Friday, March 30, 2007

All Creatures Great And Small, James Herriot

All Creatures Great And Small
James Herriot

Call me a sentimental old fool, but I love this book. All Creatures Great And Small was the first book by James Herriot. It's a memoir of his first couple of years working as a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire. It's also wonderful reading, plain and simple.

It's easy to look up James Herriot and find out that it was the pen name of James Alfred (Alf) Wight. You can find out a lot about his life and times if you spend even a moment or two looking. The Wikipedia entry seems pretty good, is available, and there are probably many other places to look as well.

But the real wonder here is the book itself. These short tales - some sad, some happy, some touching - grab the reader and simply will not let go. I last read this book over twenty years ago and it turns out I remembered far more of it than I thought possible. The author's love of the countryside, his patients, partners, and clients shines through. Every fifth page makes me laugh, cry, or giggle out loud, so for me, reading this alone is probably best.

If I ever manage to take up writing in a more serious way, I hope whatever I produce results in even one tenth of the reaction I have to All Creatures Great And Small.

If you need a reason to smile, or a refresher on some of the good things in life, pick up a copy of this book. You won't be sorry you did.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Anonymous Rex, Eric Garcia

Anonymous Rex
Eric Garcia

Back in 2006, Malabar reviewed Hot And Sweaty Rex - the third in a series of detective novels based on a world in which dinosaurs live along side humans. The idea sounded so silly that I went to to see if I could find them. Sure enough, I did.

The first is called Anonymous Rex and I enjoyed it, despite my previously declared lack of love for detective stories. In it we encounter Vincent Rubio, a detective - and a velociraptor - living and working in LA. He's got an addiction problem, a cash flow problem, a dead-partner problem, and probably a few other problems that I've forgotten to mention. Eventually he gets mixed up in a complex case where the events and sources are scattered over both NYC and LA.

The case itself wasn't the main thing that held my interest here. What worked for me was the humor and the world propped up by the humor. Dinosaurs have actually continued to evolve and still live among us, making up a small but significant percent of the population. They live disguised as humans.

Let me repeat that: these dinosaurs live among us, disguised as humans.

So it doesn't matter if you're a triceratops, a brontosaurus, or a velociraptor, you weigh something like what a human weighs, you're of similar height, and with enough work and the right equipment you can stuff your tail, horns, teeth and hide into a guise that lets you pass for human. You speak the local language, have a job, and generally get by. The "why" behind all that is even explained a bit.

It sounds totally implausible, and in fact it is totally implausible, but after a couple of chapters I stopped objecting. The writing is good enough to let that happen.

The characters are endearing in a way, and obviously humor is a part of this tale, though it's not laugh-out-loud funny in my opinion. Regardless, the humor works, and it kept me engaged.

If I have a gripe it is one that has been common to most of the detective novels I've read. At some point there's a place where some "useful information" (tm) falls into the hands of the detective, and I am all too aware that it's a plot point; it just doesn't feel natural. In this case that happened about three-fourths of the way through the book and it was jarring. There were any number of ways that information could have been introduced much earlier in the story, so that when it became important it wouldn't have clearly been presented just a chapter or two before. But as I say, that's an issue I've hit in one way or another in a lot of the detective novels I've read.

One other issue that comes up is the prevalence of dinos in the world. Vincent tells us they're not that common - perhaps five or ten percent of the population - but he keeps on running into them. After a while I started to wonder if his estimates of their prevalence weren't a bit off, but perhaps not. Certainly they think humans are an inferior species, so ignoring us is second nature to them. Given that, perhaps only the dino/dino interactions are the important ones in their perspective, and thus almost all we read about. But I still don't know how many there really are.

Overall this book was fun. It's a mind-candy kind of work. I enjoyed it, and I'll read the sequels over time, but I probably won't reread Anonymous Rex in the future.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Finding Serenity, Jane Espenson

Finding Serenity
Jane Espenson

OK, admit it. Who watched the FOX TV show Firefly? That few of you, eh? Who's even heard of it? Which of you actually heard about it while it was on the air?

No, I didn't either. But I'm an odd case. I don't watch television. We don't get cable where I live, I'm too cheap to pay for satellite service, and the rabbit rabbit ears can pull in precisely two stations, (on a good day). As you might expect, neither of those stations is a FOX affiliate, but even if FOX was available, I simply don't watch TV. I'd rather read, work on the computer, carve stone, or any one of a jillion other things.

OK, so probably two years ago or so one of my stone carving students - knowing that I enjoy at least some science fiction - suggested that I see the movie Serenity. "What's it about?" I asked. "Well", said Dave, "it's about these people... "

And thus I was introduced to Firefly and Serenity at the same time. My next step was to visit Netflix where I added the TV series and the movie to my queue. When I watched them I was amazed, and I greatly enjoyed both the show and the movie. Firefly was a fun, intelligently written, and visually appealing series. It had a great cast of characters, lots of compelling back story, and was relationship driven. In short, it was very good. Serenity told much of the story that was missing from the TV series, which had been canceled way ahead of its time thanks to a slew of idiotic decisions at FOX.

If you haven't seen them, imagine a western set in space and you're halfway to the show. But instead of cardboard cutouts for characters put real people in the roles. Now you're closer to the real thing. It really is fun.

"But where's the book come in?" I hear you ask.

Well, as I dug into Joss Whedon's creation, I found some additional material. This book was one of those things, and I acquired a copy back over the holidays. Finding Serenity is a set of essays, written by various authors, about things of - and related to - Firefly. Some are intentionally humorous, and those are the best. Some are good sources of information, like the translations of the Chinese phrases used in the show. Others are more serious, scholarly articles discussing one or another aspect of the show, the universe it is set in, etc. The latter works vary a bit in quality.

So, should you read this book? If you're a serious Firefly fan, yes, you probably should. But then again, if you're that serious you've probably already read it. Remember, I got to this series very, very late, and the real fans (called "Browncoats" for reasons you can learn from the show) are way, way ahead of me.

For the rest of us, I'm not as sure you should bother. Start with the show itself. Then watch the movie. If, after that, you find yourself searching the net for for forums where Firefly is discussed, hunger for more information about the Alliance, and want to know exactly what Kaylee had to work with back in the engine room, sure, go ahead and read it. It's not bad, but it isn't the show itself, and it won't answer a lot of questions about the show specifically. So be sure your addiction is strong before you go there. Reading scholarly articles about a TV show can feel a bit odd.

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Best From Fantasy And Science Fiction, Nineteenth Series, Edward L. Ferman

Title: The Best From Fantasy And Science Fiction, Nineteenth Series
Editor: Edward L. Ferman
Rating: Neutral

This is going to be a short review.

I know I read this book. In fact, I just finished it. But I can remember just about nothing from it. Fourteen short stories, all published in Fantasy And Science Fiction magazine in about 1969 or 1970, but nothing stuck with me in any detail.

Perhaps the problem is that these stories are really a product of their time: two mention (or feature) recreational drug use; two discuss Bigfoot. How 1960's.

Most are by authors I've never heard of, but for the record, here's the list from the back cover:
  • Gone Fishin' by Robing Scott Wilson
  • Selectra Six-Ten by Avram Davidson
  • Longtooth by Edgar Pangborn
  • Sundance by Robert Silverberg
  • The Brief, Swinging Career Of Dan And Judy Smythe by Carter Wilson
  • Dream Patrol by Charles Runyon
  • Calliope And Gherkin And The Yankee Doodle Thing by Evelyn E. Smith
  • Notes Just Prior To The Fall by Barry N. Malzberg
  • Confessions by Ron Goulart
  • Get A Horse! by Larry Niven
  • The Man Who Learned Loving by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Litterbug by Tony Morphett
  • An Adventure In The Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness by Vance Aandahl
  • Starting From Scratch by Robert Sheckley
  • Benji's Pencil by Bruce McAllister
  • And six cartoons by Gahan Wilson
This volume just didn't hold up. It wasn't bad. It wasn't good. It just wasn't. Oh well.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho

The Unfettered Mind
Takuan Soho

In this review I am likely to write things considered crass and/or culturally insensitive by many. It is possible I will offend you, along with the rest of the the planet. If so, I apologize, but such is life. Nothing I say here is meant to be taken personally by anyone.

I was given The Unfettered Mind as a gift over the recent holidays. The givers know me as a fencer, and thus thought I might be interested in this volume. The subtitle of the book is "Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master," and it contains translations of three letters by Soho, all relating to Zen and the martial arts in some way. It seemed like a good bet.

And in truth I've always had a soft spot in my mind for Japanese culture and Zen. I've never felt any interest in learning Zen - for reasons that will probably become obvious below - but the "idea of learning Zen" has always appealed to me in some way, though definitely not as an actual thing to do. Those who know me probably cannot imagine me trying to follow Zen Buddhism in any way, shape, or form. Truth be told, I can't imagine me doing it either. But the idea has appeal regardless, much like the idea of becoming an astronaut has appeal. At my age I should know enough to discard these fantasies, but I'm weak, just like everyone else.

So I cracked open this small (101 page, including end notes) tome with the hope that I'd learn something about Zen and/or Japanese sword fighting.


Let me repeat that, just to be clear: Feh.

It took me well over a week to slog through this thing, and I came out the other end knowing basically nothing new. But thanks to the experience even the idea of learning Zen is no longer interesting.

Before I review the book in more depth, though, I want to give you a tiny bit of background about me, so that at least some of my reaction will make more sense. Call it a "coming out" of sorts.

I became an atheist when I was young. Grade school age. Still in cub scouts. Standing there, reciting the infamous "under god" line in the pledge of allegiance got me thinking that religion was a pretty silly concept. (Yes, we said the pledge every morning in school as well, but for some reason my memory says my lack of religious belief crystallized at a cub scout meeting.) Ever after - whenever forced to recite the pledge - I'd mumble over those words, rather than say them, because saying them felt - and still feels - dishonest.

As I got older, I learned more about religion in various ways, but never did I come to believe any of it. It didn't matter which faith was under consideration, they all looked equally bad to me. But if there was a weakness in my armor, it was going to be for something like Zen. Something that was highly introspective, as opposed to the extravagantly obvious, organized religions that generally flourish in the US.

As I say, this book killed that last bit of religious potential in me. I'm not sorry. In fact, I'm happy about it. But that doesn't mean it was fun reading. What we have here is 101 pages of - and I'm sorry to say it so bluntly - tripe. Maybe if I were to spend thirty or more years learning Zen from the beginning I'd have a clue about what this muck means, but I doubt it. Now that I've been exposed to a tiny bit more of it, Zen - at least as espoused by Takuan Soho - is obviously composed of the same gobbledygook that makes up every other religion I've seen.

First off, what is presented here is religion as a way to control others. I long ago come to the conclusion that was one of the major reasons - if not the single most important reason - religion came into existence in the first place. A society where people feel bound together by some set of beliefs and are led by a charismatic individual is probably more likely to survive and reproduce than one that is leaderless, particularly after evolution had brought some level of consciousness into the picture. I'm far from an expert, but it seems that anyone who's thought anarchy through to its actual conclusion will feel similarly. Religion filled a particular niche in the earliest societies - forming a long time ago on the plains of what is now Africa or elsewhere - and that niche was control.

And as if to confirm that, the first letter in this book contains - among other things - a long diatribe about the relationship between the servant and his lord. I found it flatly offensive, but it drove home the point that even Zen embodies (and probably springs from) the same need to control the population as other religions. But despite that bit of new knowledge, it was still unpleasant reading, and only the fact that the author was born in 1573 - and thus a product of a much differently organized culture than my own - kept me reading at all.

The rest of the book is mystical claptrap, often structured as a relatively simple statement, followed by a restatement or an explanation of that same item. However, the explanations never - and I mean never - actually explain anything, and the underlying concepts and principles on which Soho bases his arguments are entirely unjustified. There may be texts out there that explain things like "the Five Roots" or "Latent Cause" or "the Five Skanhas" (and many similar phrases) in other ways, but thanks to The Unfettered Mind I know I won't be reading them.

Wrapped among those statements of "fact" (that aren't actually fact at all) are too many metaphors to count. Often these are quite pretty, but they don't illuminate anything. Regularly there will be some statement of "fact" and then a metaphor to make it clear. Picking a page entirely at random:
As a rule, a thing born cannot be without Form, so we speak of the Essential Quality of Form. Although Form may change in multitudinous ways, as Form it is the same. When Form changes, even the sound of its song will change: the cuckoo sings the song of the cuckoo, the nightingale sings the song of the nightingale.
Boy I sure am glad I read that. I know so much more about Form now. And that isn't even a slightly remarkable or unusual passage from the book.

Amusingly, I found myself reminded of Dungeons and Dragons. The author discusses the various "levels" that people advance through, and how most of us - me in particular, no doubt - are stuck at the lowest level. But between the lines, the arrogance of the author screams at the reader: "I'm on my way to being a Buddha while you are nothing!" And, of course, the recipients of these letters aren't a peasants either. Nope. They're highly regarded swordsmen, also clearly on their own path to Enlightenment. This book almost reads like a joke. One can almost imagine the author himself saying...
Hmmm, how can I put one over on these swordsmen and keep my standing high? After all, I've still gotta eat. Enlightenment hasn't fixed that little problem yet.

<gentle, "enlightened" laughter>

I know. I'll talk about the Fourteen Donkeys of Freedom. No. Wait. That won't do. How about I go grab some books of old poetry, find a few references to things no one is ever going to get, and make up some words that make it sound like I understand it all. Yeah. That's the ticket. And maybe I can work in the Fourteen Donkeys of Freedom while I'm at it. After all, there are fourteen days in a fortnight. That'll bamboozle 'em.

<more gentle, "enlightened" laughter>
A literal reading of this book - even knowingly discounting the metaphors - would lead you to believe you can do anything you want, and know anything there is to know. With training, you can defeat an army of hundreds of thousands single handed. You can probably fly too. The level of mysticism in here is amazing.

Most of us have probably encountered someone spouting stuff like this at some point in our lives. On a street corner perhaps, or on the grounds of a university. Maybe on the subway. In any event you've encountered someone, somewhere who has a mystical answer for everything right at hand. They've been "Touched by God" (tm) and they know "The Truth." Most of us edge away from those people when we see them. Sometimes out of fear. Sometimes out of disinterest. For my part I give them a wide berth because I don't want to draw attention to them. They don't deserve it.

Soho comes across to me just like that guy. He may not foam at the mouth the way Max did on the quad, but he's got that old time religion, the mystical answers, and a willingness to believe that he's special - much more special than nearly everyone else on the planet. If I met him today and realized what he was about, I'd cross the street to keep away. I do not willingly encourage this kind of fuzzy thinking.