the book.  He’s very good at his job, and it suits his personality very well – a personality defined by obsession, fear, and an odd free-floating sort of mania.  He’s also exchanging letters with an old college friend, Elsa Bruner, whose health is defined by a “could die any time without warning” condition that Mitchell finds strangely compelling.  When New York City is overtaken by an actual worst-case scenario, he and FutureWorld’s third employee, Jane, end up on an odyssey of their own, trying to survive in a shattered city and working to find Elsa on her commune in Maine.  Eventually it all ends up back in a recovering New York, where Mitchell, at least, embarks on what might be a new life.  It’s a well written novel full of loose ends (the framing device, the fate of his FutureWorld boss Alec Charnoble or Mitchell’s parents – Hungarian refugees turned midwestern slumlords, Jane’s career and future, for example, all of which dangle enticingly without much resolution) and Elsa remains maddeningly offstage for almost the entire novel, serving as an empty vessel for Mitchell’s hopes and fears rather than a character in her own right.  Ultimately, this is a novel about fear and what it does to people, set against a backdrop of climate change and ruthless capitalist opportunism.  It’s a very good book that I enjoyed a great deal, but it’s not a particularly uplifting story.

Fugitives and Refugees (Chuck Palahniuk)

They sell t-shirts in Portland, Oregon, that urge readers to “Keep Portland Weird.”  Chuck Palahniuk – who has lived in Portland since moving there after graduating high school in 1980 – clearly enjoys the weirdness of his adopted home city and in this brief travelogue he intersperses chapters on interesting things to do and people to see in Portland with what he calls “Postcards,” brief stories from his own life in Portland.  You learn about the offbeat, the odd, and the flat-out weird, much of which has a warmth and humanity that gets left out of the official stories.  I’ve never been to Portland, but this made me want to go.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (Claire North)

Harry August is a kalachakra – an ouroboros.  He is both mortal, for he lives his life from beginning to end, ages, grows infirm, and dies, and immortal, for when he dies he is immediately reborn, exactly in the time and place where he first entered the world, only with all of his memories and knowledge intact.  In his case, he is born in 1919 in England, the son of a serving girl who dies in childbirth.  He is farmed out to a local family, meets others of his kind (as well as a great many “linears,” as the rest of us are labeled by the kalachakra community), and usually lives into his 70s – not every life is exactly the same each time through, but there are certain fixed points in time that must be experienced, it seems.  How does one live that kind of life?  It can be lonely, but that’s what the Chronos Club is for – kalachakras across time have formed this secret society and by navigating the chain of lives can pass messages backward and forward in time.  It can also be dangerous, especially when faced with people who want to know the future, or the personal temptation to change the larger timeline.  At the very beginning of the novel a young girl cryptically warns a dying Harry August that the world is ending, as it always does, but faster.  In this rambling autobiography (autobiographies?), Harry recounts his first fifteen lives and how they ultimately relate to this warning.  It’s a fascinating take on time travel and human nature.

Washington Schlepped Here: Walking the Nation’s Capital (Christopher Buckley)

This, it turns out, is part of the same “let a famous author tell you about a famous city” series of books that Fugitives and Refugees belongs to, a fact I did not know until I was about halfway through it and read the back cover more carefully.  Buckley – a comic novelist whose work I have enjoyed on several occasions (The White House Mess, Thank You For Smoking, and so on) – is an engaging if unapologetically old-school-conservative tour guide.  You will be regaled with tales of The Glory That Was Reagan throughout the book, and, much like his hero’s recollections under oath, it can be difficult to tell which parts of Buckley's descriptions of Washington DC are fiction and which are real.  Buckley goes into the history of the city and many of the monuments, much of which are soaked in blood, and provides an interesting tour of the place.  It’s not as warm or humane as Palahniuk’s Portland, but then neither is Washington itself.

Fire Watch (Connie Willis)

This is my third try at starting Connie Willis’ Time Traveler series, because I can never tell where it starts.  This time I did a bit of research, and I am now reasonably confident that it begins with this “novelette” – really a short story.  It’s a first-person narrative told by a history student who is sent from late 21st-century Oxford University back in time to 1940, to the Blitz in London.  There he arrives at St. Paul’s Cathedral with a cover story, a thoroughly incomplete understanding of the culture and events (he was preparing to be sent back to St. Paul – the disciple and founder of the Christian Church), and no clear idea what his mission is.  He meets a number of people – notably Langby, whom he suspects of wanting to burn down the cathedral, and Enola, a young woman whose romantic interest he cluelessly spurns (are historians that stupid about these things even in the late 21st century?  I’d hoped we’d grow out of that as a group by then).  He spends his time trying to protect the cathedral during the nightly bombings, and when he goes home to his own time he discovers a few things about himself, his mission, and what the purpose of history might be in his world.  As an introduction, it served its purpose well as now I am looking forward to the next part of the series.

Doomsday Book (Connie Willis)

It takes a long time for this book to get rolling, but the payoff is worth it in the end because it is a book that will stay with you.  When the story opens it’s 2055 in Oxford – Christmas break at the University – and Mr. Gilchrist, the acting head of the history department, is about to send one of his best students, Kivrin, back to the 14th century in violation of pretty much every protocol that surrounds this process.  Gilchrist – the embodiment of academic careerism and self-centered arrogance, whose only concern is how this will reflect on his part of the department and his own professional advancement – has done none of the preparatory work required to make this safe.  Mr. Dunworthy, who has vastly more experience with sending students back in time, is both enraged and unable to prevent it.  Once Kivrin goes through, the novel splits into two tracks.  In 21st-century Oxford there is an epidemic and quarantine that shuts everything down and prevents Dunworthy from doing anything to help, especially after Badri, the tech who actually ran the drop, is struck down.  In the 14th century Kivrin arrives already deathly ill.  She is taken in and looked after by the village priest, Father Roche, and the lady of the manor, Eliwys.  As Kivrin recovers she gets to know Eliwys’ family – her waspish mother-in-law Imeyne, her 12-year-old daughter Rosemund (betrothed to the boorish Sir Bloet), and her impish 5-year-old daughter Agnes – as well as others in the small village, and she comes to know them as real people rather than just historical constructs, and to care for them.  And then, in a twist that comes as no surprise if you’ve been paying attention, it becomes clear to Kivrin that she has landed not in 1320, where she was supposed to go, but in 1348, the year the “blue sickness” hit Oxford.  As Dunworthy works through the chaos and casualties of the 21st-century epidemic to find a way to bring Kivrin back, Kivrin tries everything she can to survive the Black Death (as it is known now) and help those around her do so as well.  “I wanted to come,” she says in a bleak moment as the Plague claims more and more lives around her, “and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.”  Ultimately, in this novel as in the history, humanity and horror mix into a bittersweet story of struggle, failure, and dogged perseverance. 

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis)

The problem with time travel novels is that they are often hard to follow, as characters jump back and forth across years or centuries and timelines split, merge, or just get jumbled together like yarn, the separate strands remaining distinct but tangled together just the same.  In the “present” of the historians, it is a couple of years after the events of Doomsday Book, and in this installment of the series Willis moves from the stark horror and bittersweet clarity of the Black Death to a more farcical sort of rolling 19th-century humor – something that anyone who understands the reference in the title to Jerome K. Jerome’s classic Three Men in a Boat (mentioned explicitly in the story several times) will get right away.  Historian Ned Henry is being run ragged by Lady Schrapnell – a bulldozer of an American whose obsessive quest to restore Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was on the day it was destroyed in World War II has taken over the entire Oxford history department.  In particular, she is trying to locate something called “the bishop’s bird stump” – a uniquely ugly piece of Victorian art that may or may not have stood in the cathedral at the time and which played a large role in the life of one of her ancestors as well.  Exhausted, time-lagged, and only semi-coherent, Ned is sent back to 1888 for some rest and, if he can swing it, some searching for the bishop’s bird stump.  Not surprisingly he makes a hash of it, one that will eventually involve Terence (an adventurous and lovesick college student), Cyril (his companion, though not his love interest), Professor Peddick (a don, forever nattering on about Character being the motivating force of history), the Mering family (imperious Mrs. Mering, gruff Col. Mering, and flighty Tossie Mering, the aforementioned ancestor of Lady Schapnell), their resourceful butler Baine, and fellow time-traveling historian Verity Kindle.  Like all good farces there is a never-ending swirl of entrances and exits, crises and resolutions, and it all more or less works out in the end, though perhaps not as Ned thought it would.

Blackout (Connie Willis)

It's the mid-21st century and things are chaotic in Oxford.  There are too many historians trying to travel back in time and too few techs who can get them there, and on top of that Dunworthy is rearranging everyone's schedules without explanation.  Eileen (Merope) ends up in northern England as a servant minding evacuated children (including hellions Alf and Binnie), Polly finds herself a shopgirl in London during the Blitz, and Mike (Michael) ends up at Dunkirk as a war correspondent.  But events conspire against them, and they find themselves stuck in 1940, unable to return to Oxford.  They share the hardships and bond with the "contemps" – nurses, shopgirls, vicars, captains, and so on.  And they fret – lawsey how they fret – about changing the course of history and not being contacted by retrieval teams.  They miss a lot, fretting, and you begin to suspect that you do too.  When they find each other, as you know very well that they must, they fret some more, and then the book comes to a stop – practically in mid-sentence – to be continued in All Clear (which I didn’t finish until 2019).  They are good people but obtuse, and as with Doomsday Book the characters that stand out are the locals, bravely going about their lives without benefit of foreknowledge or hope of being retrieval to a safer place.  Willis is at her best when she gets out of her own way and lets the story unfold rather than having the characters focus on the mechanics of time travel, though for some reason those mechanics are the center of the story she chose to write here.  More of the locals and how the historians try to understand them and less of retrieval teams and the course of history would have made this a better book.


Total Books: 41
Total Pages: 14,903
Pages/day: 40.8

Happy Reading!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Books Read in 2018, Part 2

List, part the second!

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The First Law Trilogy (Joe Abercrombie)

The Blade Itself

There are very few authors who can match the world-weary black humor that permeates Joe Abercrombie’s First Law world, a mood that gets established right at the outset of this novel.  Logen Ninefingers (The Bloody Nine, to his enemies) has had enough of being a barbarian warrior.  Feared throughout the North, he is observant and thoughtful enough to know that the short end of a harsh life is not going to last very long, particularly after his catastrophic entrance into the story.  He’s done brutal things and had brutal things done to him in return, yet his wry groundedness makes him as close to a hero as this book has.  Sand dan Glokta is another unlikely hero and a man who has also seen the short end of war’s violence.  Once a dashing soldier, he spent nearly two years being tortured in a Gurkish prison before returning to the Union as a crippled husk of his former self.  He now works for the Inquisition, doing unto others what was once done unto him, and it says something that Abercrombie makes him nearly as sympathetic as Logen.  Add in Jezal dan Luther (a pompous ass of a nobleman’s son, training for the annual swordsmanship Contest), Collum West (a commoner who has risen through the ranks of the Union’s hidebound army) and his dashing sister Ardee (whose respect for the norms of Union society is about as high as its respect for her), Bayaz (the First of the Magi), Ferro Maljinn (an escaped slave pursued by the Gurkish for their own purposes), and an engagingly comic if unhesitatingly violent band of Northmen raised on war and wearily continuing down its path (Dogman, Threetrees, Black Dow, Forley the Weakest, Tul Thunderhead, Harding Grim) and you have a finely crafted story of war, history, action and character.

Before They Are Hanged

The Union is a snakepit, beset on all sides by enemies and consumed from within by betrayal, intrigue, and cold-blooded realpolitik.  From its place at the center of Joe Abercrombie’s map, the main characters of The Blade Itself split off to their own quests.  Logen, Bayaz, Ferro, and Jezal head west, through the ruins of the Old Empire, in search of the Seed – the physical manifestation of the Other Side, of magic.  Touching the Other Side directly is a violation of the First Law but needs must.  West goes north, oddly enough, where Bethod, king of the Northlands, is pressing hard into Angland.  With him goes most of the military forces of the Union, as well as Crown Prince Ladisla – a blithering fool of a dandy, ill-suited to anything more demanding than gossip and fashion.  West’s commander navigates both the intrigues of his subordinate generals and the tactics of his foe, with what can charitably be described as mixed results even with the help of Dogman, Threetrees, Black Dow, Tul Thunderhead, and Harding Grim – Named Men of the North who once fought for Bethod but now have little use for him.  Meanwhile Glokta is sent south, to the besieged city of Dagoska.  Taken from the Gurkish in an earlier war, it is now on the Emperor’s list of things he wants back, and if the Union is a snakepit in practice then Dagoska is the quintessential ideal of one.  Battles will be fought, trusts will be betrayed, characters will mature and change and die or be left to carry on, and in the end the wheel turns and we hunker down for the concluding volume.

Last Argument of Kings

In the final volume of the First Law there will be blood.  There will be battles, betrayals, politics, and magic.  West, newly promoted, goes after Bethod with the help of Logen and the Northmen, at least for a while.  Sand dan Glokta spins, caught between equally ruthless and diametrically opposed masters.  Bayaz pulls strings and delves into the forbidden.  Jezel finds himself in a new and surprisingly difficult position.  Ferro seeks vengeance.  Dogman just tries to survive.  The Gurkish invade.  Characters try to become better people and in many cases they succeed, but to no ultimate purpose.  In the end all is destroyed and the rebuilding must begin, though how that happens and or what is gained in the process is not at all clear.  Abercrombie writes the blackest humor in the fantasy genre, a celebration of rue and regret that deftly straddles the thin dotted line between comedy and tragedy, and you never know quite whether to laugh or wince or both but you keep reading because he’s that good at what he does. 

Best Served Cold (Joe Abercrombie)

What price vengeance?  It does not pay to be too popular as a mercenary, and Monzcarro Muscatto, leader of the Thousand Swords – the mercenary army working for Grand Duke Orso of Talins, in Styria, at the beginning of the novel – is about to find that out.  By the end of the first chapter her brother Benno is dead, murdered by the command of Duke Orso himself, and Monza nearly so.  From there she swears vengeance on all seven men who were in the room at the time.  Her vengeance will sweep across Styria, leaving blood and fire in its wake.  It will raise kings and raze cities.  It will pull in some familiar names from the First Law series – Caul Shivers, seeking to be a better man far from the North; Shy Vitari, not quite retired from her earlier career; Mauthis of the banking house of Valint and Balk; Nicomo Cosca, Abercrombie’s most charmingly amoral mercenary (who sounds like Inigo Montoya in my head), and even Jezal dan Luther, who makes an unnamed appearance for those who remember the title he came into earlier – and introduce others, notably Shenkt, an assassin and more, Friendly, a stoic and possibly autistic ex-con, and Castor Morveer, a master poisoner and all around waste of space as a human being, not that he would agree.  And it never seems to help.  Vengeance, as several different characters point out along the way, helps neither the dead nor the living.  Abercrombie’s characters all carry themselves with a rueful self-awareness that makes them sympathetic even as they continue down their brutal and bloody paths, even as they all pay the price for a vengeance that might or might not even be theirs.

The Heroes (Joe Abercrombie)

It’s nine years after the First Law trilogy, four years after the events of Best Served Cold, and the consequences continue to spool out in odd and unpredictable ways.  Black Dow is now King of the North, claiming to have killed the Bloody Nine and taken the crown from him.  Bremer dan Gorst is in disgrace, having been raised high in the First Law and then made a scapegoat for one event in Best Served Cold.  Caul Shivers is back on his home territory.  Bayaz, First of the Magi, is pulling strings as usual.  And the conflict between the North and the Union is about to come to a sharp point.  This book is much more tightly focused than Abercrombie’s previous works, but just as well written.  It’s the story of a three-day battle in the North, in a small valley with a couple of towns and a standing stone circle known as the Heroes, an ironic play on the fact that in Abercrombie’s world war is a game fought by tired men with aching joints and hard-won fatalism who see heroes as fools.  The characters on both sides are sympathetic and horrifying in equal measure – there are no heroes here, no villains, just men (and occasionally women) with jobs to do.  There are some new characters as well – Curnden Craw, Whirrun of Bligh, Caul Reachey, and Red Beck for the North, Corporal Tunney, and Finree dan Brock for the Union, among others – but the question is old and it is the same on both sides.  What is a hero?  And what good are they?  This is a character study of a violent time, as messy and inconclusive as events demand.

Red Country (Joe Abercrombie)

Can we change who we are?  At the foundation of Joe Abercrombie’s world you will find that question, and his answer is not comforting.  The world of the First Law is filled with tired, worn down, and deeply self-aware characters, many of whom would like to be better – or at least different – from what they are, and their efforts rarely seem to turn out well.  Red Country is an odd blend of fantasy and western, not as magical realist as Felix Gilman’s Half Made World but definitely a place where the swords and sorcery of fantasy give way to the emerging industrialism and social conflict of the western frontier.  It’s filled with characters we’ve met before in other places, some named – Caul Shivers, Glama Golden, Nicomo Cosca, Sgt. Friendly – and some, like the Mayor of Crease or Lamb, a giant nine-fingered Northman and a fierce warrior, you just have to infer, though the other characters do recognize Lamb when they see him.  It’s been a few years since The Heroes.  Lamb is living quietly with Shy South, her brother Pit and her sister Ro, doing his best to take care of them as he promised their mother he’d do.  But when mercenaries destroy their farm and kidnap Pit and Ro, Shy and Lamb are determined to get them back if all the Near Country and Far Country should burn in the process.  Temple survived the fall of Dagoska to end up as the lawyer for Nicomo Cosca’s mercenary army (not the army that kidnapped the children) but he has his doubts and eventually they end with him floating unconscious past Shy in a river.  Shy’s quest will take them across the Far Country – under the flamboyant guidance of Dab Sweet, aging frontier guide and Davy Crockett archetype, and opposed by Ghosts, the native people of the west – to the mining boomtown of Crease, which is about to burst into civil war, and from there to the home of the Dragon People.  The characters struggle against who they are – except for Cosca, who is who he is and makes no secret of being a “villain” (“That’s why you hired me,” he tells one disappointed employer), though he appears more of a villain and less of a charming rogue here than in earlier books – and while they know who and what they are and what they'd like to become, change is rarely possible.  The book ends on an oddly quiet note, which is a nice way to leave this story.

Sharp Ends (Joe Abercrombie)

TS Eliot once wrote that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  There is more than a little of that in this collection of short stories set in the First Law world, at least for me.  This is especially true of the second to last story, which I had read years before in a different anthology but which – having now gone through all of the First Law books in a row – I now understood in a new light.  I know where the characters came from and how they got to that point, and it gave the story a new depth.  That’s true of all of these stories.  There’s one about a young Colonal Sand dan Glokta, before the Gurkish got to him.  There’s a glimpse of Bethod and Logen Ninefingers that makes you rethink which one of them is the hero and which the villain or whether either of those descriptions make any sense.  Curnden Craw figures into other stories, as does Monza Murcatto, Shy Vitari, Whirrun of Bligh, Sgt. Friendly, and Nicomo Cosca.  Even Corporal Tunney and Private Yolk make an appearance.  Perhaps the most entertaining are the stories featuring Shev and Javre, two women whom we first meet in Westport, Styria and who spend several stories as a slightly mismatched pair of rogues careening through the First Law world.  Shev, a lesbian and the self-proclaimed greatest thief in Styria, is hopelessly in love with Carcolf, a blonde femme fatale and no great moral exemplar herself (though Abercrombie does get inside Carcolf’s head as well, and she is just as complex as Shev).  Javre, a tree of a woman with phenomenal appetites for men, combat, and alcohol, is running from her order, determined not to be anyone’s slave.  Adventures ensue.  The collection as a whole is of a piece with the rest of Abercrombie’s work, featuring the same complex, nuanced, worn down, wearily self-aware characters trying (and largely failing) to be better people than they are and leaving blood, mayhem, and regrets in their wake – perhaps my favorite story is simply a collection of vignettes of people who were caught in the crossfire of Monzcarro Murcatto’s revenge during Best Served Cold, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffered the consequences as collateral damage.  That kind of perspective switch – of seeing the same events through different eyes – is something of a hallmark of Abercrombie’s writing, and I’ll miss it.  This brings my First Law marathon to an end, sadly enough, and now I will just have to wait until next year when the first of the next trilogy will be released.

Dog Days: A Year in the Life of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile (Dave Ihlenfeld)

One of the lesser known perqs of living in southern Wisconsin is that you aren’t that far from the Oscar Mayer headquarters in Madison, which means you have a better chance than most of seeing the Wienermobile on the highways and byways as you travel.  Ihlenfeld spent a year driving one of them around (there is a small fleet of them) and does a good job of telling the story of that year, interspersed with some general history of Oscar Mayer and the Wienermobiles in general.  An aimless soon-to-be graduate of the University of Missouri, he somehow stumbled into the year-long job at the end of his time in college.  After attending Hot Dog High with his Hotdoggers he got put on a crew that included Brad, Sofia, and Ali and sent to cruise California.  Ihlenfeld is a good writer and his stories of his travels and colleagues are entertaining (the maintenance woes of the Wienermobile are a running theme, for example), though his persistent immaturity toward the women in his circle grates after a while.  Eventually the crew gets broken up and he finds himself on a new crew touring the American southeast and then, finally, with a different partner in Germany and Italy.  If there is a hero here it is Russ, the guy who hired Ihlenfeld and ran the Wienermobile program so well, and it is to Ihlenfeld’s credit that he recognizes this.  It was a pleasant and undemanding read, and a nice break after 3500 pages of the First Law.

Eating the Dinosaur (Chuck Klosterman)

This book was a pleasant surprise for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it was a collection of essays of cultural criticism rather than the novel I thought it would be.  Klosterman is an engaging thinker and a smart writer – his ability to ask probing questions from interesting angles is matched by his ability to turn a phrase – and he addresses such issues as whether ABBA is a musical genre in itself (and whether they would even care about such a distinction), why Ralph Sampson was considered such a failure as an NBA player, how American football is a progressive game hiding under a conservative facade, the nature of mediated experience, and whether Ted Kaczynski was right about technology.  Between the essays he offers snippets of imaginary interviews with himself, completely without context and therefore crystalline in their way.  Throughout there is the running theme of the messy relationship between perception and reality – a theme that Klosterman delightfully twists away from the usual undergraduate speculations that one finds on the subject and toward more thoughtful examination.

“A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow”: An American Hitchhiking Odyssey (Tim Brookes)

The subtitle of this book is ironic on two levels.  First, Brookes was born and raised in England, settling in the US only as an adult.  He’s been here a while, though, and since one of his goals on this expedition was to explore America – to repeat in 1998 the hitchhiking journey he took through the US in 1973 and see what if anything had changed, either in the country or in himself – making the title a small irony for an Englishman, perhaps, but a manageable one.  Second, though, he spends a fair amount of time not hitchhiking.  His partner for this journey is Tomasz, a photographer from Poland who often ferries Brookes around in his aging Buick Skylark, and Brookes also spends a fair amount of time on buses.  But as he says, he’s older now and his knees let him know this.  He does do a fair amount of hitchhiking, though, and he meets up with a crowd of people who are uniformly kind to him and interesting in their way.  Many of them go out of their way to be helpful to him.  He even spends a night with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, though – in a further irony – it is Brookes who is rambling and Elliott who has now settled down.  Brookes starts in New York City, works his way to the Bay Area in California, then up to Seattle and back across, ending up at his home in Vermont.  He’s a good writer and an entertaining travel companion, and if his occasional efforts to extract Larger Meaning don’t quite work it is enjoyable to see him catch up to old friends and meet new ones on the road.

The Light Ages (Ian R. MacLeod)

What if magic were just another commodity – a substance mined from the earth, responsive to human will and language but otherwise not all that different from coal?  What if aether – as this commodity was called, in deference to the ancient views of matter – became the foundation of British life, from its economy and architecture to its society and politics?  What if too much exposure to aether could turn a person into … something else, a “changeling” or such?  In Ian MacLeod’s fascinating story of an alternate Britain, aether is discovered in the late 1600s at the end of what became known as the Age of Kings.  It is now almost hundred years into the Third Age of Industry – ages tend to last about a century – and Britain is a land of guilds, grim industry, vast gaps between haves and have-nots, and roughly Edwardian technology (mostly horse-drawn carriages, for example, but a few motorcars here and there).  Robert Borrows grows up in Bracebridge, somewhere in northern England, the son of a minor guildsman and a mother slowly turning into a changeling.  Shortly before she dies she takes him to meet Mistress Summerton and her ward, Anna – a beautiful young girl and a changeling herself.  Their paths part, and eventually Robert hops a train to London to remake himself into a revolutionary working for a new Age, the Age of Light.  His paths cross with Anna’s again, and from there it spirals outward into a lushly written story with echoes of Charles Dickens, China Mieville, Les Miserables, and Ralph Glasser.  Come the revolution, things will be different – not necessarily better and maybe not even all that different, but people try anyway.  It’s a bittersweet story of love and loss, of great events and family secrets, of economic scandals and political crises, all told with a wordsmith’s eye for detail.  Remarkably dense reading at times, but well worth it.

The House of Storms (Ian R. MacLeod)

A century after Robert Borrows’ story ends, at the closing of the Age of Light, Grandguildmistress Alice Meynell brings her tubercular son Ralph to Invercombe, a grand house on England’s western shore, where the Severn meets the sea, in search of healing.  For all that she is the master manipulator of this story and for all the space in it she takes up, Alice – a descendent of the Bowdley-Smarts (minor characters from the previous book) and an ambitious and possibly sociopathic social climber – is not the focus.  Instead, the complex and changing relationship between Ralph and the local shoregirl who becomes one of Invercombe’s maids – Marion Price – sustains this episodic story over the course of several decades.  We see Ralph and Marion as star-crossed lovers, joyously exploring each other and the scientific theory they call Habitual Adaptation, before events shift and they are separated.  We see their lives grow and change.  And when England is riven by civil war, we see their roles grow and adapt until finally, at the end, it is once again Marion and Ralph at the center of things.  The Age of Light turned out to be much like the one before it, despite Robert Borrows’ best efforts, but the one that comes after it will be new.  This densely-written, often rather bittersweet and thoughtful book makes a worthwhile sequel to The Light Ages, completing its story when the events of the first book are just poorly remembered history.  As a historian, I like when stories take that into account.

Noir (Christopher Moore)

There are a million stories in the big city, and in the San Francisco of 1947, there’s Sammy’s.  Sammy is a bartender with a few low-level personal secrets – some desperation, some law-breaking, some nonsense – and a couple of equally down and out friends whose life gets upended when a dame (hey, it’s 1947 and it’s noir) named Stilton walks into his bar.  Before you can catch your breath, there are murders, snakes, nefarious rich people, misunderstandings, corrupt cops, military men, and, eventually, aliens, which of course means the early-post-war version of Men In Black as well.  Moore keeps the plot moving along quickly once he gets it rolling at all – the first part of the book is mostly tone and dialogue, which is worthwhile in itself when Christopher Moore is writing it – and it all wraps up as what Moore himself, in the Afterward, calls “Perky Noir.”  There are a few laugh out loud moments and Moore’s trademark talent for dialogue is everywhere in evidence – it’s not the deepest book you’ll ever read, but you’ll have a good time while you’re there.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Anthony Bourdain)

I miss Anthony Bourdain.  I never met the man, but for many years he was a presence in my life, between his various books and the multiple iterations of the same basic television show that he would do – “former chef travels the world eating and visiting” – for various networks.  He had a unique voice, and a sense of wonder about the world that went far beyond just the oddity of things and encompassed the humanity of it.  He had no patience for pretense or bullshit, and no hesitation about calling out the powerful in defense of the downtrodden.  He’s gone now, and the world is poorer for it.  This was his first book – the one that launched his career change from producer of meals to sharer of meals – and it chronicles his life in the kitchen, from his first awakenings to the possibilities of food as a child visiting French relatives through the drug-addled reckless abandon of his young adulthood to his settling down at Les Halles in NYC, reformed (sort of), but still rakish and rogue-like.  He’s passionate about his food, serious about his kitchenmates – a collection of similar buccaneers in a high-pressure, high-testosterone environment where competence is the only thing that matters and if you can’t speak Spanish you might as well go home – and enlightening with his stories.  I’ve read it before, but it needed to be read again.

The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones (Anthony Bourdain)

This is a collection of short articles, rants, and other bits and pieces of Bourdain’s writing, roughly divided into sections that are labeled with tastes (Sweet, Sour, Umami, etc.) that are clearly meant to convey emotions.  They’re all worth reading, even if at the very end he provides short commentary on each piece and mostly dismisses them as hopelessly flawed.  It’s an interesting tour of his mind, and if – in light of his recent suicide – the throwaway joke about hanging himself in a hotel room seems rather grim, for the most part you get drawn in and are happy to tag along with him in his travels.  That’s really what Bourdain’s gift was, becoming your companion on trips you’ll never take and probably wouldn’t enjoy if you did but which you do enjoy when you’re with him.  His death is a loss for us all.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Peter Frankopan)

The current domination of the world by the West – first, beginning in the 1500s, by Europe and then, beginning in the 1900s, by the United States – is something of a historical anomaly, and one that this book tries to correct.  Frankopan begins with the simple observation that it is neither the West nor the East (China, Japan, and so on) that has been the pivot around which human history has revolved for most of its run, but rather the Silk Road, broadly defined – the area of southern Asia that has linked East and West since humans began trading long distance – that played that role.  It includes such modern-day countries as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and so on.  It’s here that the resources of East and West flowed back and forth, enriching the nations at either end.  It’s here that the main resources of the modern world – fossil fuels, rare earth metals, and so on – exist in abundance.  And it’s here that Frankopan would like to recenter the story of human history.  This dense but readable book is designed for a popular rather than scholarly audience, and it can largely be broken down into two parts, even if Frankopan doesn’t do so explicitly.  In the first part the nations of the Silk Road are the subject – the actors, the doers.  Here we see Persia, India, and the kingdoms of antiquity emerging and becoming, acting and doing.  In the second and longer part (probably because of the disproportionate level of documentation), the nations of the Silk Road are the object – acted upon, done to.  They are the colonies and prizes of the West, and rather than tell their story directly Frankopan uses them to give a different perspective on Western history.  His focus on the modern Middle East in the run-up to World War I, for example, is illuminating.  He has little patience for the dismissive and short-sighted treatment of the Silk Roads by the West – his evisceration of American actions since WWII is particularly biting – but his main point is clear: there is a new Silk Road rising, and East and West need to recognize and account for that fact.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Books Read in 2018, Part 1

Every year since I started this blog I have kept track of what I’ve read, mostly, I suspect, for my own amusement.  It’s interesting to see what books have come and gone over the years.

This year was a bit of a down year for reading, for a lot of reasons, I suspect.  For one thing I spend entirely too much time staring at screens and should cut down on that immediately.  Maybe someday I will.  For another, it’s been a busy year, with events and travels and various and sundry all competing for time that might otherwise have been spent reading.  I don’t regret those obstacles to reading, though.  Life can be good.  For another, it can be hard to focus on reading when the republic is being torn to shreds by a criminal petit-Fascist regime and its cast of enablers, minions, and braying supporters.  That much I do regret.

But one soldiers on, for that is the only possible response.

Here is the list for 2018, a year of many aspects.

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My Uncle Oswald (Roald Dahl)

Oswald Cornelius is a rogue, a lecher, and a con artist, all of which he is proud to admit, but like many of that description he is charming, funny, and fascinating.  In what purports to be an excerpt from his memoirs, Oswald recounts a multi-part attempt to become rich that spans two continents and a good proportion of the famous and the great of 1919.  In the first part, he goes to Sudan to get a good supply of blister beetle powder, the most potent aphrodisiac in the world.  And having obtained this supply, he and his partners A.W. Worley (a rumpled academic chemist) and Yasmine Howcomely (by name as well as Oswald’s description the most beautiful and sex-soaked woman on the planet) proceed to use it for the second part of his scam – a complex plan that has them using Oswald’s privileged position in English society to make them all rich.  In many ways Yasmine is the most interesting character in the book, and that is saying something in a book as enjoyable as this one. 

The Illustrated Eric (Terry Pratchett)

While I read Eric as a novel a few years back, I hadn’t read it with the Josh Kirby illustrations.  Plus, there is never a bad time to reread Terry Pratchett.  Eric is a 14-year-old boy with all of the dweebiness, arrogance, and general cluelessness that this implies.  Rincewind is a wizard, though a rather shoddy one whose main response to life is to run in the other direction as fast as possible – a response that has kept him alive in a hostile universe for longer than he might have expected.  When Eric conjures up Rincewind in a magic circle, thinking that Rincewind is a demon, things get weird quickly.  Astfgl is the new King of Hell and wants to reorganize the place on a more bureaucratically sound footing, much to the dismay of the more traditional demons.  These two plots twine around each other as Rincewind and Eric careen throughout time and space, eventually landing in Hell for what in a more conventional novel would be the big confrontation scene.  It’s a fun romp through the Discworld and one that features a pleasing amount of my favorite character, Death.

Glasshouse (Charles Stross)

If you’ve ever wondered what “science-fiction noir” would look like, well, look no further than this taut psychological thriller that is a fedora away from something that would have felt at home in the 1940s.  Robin lives in a 27th-century universe where the Acceleration has already happened.  It’s a post-scarcity society where travel across vast interstellar distances (and across rooms) is instantaneous and where nobody really dies because they get disassembled into their component atoms and rebuilt however they like.  It’s also a society reeling in the aftermath of the collapse of the Republic of Is into small, hostile subpolities because of the Censorship Wars.  An engineered virus called Curious Yellow infected the gates that allowed travel and deleted memories from those who passed through – nobody knows what really happened anymore, and Stross never really explains it.  Robin starts the novel having just woken up from a memory reduction surgery – apparently a common thing in a universe where people are effectively immortal – and has no idea about his own past beyond a vague letter he may or may not have written to himself.  He meets Kay and they have a brief fling, all the while dodging assassins who clearly do remember his past and aren’t happy about it.  Robin eventually decides to hide out in a self-contained experiment designed to replicate ancient (read: “late 20th-century”) human society, where he is reborn as Reeve, a young woman.  The society, of course, has been infiltrated, and Robin’s past will come back to him in ever more urgent snippets until it all comes together with a bang.  Stross writes very immersive stories and this one pulls you along nicely.  It’s also one of his few stand-alone novels.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English (John McWhorter)

John McWhorter has a few things he’d like to get off his chest about the history of the English language, all of which are along the general theme of “the standard history isn’t accurate.”  He feels that the Celtic languages of Britain played a much bigger role in the history of English than they are usually credited with, particularly when it comes to the “meaningless ‘do’” that we put in questions (for example, “Do you know?” – what does the “do” mean there?).  He has serious objections to the Sapir-Whorf thesis – the hoary old linguistic idea that languages shape thought – since it doesn’t really explain why languages change their grammars as radically as English has done.  Speaking of grammars, he spends a great deal of time pointing out how simple English is, at least when compared with every other Germanic language and, indeed, pretty much every other language in the Indo-European family.  And he thinks the Semitic languages also had more of a role in the history of English than they are usually given, though here he admits he’s mostly speculating.  If you enjoy linguistics and the history of English – a side interest of mine since at least my undergraduate days – you’ll like this slim book.  McWhorter is an engaging writer with a lot to say and he says it well.  He does not cut you any slack, though, and while this isn’t a scholarly monograph neither is it something you’d hand to a random stranger as beach reading.  He delves fairly deeply into some reasonably technical linguistic areas, and while he does explain them fairly clearly they are not simple.

Walking to Canterbury: A Modern Journey Through Chaucer’s Medieval England (Jerry Ellis)

Jerry Ellis likes to walk.  A man of mixed Cherokee and English heritage (as he is at pains to tell you at least once per chapter), he celebrated his Native American side by walking the Trail of Tears, and here he celebrates his English side – and tries to unify it with the Cherokee side – by walking the pilgrimage trail from London to Canterbury, just as medieval English pilgrims did (and, he insists, in the same amount of time).  Ellis is a good writer though he assumes you are as spiritually inclined as he is, which can be grating at times.  He enjoys meeting people and has a talent for getting them to talk with him.  He’s achingly earnest.  And he intersperses his travels and reflections with snippets of both Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and excursions through medieval English history.  It’s a pleasant walk, one that made me think I should go back to England and spend more time there, and if that wasn’t the point of the book then perhaps it ought to have been.

Hiroshima (John Hersey)

If you aren’t familiar with this, you probably should be – especially as the childishly ignorant current occupant of the Oval Office tosses around nuclear threats like a schoolyard bully.  That that the thermonuclear weapons of today are orders of magnitude more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 just makes that fact even more frightening.  Hersey starts by introducing his civilians in Hiroshima – a fairly unrepresentative set of people, disproportionately Christian and including several foreigners, but nevertheless all civilians and human beings – and then recounting their experiences on the ground as Hiroshima is destroyed from the air.  It’s a harrowing story, told without much context (originally published in 1946, there had been little time for follow-through, nor is Hersey much interested in the war prior to the bombing), and perhaps more psychologically effective for that.  Lauren’s English class was going to read this, and her teacher asked me to give a presentation to the class on Truman’s decision-making process (i.e. “Who would do such a thing and why?”) so I figured I should read it again myself.  It turns out that Truman had well-thought out reasons for making the decisions he made, and whether those decisions and reasons were justified is a question that historians still argue about.

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son (Michael Chabon)

Michael Chabon is best known for his fiction, but this is a collection of short essays all revolving around the general theme of manhood as filtered through Michael Chabon.  He’s a good writer with a lot to say, and for the most part he says it well, though I will admit that the book improved markedly once he got past the section on his kids – there was a lot of whinging and hand-wringing in that section.  But once he moves on to other subjects – love, sex, marriage, time, aging, and so on – he becomes a much more welcoming companion.  He talks about his upbringing (much of which happened in places and times familiar to me, so that was nice to read about), his experiences with women, his serious nerdhood (there’s an entire essay on Doctor Who, for example), and his thoughts about all of it.  It’s not the most profound book and it takes a while to get going, but it gets there in the end.

Discworld and Philosophy: Reality Is Not What It Seems (Nicolas Michaud, ed.)

There is a cottage industry within the academic discipline of philosophy, one that takes bits of popular culture and uses them to explore philosophical issues in a way that – if it goes well – illuminates some of the abstruse things philosophers think about so that us common rabble can understand them.  Whether this works is an open question, though the “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series is now up to 101 volumes just in this incarnation alone.  A while back I read a very similar book to this one that wasn’t officially part of this series, too.  This book consists of about two dozen essays of varying quality and readability, all attempting to shoehorn Discworld into philosophy or vice verse.  On the one hand this isn’t hard – Pratchett imbued his creation with a strong moral code and a magpie collection of larger issues.  When one of the main characters is Death, you’ve got stuff to work with from a philosophical perspective.  On the other hand, academic philosophers do not become academic philosophers for their graceful prose or their sense of humor – two things that more or less defined Pratchett’s stories – and that mismatch becomes more and more obvious as you read along.  There were a few essays that were thought-provoking in this collection, but most read as seminar papers into which literary references were sprinkled like dust. The first book I read of this kind had longer and more difficult essays, but better and more thought-provoking ideas.

The Half-Made World (Felix Gilman)

The war between the Gun and the Line has been going on for four hundred years, out in the West where the world is but half-made.  John Creedmoor is an Agent of the Gun – a man who carries around and is commanded by a demon named Marmion who inhabits his gun and gives him both tasks and strength.  The Gun tends toward the wild, the showboat, the flamboyant, and Creedmoor lives up to that well.  Sub-Invigilator (Third) Lowry is a Linesman, who serves the demons who inhabit the Engines of the Line.  The Engine is railroads, machinery, oil, smoke, mining, rules and inexorable conquest, and Lowry serves it gladly.  The Red Valley Republic tried to find its own course between the Line and the Gun and failed, and its best General lies broken and dying in the opening chapter, his mind destroyed by a noise-bomb of the Line.  There may or may not be a weapon hidden deep in the ruins of his mind, and when he survives the first chapter that weapon becomes the object of a quest from both sides.  Liv Alverhuysen is a mind doctor – one hesitates to impose the word “psychologist” onto this world – safe, comfortable, and bored in far-off Koenigswald.  She will accept an invitation to examine the General at House Dolorous, on the edge of the West, and she, Creedmoor, and Lowry will collide there.  Eventually this collision forces them further west, where the world is still unformed and fluid, and where the indigenous Folk – black-maned, bone-white, and mysterious to both Line and Gun – still hold sway.  This is a deeply realized world that is more than a little off-kilter from our own, though the echoes of the settlement of the American west keep it grounded (it’s probably not coincidental that the calendar dates in Gilman’s novel are all in the 1800s).  Creedmoor is an engaging rogue, sympathetic though neither trustworthy nor virtuous.  Lowry is slightly more sympathetic, though rather less interesting.  This is not an easy or all that accessible book, but it was a rewarding one and well written.

The Rise of Ransom City (Felix Gilman)

This isn’t really a sequel to The Half-Made World, but it does continue the story somewhat.  Told in the first person as the memoir of an unreliable narrator as pieced together by a later editor and presented with footnotes and both introduction and conclusion, this is the story of Harry Ransom – autodidact, inventor of the Ransom Process (a form of free energy that feeds off of some of the more arcane aspects of the Folk who first inhabited the West), toy of fate, and eager self-promoter.  We met Ransom briefly in The Half-Made World – he was a snake-oil salesman caught in the crossfire of a town that John Creedmore didn’t quite intend to destroy – and both Creedmore and Alverhuysen make appearances here.  But the story isn’t about Creedmore and Alverhuysen’s quest.  Ransom is a utopian dreamer.  He wants to found a city – Ransom City – that will be the perfect place, a utopia out on the edge of the West.  He proceeds with the blithe confidence of the con man, the rueful weariness of the self-aware pawn of larger forces, and the eager inventiveness of the engineer.  His Ransom Process does actually work, which means that both Line and Gun want it.  It’s not clear from the fictional editor’s apparatus what has happened to the war between Line and Gun at the time he is editing Ransom’s memoir – it may be over, or simply not as important as it was – but Ransom himself gets fully caught up in it.  People die.  Ghosts appear.  Ransom meets his hero and is disillusioned.  He falls in love.  He works for people he said he’d never work for, and he brings unintentional ruin everywhere he goes.  And when it is over, who can say whether he succeeded or not?  Certainly not his editor.  Gilman’s story is set in a deeply constructed world full of wonder and violence, with no clear outcomes or moral lessons.  He draws you in and keeps you there.  I will have to find more of his work.

Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places, Vol. 2 (Klara Glowczewska, ed.)

I read the first volume of this last year and several months later I decided that it was time for the second.  Like the first, it is a lovely collection of travel writing from some pretty high-powered writers – EL Doctorow, Pico Iyer, Jay McInerney, Calvin Trillan, and so on – who seem to have been given a fair amount of freedom to write about their travels however they chose.  For someone who enjoys staying home as much as I do, I sure read a lot of these things.  But they’re fun, and every now and then I feel as if I ought to go to see these places.  I enjoyed the ones focused on cities much more than the ones focused on natural splendor, which is pretty much how I would react in real life as well.  Sometimes the articles suffer from age – some of these date back to the 1980s, which was over thirty years ago! – but mostly they are written in a sort of timeless place where travelers can see and be welcomed, and you need that once in a while.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

An Evening With Sansho

Last night’s dinner was inedible, though it did provide valuable lessons.

When we were in New York last month one of the stops we made was to the little spice shop that Kim had been wanting to visit for years now.  It’s a neat little store, once you are allowed inside.  It’s small and crowded with boxes, and in the middle are a couple of tables with sampler jars of various spices and blends as well as larger jars that you can buy.  They even have a couple of cookbooks that looked interesting but not interesting enough to buy at that price.  It’s a fine line. 

We left with a small bag of jars.  Kim got a couple of blends, and I came away with a jar of sansho pepper.

I’d never heard of sansho pepper before.  It apparently comes from Japan, which makes sense given the name.  It’s kind of light colored and not really related to black pepper, and it has a strong citrusy overtone that – according to the label – goes well with poultry.

Since we were having chicken last night, I figured I’d try some on it.  You have to use the stuff you buy, otherwise it’s just clutter, after all.  I ground some up into small bits and sprinkled it on the chicken the way one does with black pepper.

But sansho pepper is not related to black pepper, which means you can’t use it like black pepper.  Black pepper is a fairly mild spice and if you’re going to fry chicken with it you need a decent amount of the stuff.  I figured this would be the same.

While sansho pepper is not particularly spicy either, it turns out that the amounts one uses are not equivalent.

For one thing, it does have a bit of a kick that only emerges as you continue to eat it.  If this was all there was to it, though, we’d have plowed through the meal and emerged out the other side with clean plates. 

But for another thing, as it clearly says on the label that I didn’t read carefully enough, sansho pepper produces “a tongue numbing tingle” that stays with you for a long, long time, especially if you use whole number multiples of the amount that you later discover you should use.

The odd part of it is that when you try to drink water afterward the water feels like it’s carbonated and tastes like something that would have environmental laws passed to prevent if we had a government that actually cared about things like breathing clean air and drinking clean water.

So it was an experience.

Of course, so is getting hit by a brick.

We’ve decided that a much smaller amount of sansho pepper mixed into a sauce of some kind would actually have been good, so we have a plan for next time.  It’s good to have a plan.  That’s a valuable lesson.

It’s also good to have a house full of other food that you can eat. 

That’s a valuable lesson too.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Happy Holidays, Part the Second!

We had our second Christmas this past weekend.  Any resemblance to hobbits is purely intentional because – like all of our family events on both sides of the family – it involved a great deal of food.  What can I say?  We know what we like, and it isn’t being hungry.

We headed up to Kim’s parents’ house on Saturday.  It’s a nice ride through the Wisconsin countryside, which looks surprisingly like a lot of the countryside we drove through on our previous Christmas trip (once you get west of the Ohio state line) except that we recognize the radio stations and can skip the ones that play objectionable music without having to wait to be serenaded.  It’s more efficient that way.

We were, surprisingly enough, the first to arrive.  It’s always the people who have to travel the furthest who get there first, mostly because you have to plan for contingencies that usually don’t happen while the people who live just down the road can fall out of their chairs and into wherever they need to be.  This is why we never wanted to live near a school.  Not because of the screaming hordes of children or their parents, but because we knew, deep in our hearts, that we’d never get our kids there until the moment the bell rang.

There was much unpacking and snacking.

And then there was a significant amount of hanging about and catching up while others arrived, which is as holidays ought to be.

Eventually dinner was ready and we mostly sat down to eat, except that while my side of the family can sit down at a table for days on end, happily working our way through whatever’s on the table, Kim’s side of the family is a constant blur of motion during which vast quantities of delicious, delicious food somehow manages to get consumed.  It all works.

The main gift-giving event is, as proper, centered on the kids, and there was a joyous interlude of chaos and thank yous.





It was about this time that Marin decided her historian uncle needed to know about Irena Sendler, a hero of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.  And you know what?  I did need to know about her.  More people should know about Irena Sendler and her courageous stand against evil.  Thanks, Marin!

The adults skipped the first round of gifts, but gathered around the table for The Game.  Six piles of gifts.  One die.  Then a lightning round of forced trades.




Go big or go home.

Eventually we had to go home, as it was a bit of a hike back to our own beds and we wanted to get to them at a somewhat reasonable hour.

So the holidays are now at an end, at least until next year.

Merry, merry, everybody.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Happy Holidays, Part the First!

I didn’t take many pictures on our trip east.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe I just got pictured out this year – I’ve taken a lot of them over the last twelve months, as it has been an eventful time and that’s what pictures are for, to record and remember such times.  I should have taken more this trip, because we had a lovely time visiting friends and family.  Not as many of those as we’d have liked, either – never as many, really – but enough.  Fortunately everything has a camera in it these days so I can swipe some photos from my family, but still.  There were entire evenings that have no pictures.  I should have taken more.

Our first stop on our Eastern Tour was in Pittsburgh, where we spent the night with our friends Mike, Krista, and Eli.  It was a quiet night, really – a lovely dinner, surrounded and followed by the kind of free-ranging conversations that happen when good friends get together after too long apart.  There are not enough of those nights in a lifetime, and it is always good to have one more.

The next morning we headed to Philadelphia.  The old family home has been sold to new owners – nice people, by all accounts, who have been keeping my mom informed of what they’re doing to the place (my grandmother’s old room is now a bright and cheerful baby’s room, for example, which is a lovely thing) – so we checked into a new hotel that they just built up the hill from the old supermarket that used to be there when I was a kid but hasn’t been for years and yes, I know I’m getting old when I give people directions according to what used to be there, thank you for noticing, but so it goes.  We met my brother and his family, had cheesesteaks in the lobby because we were in Philadelphia, and then headed over to my mom’s place for Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve is always the big holiday in my family – has been all my life, and probably longer than that.  Christmas Day is for relaxing and visiting.  We had a rather scaled down version of the Seven Kinds of Fish traditional meal, since to be honest not many of us actually like seafood (you’re supposed to have an odd number, and my dad always used to say that one is also an odd number), and then there were gifts and desserts and games and life is good when you get down to it.



On Christmas Day Lori’s parents joined us for dinner where my mom lives, and then we mostly hung out for the rest of the day.  We’re good at hanging out.  If there were Olympic medals for hanging out, our house would be covered in gold and we’d have to be careful about stray electrical current.  It’s how we roll, yo.


On our last day in Philadelphia we went to Center City for our annual pilgrimage to Reading Terminal Market.  We took the commuter train into the city.  It runs through West Philadelphia, where I was born, and in honor of that fact Lauren sent me this.


I may use it as my passport photo next time.

For those of you who haven’t been to the Reading Terminal Market, well, you should go.  It’s a 19th-century street market inside of an old train station, and if you really love crowds and good food you will absolutely be in your element.  Since this is in fact me, I had a good time.  I’m not sure if everyone on this trip was so enamored of the crowds, but there you go.


I got a real Philadelphia soft pretzel (with mustard, as God and Nature intended pretzels to be consumed) and a couple of cannoli from Termini’s.  You have to get your Italian fix when you’re back east because the midwest is criminally lacking in Italians.  Tabitha and her friends at Small Liberal Arts College have started a tradition where they cook a communal meal every few weeks and she asked me for the recipe for Italian Wedding Soup for one of them.  Good luck getting escarole in the heartland!  Oh well.   Spinach will do in a pinch.

After we left Reading Terminal we wandered around the city for a while, looking into various shops and finally landing in a little coffee shop near City Hall.  I miss living in a big city, where you can just go out and do things like that.  Cities are where human civilization peaks as far as I am concerned, and this one in particular is home.  I suspect it always will be, even if it has been decades since I lived there.

We had ravioli that night.  I made gravy (which is, in fact, called gravy and people who disagree with that can keep it to themselves thank you very much) and we hit our favorite handmade-pasta shop.  We have learned, over the years, to enunciate “P & S Ravioli Company” very clearly, as otherwise people get a very interesting impression of what we’re about to have for dinner.

The next day we headed up to New York City, stopping along the way to visit Trish and Joel and their family.  I’ve known Trish since college and it’s been way too long since we’ve visited like that.  After I graduated we lived in a big old house off campus with Jack, Laura, and a few other people.  Jack and Laura came up for the evening as well, and we partied like it was 1989!  Which, given us, meant food and free-ranging conversation, and that’s a good thing.  Several good things.  Whatever. 

It was on our journey to New York that we encountered Tragedy, or at least Serious Bummerhood.  Kim convinced me to play the Hamilton lottery a few years ago, and now both of us have this app on our phone that lets us put in for a chance to win two tickets to see Hamilton for a total of $20, which is what?  1% of the usual cost?  Something like that.  You can only apply for a show a day or so in advance, and you have to respond quickly to the notification if you win, but we do know people who have won and we were heading to New York City, home of Broadway, so we figured why not keep entering even on our trip?

Kim won for the day after we arrived in New York, for a matinee show that would not have required us to change any of our plans in order to attend!  Unfortunately we were traveling through New Jersey when the notifications arrived and she didn’t see them until after the deadline passed, and the Hamilton folks are not very forgiving of that kind of thing.  So no Hamilton for us, alas.

Tragedy indeed.

We spent the next few days in New York City, spread out across Keith and Lori’s apartment and generally having fun in the Big Apple, which to the best of my knowledge is only called the Big Apple by people who don’t actually live there.  But since I’m one of those people, I can do that.  As a native Philadelphian I’m not really supposed to like New York – it’s a rivalry thing – but I can’t help it.  It’s a great city, and I enjoy hanging out there.

It was a busy couple of days.

We met one of my UCF friends, Nathan, for brunch and further conversations at a local deli.  He told us a great story about a movie he worked on that I probably can’t repeat here other than to note that it is one of the best stories I’ve heard in a really long time.  Also, if you’re looking for a great deli that serves traditional New York food and isn’t mobbed by tourists, you can do no better than the 2nd Avenue Deli.

We finally went to the little spice shop that Kim has been jonesing to visit for several years now.  It’s about the size of your living room, almost entirely given over to cardboard boxes full of spices, requires you to be buzzed in by the staff rather than allowing you to walk in on your own, and smells heavenly.  We live in the land of Penzey’s so we do have access to good spices here in Wisconsin, but still.  It was a fun place to stop.

We had a Game Night at my cousins Chris and Chris’ new apartment – chili and Cards Against Humanity for the win, especially when combined with mulled cider.  This was where I discovered that New Yorkers are really focused on their neighborhoods and very clear about where neighborhoods start and end.  In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the two big cities where I’ve lived, there’s more slack in that sort of thing.


We found a lovely little book store and raided it thoroughly, though it turned out that they knew us better than they thought.  One of the tables had a bunch of books wrapped up in brown paper with inscriptions that said “If you liked [this list of books], you’ll like this one!”  Kim took a chance on one and it ended up being a book she already had read.  They took it as a return.  In the bookstore’s defense, they were right with the inscription.  On the walk back home we stopped at a Goodwill so I could get a shirt nice enough to go out to eat in New York, so now I have a New York Eating Shirt that I can also wear to work because hey, button down.  There were a number of other purchases made by others as well, because hey, inexpensive clothing.

We stopped for hot dogs at a Grey’s Papaya, which is mandatory for all tourists in New York but they're also inexpensive and tasty so we never resist it.

We had dinner at a nice Italian place (again, gotta stock up on Italian back east) with our friends Ellen, Rob, Jonah, and Quinn, where we caught up on all the happenings since the last time we’d met.  We pretty much shut that place down, which is what you should do in these situations.

We visited the Fairway, one of our favorite supermarkets because it has pretty much everything you never knew you wanted.

Lauren and Sara went out exploring for an afternoon on their own.  They took the subway down to Times Square (not on New Year’s Eve – that’s a zoo) and wandered around.  On the way home they discovered that uptown subways look a lot like downtown subways and ended up in Queens, but they found their way back without any trouble.  It still amazes me that my kids are old enough to do this sort of thing on their own.

We had a lovely dinner with our friends Joshua, Abby, and Zach, complete with more free-ranging conversation and a couple of rounds of a game called Love Letters.  I almost had the hang of it by the time we left.  It was a short visit as they were recovering from a Winter Crud, but it was good to see them even so.  We took the subway back down to Keith and Lori’s place.  The A train has a long uninterrupted bit and we had a busker get on at one end of it, plug his guitar into his portable amp, and serenade us until we got to the other end.  Of course we threw some currency into his hat.  He was good.

Keith taped the Eagles game so after we got back he and I retreated to the bedroom to watch the Defending Super Bowl Champions squeak into the playoffs with a resounding win over a hapless Washington Racial Slurs team coupled with the Minnesota Vikings losing their game.  I have several students who are big Vikings fans, so I will have to mention this a time or two, I think.  By the time you read this you’ll know if the Eagles have won their first playoff game (or, if you’re reading this after February, how it all turned out in the end), but I don’t know that yet.  I’m not optimistic – I’m from Philadelphia, after all, and pessimism is my birthright – but I wasn’t optimistic last year either and that turned out pretty well as I recall.  Go Birds!


And then it was New Year’s Eve in New York City.

We don’t do Times Square on New Year’s Eve because that way madness lies and there are too many other things going on in that city to worry about that.  Lori had friends who were performing in something called The Liar Show in the basement of a place called the Cornelia Street Cafe so we met up with Chis and Chris there and went to that.  We had a grand time there.  They will be changing venues this year, but you should track them down and go if you find yourself in New York.


The basement of the Cornelia Street Cafe is about ten feet wide, eight feet high, and forty feet long, so it’s an interesting space to see a show.   But since this was a storytelling event it worked out well.  Basically there are four people who each tell a 10-15 minute long story, then there is a question-and-answer session and eventually you have to figure out which one is lying.  I am proud to say I figured out the liar, though it did take me a while and for a long time I thought it was someone else.  But there you go.  All that classroom and grading experience comes in handy sometimes.



From there we walked over to Little Italy in a pelting rain, where we had more Italian food because it’s good food that’s why.  It’s hard to get 10 people into a table on New Year’s Eve, even with a reservation, and we ended up waiting a while, but it was worth it.  I’m continually amazed at how inexpensive food is in New York.  We had dinner for ten in an actual Italian restaurant where the waiters all speak like my ancestors, with handmade pasta and wine, on New Year’s Eve, in Little Italy, for less than what we would have paid at an Olive Garden in Wisconsin.  And it was really, really good.



Once we got back to Keith and Lori’s apartment we mostly hung out and welcomed in the New Year, because that's what one does after all.


It’s 2019, folks.  May it treat you well.  May it treat us all well.