Saturday, December 12, 2009

Brainwash, Dominic Streatfeild

Dominic Streatfeild

Two people before me have reviewed Brainwash in Doug's old forums, and they are both excellent reviews. In fact, it was those reviews that lead me to put this book on my list. Now that I've read it, though, I'm not certain it was worth the time and effort.

The book opens by recounting some disturbing events relating to the behavior of several people in Hungary, Korea, and the Soviet Union in the 1930's, 40's, and 50's. It appeared those countries had developed the ability to modify someone's behavior - and possibly their actual thoughts and beliefs - in very significant ways. It was a scary time, and the reaction of our government - and others - was to go looking for how this could be done and if it could benefit us.

From there we're lead into several stories, some of which are truly horrific, about research (both military and non) into various forms of mind manipulation and control.

Brainwash is non-fiction, and thus useful to someone as an overview of the topics involved. However, I found that some of the contents - like chapters on the Moonies, satanism, and recovered memories - fairly far afield from those things that government organizations are doing. Yes, some of the underlying techniques are the same, but for me the presentation didn't hold together that well as the topics varied so widely.

Another frustration - one that may not be the author's fault - is that we never get complete resolution on the alarming cases presented early on. We get some information late in the book, but some of the victims have died and (of course) the Soviet Union is no more. Still, even an explicit summary of what we do and do not know about those cases would have been nice.

Finally I found the style of the book too informal for the topic matter. It bothered me enough that it slightly reduced my level of trust. This is a very serious issue and deserves a more thoughtful (and well documented) presentation than it was given here. Not that this is a tome full of jokes, but it doesn't exactly read like a scholarly work either. That may be part of the reason it is popular, though.

In the end, an important message is presented: there really is no such thing as brainwashing. It's a handy word for something that cannot be done. It is entirely possible to make people talk in various ways, but to change their thoughts radically without destroying them in the process simply cannot be done. In a way that's reassuring.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sons Of Palodar, Anne Powell (review extension)

Sons Of Palodar
Anne Powell

I've now managed to sit down with Anne and go over my comments and thoughts on her book in detail. This sort of review can be tricky - it is always best to avoid offending one's spouse - but it's also an opportunity for her to hear things from someone she knows will speak honestly. Thus, it's a balancing act where presentation means a lot.

Since that conversation I know I am allowed to say something about the plot of the book itself, without giving things away, of course.

Anne's story takes place in the Romnean empire, which spans thousands of star systems in the galaxy. The person in charge - she who must be obeyed, if you will - is named Katera, a wizardress (or witch, depending on how formal you want to be) of great power.

Space ships of all kinds fly between the systems of the empire, bringing trade and residents to new locations. Of course everything that can go with that environment does so: smuggling and piracy, for example.

There are quite a few races present, including humans, but in addition Katera created three races of beings called the Gladius some 700 years before the story takes place. Katera's whim is a command, and the Gladius are required to fight each other in ritualized combat in arenas throughout the empire for the entertainment of the citizenry.

Sons of Palodar is a love story set in this world. We follow Able Greenleaf, a human pilot for a young Gladius warrior as he meets Mary, a somewhat mysterious woman he falls in love with. There are complications, of course, that cannot be detailed here, and though we're not reading about a major event in the history of the empire, we still feel the presence of that history as the story unfolds. We also feel for the characters in a real way. Able and Mary - and a number of other characters - are well developed and believable. It's a pleasure watching them dance around each other and the complications of their lives.

It's risky to write reviews where one's point of view might obviously be biased - in this case by my relationship with the author - but I honestly hope she releases this novel in some format. Yes, there still are a few things that need to be cleaned up first, but for an early draft it felt very clean, and I gulped it down, having to go back for a second time to pick up on a few issues that need fixing.

If this work ever becomes available I'll let it be known here. And if anyone wants to read an early copy, either contact Anne directly if you know how, or contact me and I'll put you in touch. Suffice it to say I think it would be worth your time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sons Of Palodar, Anne Powell

Sons of Palodar
Anne Powell

This is an interesting review to write.

My wife is an unpublished author. She's written two novels so far and has plans for two more. She writes science fantasy - something that straddles the divide between science fiction and fantasy.

Her first novel, Katera's Ghost, is an interesting read. It introduces a number of characters and the universe they inhabit. I liked it quite a bit, but it suffers from one major flaw in my mind. One of the major characters winds up doing something she shouldn't. It's not in character (in my mind, anyway) and it distracts. Beyond that, though, I quite liked it.

Her new novel - the one this review is actually about - is titled Sons of Palodar, and I am happy to report that it doesn't have any major flaws.

I've read it twice now, with the intent of providing comment and feedback. As with any early draft of a work this size there are some nits to work out, but overall this book is quite good. The characters are quite believable, and the plot moves forward well.

As the novel is unpublished I don't want to give away anything detailed about the plot or characters at this time. In truth I hope she tries to find a publisher for this one, though. With another short round of polishing I think it will be ready for that effort. Failing that I would consider some sort of self publishing option at this point, even if it's only in PDF format for ebook readers. I think it would do well.

And if Anne approves at some point I'll write up something that describes some of the content of the book itself.

Oh, and for those who haven't figured it out yet, Anne is a huge inspiration to me. I hope to follow in her footsteps one of these days.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen is a graphic novel originally published as twelve comic books in 1986 and 1987. It is also the source material for the 2009 movie of the same name.

This is a dark and disturbing story set in the recent past of a world very similar to our own. Costumed crime fighters - superheroes of one sort or another - exist and were mostly forced out of the business by law some time before the story opens. Those who work for the government or ignore the law continue what they were doing while the others retired and aged. As we join the story someone starts killing them off, and the plot grows from there.

Every character in here has a difficult back story of one sort or another, and their psychological challenges are on stage just as much as the plot itself. That's somewhat to be expected. After all, just how likely is a normal person to put on a costume and personally fight crime? No, it takes someone special - or disturbed - to do that.

I found the story engaging, but the methods used by the villain - particularly at the very end - seemed a bit over the top, even for this world. The characters were pretty good, but some suffered from a lack of believability. I bought into Rorshach, and the Comedian, found both Dr. Manhattan and Veidt too far fetched, and Nite Owl didn't resonate. I won't call out the whole list but you ge the idea.

Overall I thought it was a good read, but not outstanding. My copy says it won a Hugo award and is on Time Magazine's list of the 100 best novels. I don't think I can agree with the latter, but it's good in any case.

Recommended with some minor reservations.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Iliad, Homer, translation by Richmond Lattimore

The Iliad
Richmond Lattimore

I may be showing my lack of cultural sensitivity here, but I pretty much hated every word of The Iliad. Honestly.

I am warned that some of my reaction may be the result of the translation. A friend - who reads both ancient and modern Greek fluently - tells me he dislikes the Lattimore translation. I suppose another translation might be better, but I can't believe it would make that much of a difference, as many of my complaints were with the content.

I realize that I am reading something that was written a long, long time ago. Thousands of years ago, in fact. Things have changed since then, but still, this really got up my nose.

Let's take something simple: half the text was a list of who killed who, some identifying description about the combatants, and the specifics of the kill. "Bob, who comes from Muncie Indiana and is the son of a tailor and a grocery clerk, killed Joe, who came from Arcadia California and managed a discount clothing store, by stabbing him with a spear in the head. His brains splashed out and he fell, with the dark mist closing over his eyes. Then Bob stripped off Joe's armor." Pages and pages of that sort of thing, varying only with the descriptions of the people and the nature of the killing stroke. To say it was monotonous would be putting it politely.

Then there was the matter of names. Hundreds of names, I suspect, of both people and places, that mean nothing to me. It was boring now, and I wonder about how it would have gone over when it was written. How many people would know those names and places even at the time?

The gods and their meddling bugged me too. Both the Trojans and the Greeks wind up praying to - and taking offense at - the perceived actions of Zeus and the other gods. It's pretty funny (taken from a modern point of view) that Zeus changes his mind so often about who is important and will therefore get the glory of the battle. But in all honesty I got really tired of the constant interfering and bickering among a bunch of nonexistent entities. They were the excuse used for whatever really happened in the battle, and it showed.

I was also reminded of modern athletes who cross themselves or otherwise perform some obvious prayer after scoring or winning in some sporting event, only the Greeks and the Trojans were at least honest enough to admit that the gods could also favor the other side.

On top of that I found the constant descriptions of the offerings to the gods got more than a bit revolting. So many animals and people were killed (just in this one book) to keep the gods happy. And what does Zeus need with all those bits of the fat of the various animals slaughtered in his name?

In the end the gods were more of a distraction and an annoyance than any real part of the story. Maybe if I was a believer I'd feel differently.

Human behavior is on display here too, and that drove me crazy. The Trojan and Greek cultures were abominable. Prowess in battle was all important and women were nothing more than objects possessed by men. I'd like to think humanity has improved since this was written, but I'm afraid it hasn't come nearly far enough to make me happy.

Finally we get into actual story issues. For those not familiar with it, The Iliad discusses a portion of the fall of Troy. The infamous 1000 ships came to Troy to get Helen back, but it was something like ten years of siege later that the conflict finally came to an end and Troy was wiped out. The Iliad covers some but not all of that final conflict.

There were all kinds of issues with the story itself. In places it made no sense in terms of locations and descriptions. In other places the meddling of the gods turned a battle into some sort of supernatural contest, which we know didn't really happen that way.

More disturbing, though, are the main events that are and aren't covered in the story. Why, for example, do we spend a lot of time on the siege and the fighting up to and including the death of Hektor, but then not cover the actual fall of Troy itself? We don't even get the death of Achilleus, though we are told he is fated to die very soon, before he can go home. There's something wrong with a narrative structure that doesn't actually tell the main point of the story.

I suppose I could be wrong. Maybe the main point of the story is the death of Hektor, but if so then it should be entirely recast and a lot of other things left out to spend more time on the events going on around him.

And why is the second to the last chapter entirely devoted to a series of games and contests the Greeks play amongst themselves after Hektor is killed? It's chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, and the like, but it seems radically out of place and unimportant. If it really did take place in history - say a champion of the Greeks (who might have been named Achilleus) managed to kill a champion of the Trojans (who might have been named Hektor) - would they really have paused all activity to spend an entire day playing games in celebration? And if they did, wouldn't the Trojans have done something useful during that time? That chapter felt entirely out of place.

The final chapter deals with the return of Hektor's corpse to the Trojans, which is accomplished only with more meddling from Zeus and his buddies. Silly. I would have found the Greeks more human and approachable if they'd returned Hektor's body to Priam themselves, without needing Zeus (prodded by Apollo), Iris, Thetis, and Hermes to make it happen.

In all I think The Iliad shows humanity in an awful light. I found the writing (or perhaps the translation) to be repetitive and stilted. It actively impeded comprehension of the story to the point that I'm not even sure what the author thought the important story points were.

Yes, it's a "classic" in the sense that it has survived over a very long period of time, and it may be important as a result, but I'm sorry to say that my impression of it as literature is not good.

Sadly, I cannot recommend The Iliad.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens

God Is Not Great
Christopher Hitchens

One of the things about reading a lot is that I am constantly having my nose rubbed in how little I know and how small my life experiences actually are when compared with others. Reading just about anything by Hitchens can cause that sort of feeling, and this book drove it home for me.

With the subtitle "How Religion Poisons Everything", the subject is pretty obvious, and Hitchens doesn't hold back. His command of the language and literature are quite good, and he drives his points home completely. He spares no religious tradition of any sort.

There are three different reactions I had to reading this book, and keeping them separate in my mind is interesting:

1) Religion and its problems. This is, of course, the thing Hitchens is really after, and despite being essentially a life long atheist I learned a few things in here. For example, if you wanted the services of a prostitute in Iran you can get them *within* Islam. The Iranian brothels have the ability to marry you to the woman in question for an hour, and divorce you when you're done, thus making the transaction legal in the eyes of god. Seems a pretty petty and small minded god if that's all it takes to make prostitution legal in a theocracy, but then again, Islam tends to treat women pretty poorly anyway.

And don't think Christianity or Judaism get any better treatment here. Hitchens is well read and can open your eyes to the horrific things the founding texts contain, as well as the actions and beliefs of the more ardent current believers. Hitchens really dislikes Mother Teresa, and has all kinds of arguments on that front. Amusingly (to me) has has significant problems with the Dalai Llama too, and once again has the relevant knowledge to back up his vitriol.

I appreciate what Hitchens has to say here, and I agree with most if not all of what I read. There are so many awful things done in the name of religion, even now, that I wish it could all just be stopped. Sadly, however, I don't think most of the human race is anywhere near giving up its love of mystery and it's willingness to be lead by someone charismatic, regardless of how silly that leader's claims may be.

2) All that praise aside, I did have a problem with the book to some degree. It seems to wander a bit. Chapters that supposedly focus on one thing or area seem to meander into other areas without good reason. I found this a bit distracting at times. I can't tell if the book was rushed to print - without an editor suggesting ways to tighten up and/or reorganize to make it more effective. Alternately it might have been written over a very long time, where the focus of the author (and possible editors) gets lost in the long haul to get it out. Or maybe I'm entirely wrong and every word is exactly as Hitchens intended. Regardless, I found some of it a bit perturbing on an organizational level, and would have appreciated a slightly tighter presentation.

3) Finally, there's the issue Hitchens's life experience. This is what I alluded to before. My own experiences and travel are nothing in comparison with those of Hitchens, and it's humbling to be shown how some have lived a broad and expanding life well beyond that of the rest of us. Hitchens has spent time in many foreign countries, in the presence of many dignitaries of various kinds, and generally lived in ways that the vast majority of us cannot imagine. I found it humbling in some ways and yet slightly irritating in others.

At times Hitchens's experiences back up his statements nicely, driving his arguments to conclusions readily. At other times, though they seem a tad peripheral, and it might have been better to present things without reference to all of those places and people.

In any case, I learned things from this book - some of them very disturbing - and I appreciate the fact that it was written. Hopefully it opens a few other eyes in the world.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carre

Title: The Honourable Schoolboy
Author: John Le Carre
Rating: OK

For the first three quarters or so I thought this was probably the best Le Carre I've read so far. Then some things happened that I didn't believe, and all bets were off.

Overall the story was good - following the middle part of the end of George Smiley's career - but I've noted something about the writing in these books now that bugs me: the point of view wanders. Sometimes it's omniscient, sometimes it's from the perspective of a single character, sometimes it's from the perspective of some review or report written after the fact, and so on. The changes aren't clearly delineated, and (in fact) I think I saw changes of these sorts mid chapter.

I'm not sure what to make of Le Carre's take on his characters either. No one is presented in a great light, but perhaps that has to do with the nature of the spy business.

In any case the Karla trilogy was very popular and makes for interesting reading, even if there are some issues with the writing.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself, Alan Alda

Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself
Alan Alda

This is the most recent book by Alan Alda, published in 2007. It extracts portions of various speeches he's given over the years and includes commentary written later tying them together and adding perspective acquired since they were originally given.

Alda himself interests me. He's not religious, loves science, and knows his own limits and interests. In short, he looks like someone who's found a reasonable path through the chaos of life. But reading this book you discover that he's always been trying to find meaning in the world, and hasn't always been successful.

At the very end he has some words that sum up what he thinks the meaning of life is and isn't. They are deceptively simple, and close to my own take on things at this point. That doesn't mean they are something you can act upon, though, and how one reacts to them is inevitably a personal thing. Many would in fact disagree with him.

Beyond that bit at the end, though, this isn't a book I found thrilling. It wasn't bad, but I see no need to reread it in the future. Alda's an interesting person with an outlook on life somewhat similar to my own, but he would be the first to admit that he's no expert on much of anything beyond acting, directing, and writing entertainment, and maybe not even on all of those.

Reading this book to learn a bit about someone else's POV is a good thing, while reading it to find "The Answer" would be a mistake. I guess this is mildly recommended as a result.

Lilith's Brood, Octavia Butler

Lilith's Brood
Octavia Butler
Review Date:
Oct 03, 2009

Lilith's Brood is a collection of three separate novels in one volume:
  • Dawn
  • Adulthood Rites
  • Imago
Butler died back in 2006, and she was something special and unusual: a female, black, science fiction writer. It was an replay of an interview I heard on NPR with her shortly after her death that lead me to get some of her work.

These three books discuss what happens to humanity and earth after a nuclear war between the superpowers. (The actual combatants aren't named but it's a fair bet the US and the USSR were among those tossing bombs around.) In the aftermath of the war a very different space faring race arrives and starts picking up the pieces, but their purposes and intentions are less than clear to the few survivors they find.

The aliens - and these really are alien - are radically different from humans, but are DNA based and are driven to find life of all kinds, learn from it, and "trade" for it. The use of the word "trade" there is one of the ways these aliens are so different from us, and I'm not entirely sure I understand how (or if) anything described in these novels can be a trade in any sense I understand.

The first novel - Dawn - sees humanity being restored so they can return to an earth that has been repaired and changed. But the aliens clearly want things from us, and we have no real way to chose to accept or reject their offer. Lilith - the human chosen to lead those who will go back to earth - isn't thrilled about the role forced upon her, nor about what is being done to humanity in the process. In fact, the book ends rather cryptically overall, and left me wondering what Butler's intent was. Was this supposed to be a happy ending, or tragic? In truth I don't think it's that simple, but that possibility wasn't made as clear as it could have been.

The second book - Adulthood Rites - takes place some time later and follows some of the same characters (they live a long time now) on earth itself as a new generation of human/alien constructs is growing up. In this case the story is a bit more directed and the intent is a bit clearer. I think Butler had a specific thing she was driving at in this case and it comes through in the writing. For me this was the strongest of the three books, probably as a direct result.

Imago - the last in the series - was the most disappointing. It started out reasonably well, but snowballed to a conclusion I didn't believe. We have another iteration of humanity appearing in this book, and initially things look pretty tough for them. Then, too quickly, things get easy. The last 75 pages or so seem a rushed ending to just wrap things up and get it over with. I think the characters get a free pass as a result, and I found it frustrating.

Overall, the concepts presented here - having to do with race and sexuality - are interesting and challenging. I suspect, though, that this isn't Butler's greatest work.

Still, it's different from a lot of science fiction in that it is mostly character based, rather than being driven by technology or environment. There is a fair bit of biology that drives the narrative, but it also drives the characters themselves, so it feels mostly right.

Recommended with some reservations.

The Lord God Made Them All, James Herriot

The Lord God Made Them All
James Herriot

Another James Herriot... light but fun reading. This one was mostly new to me, and I enjoyed it. I find these books uplifting and warm without being too sweet. Others, I know, feel differently, but I like them.

This one includes a few stories from trips Herriot took after the war. These glimpses of life beyond the Yorkshire dales were just as interesting to me as the animal stories for which he was justly famous.

If you haven't read this series and are in the mood for something pleasant without being challenging, they are recommended.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
Tom Stoppard

Somehow I found the movie a while ago and I love it. The extras on the DVD told me it was a play first, so I dug up a copy of that. It's quite good.

For me, though, reading a play - any play - is tough. There's less context than in a novel, so (of course) more depends on the dialog. For me to really understand a play requires reading it many times, preferably aloud, and with different people on different parts if that can be arranged.

In this case I never got that far. I did read the play twice, and though I really enjoyed it and can clearly see at least some of the evolution from play to movie, I still don't get a couple of things. More re-reads - particularly good ones as described above - would help.

If you haven't seen the play or the movie, you're in for a treat when you do. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the story of two characters from Hamlet, entirely from their point of view. They are minor characters - almost bit parts - in Shakespeare's masterpiece, so we have very little to go on for background and their actions when they are off stage in Hamlet itself.

What we get is an existential romp, almost a farce. No one - not even Rosencrantz & Guildenstern themselves - can remember which is which, for example. They have no history, and the world is strangely out of kilter for them. There are interesting discussions of death and musings on just how predetermined things are. Of course, since we know what happens in Hamlet, their futures are ordained to end in a particular way, but the play is a discussion of our own futures too, and to what degree we are stuck playing parts.

The dialog is quick and witty, and the ideas presented are interesting and challenging.

I think everyone should become familiar with this one. See it in a theater, read it, or watch the movie. Whatever it takes. It's both funny and deep. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Smiley's People, John Le Carre

Smiley's People
John Le Carre

Another Le Carre. This one is the climax of the Smiley/Karla series, which means I missed one. I believe I can find a copy of The Honorable Schoolboy somewhere, though, and my guess is that the order isn't that critical. Still, my error.

Smiley's People, though, is quite good. Le Carre manages to keep the entire genre and conflict interesting even now, years after the Berlin Wall has come down and the Soviet Union has disappeared as a political entity.

If you have any interest in spy fiction, Le Carre seems to be worth a read. Recommended.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. John Le Carre

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
John Le Carre

Good stuff. I hadn't read any Le Carre before and I really enjoyed this. It's the first of the series in which George Smiley (in his retirement) comes back to combat Karla, the Soviet spy master.

It turns out that Le Carre (Actually David John Moore Cornwell) really worked in two British spy agencies (MI5 and MI6) so he's got a nose for making his fiction sound like truth.

I, of course, can't tell you if it's really possible - not being in the spy business myself - but I can tell you it reads well, and that's what counts in this case.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

Last Chance to See
Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

As everyone here probably knows by now, I love Douglas Adams's writing style. He was both funny and honest, even when writing fiction.

Last Chance to See is - sadly - not fiction. In it Adams and Carwardine document trips to see some of the rarest animals in existence - animals on the brink of extinction - along with meeting some of those working to save them. The trips took place in the mid to late 1980s, and at least the first one was for a magazine article. It is possible all of their trips resulted in articles that were later substantially rewritten to put them into book form.

Of the book itself I can say this: Adams can write. He does nearly all the writing, despite the author credit to Carwardine, and it's classic Adams in style, even if the subjects are a lot less funny than his usual.

He managed - in just a few pages - to convince me that I never want to go to Africa, for example. Maybe things have improved in the 20+ years since these things happened, but I rather doubt it, human nature being what it is. Seeing the creatures there might be inspiring, but details of getting there and the governments one has to work through render Africa a less than ideal vacation spot in my opinion.

He tells heart breaking stories about the animals and places they go see, but frames them with enough humor - mostly at his own expense - to make the presentation something I could continue reading. (I'm one of those who can't watch programs about endangered animals. They make me cringe to the point where I have to turn them off. As a member of the human race I am at a minimum guilty by association and resource consumption, and I don't like it.)

Last Chance to See is worth reading. Adams drives home some key points and shows how silly (and stupid) we are as a species in the process.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Magic Street, Orson Scott Card

Magic Street
Orson Scott Card

I think I got this one from my father in law, and (to be honest) I'm not all that certain of his reading choices. Nor am I all that certain I like Card, for that matter. I really liked Ender's Game, but the subsequent books drove me nuts. A few other things I've encountered in Card's work have left me cold as well, so I went into this with some trepidation.

And the first chapter or two had me wondering. I almost put it down, as it appeared to be a thinly veiled religious screed, at least initially. However, I must admit I was wrong about that - at least at some level. To tell you who the characters in the first two chapters actually are would give too much away, but I can say you've almost certainly heard of them before.

Once over the initial hurdle things held together pretty well. There was another spot later on where the religious aspects started to bug me, but they were actually relevant to the plot in that case, so I let them slide.

In the end I found it Magic Street to be a reasonably pleasant if somewhat lightweight read. If you like Card, this is something you'll probably enjoy. If you like modern fantasy, it's reasonably good.

One note: most of the major characters are black and the language used struck me as "off" at times. Not being black and thus not familiar with that culture in any depth I couldn't tell you how authentic it was, but I am quite certain that times it wasn't right. While I clearly noted this at those points - occasionally thinking things like "No one would say that, no matter what color they are" - I didn't let it distract me from the story. Your mileage may vary.

The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene

The Fabric of the Cosmos
Brian Greene

This is a book on cosmology for the lay reader. Green starts with Newton and works his way though Einstein, the various people involved in the discovery of quantum mechanics, and eventually into his own specialty, string theory.

I found Greene's book very readable and helpful in understanding those parts of physics that are pretty well established. His discussions of string theory are also well done, but here we hit a slight issue with more recent events.

The book was published in 2004, and in the time since there is a growing movement (as far as I can tell, anyway) among some physicists to call string theory a crock and abandon it. Greene isn't among those ranks, of course, and I have no way to assess the validity of the arguments on either side as the math is way, way beyond my abilities.

Still, I think the major objection is that string theory doesn't necessarily appear (and may not be) testable. Greene argues that there are things that can and will be tested. How well his arguments hold up against the growing group of people dissatisfied with string theory I don't know.

In any case, there are some very good discussions in here about Relativity, QM, Newtonian mechanics, absolute vs. relative space and time, and several other topics. If you want to know more about these things without being required to take 15 or 20 courses in advanced math, Greene's presentation is quite good.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenbegger

The Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenbegger

This was a national best seller when it came out back in 2003. (Or at least that is the copyright date on the copy I have.) Reviews are a bit mixed, with many loving it and some hating it.

In something of a rare event for me I am going to come down on the side of the masses and say I really, really liked this book.

To explain why, though, I need to directly address what I think is the big complaint against it: problems that result from the main plot device. And note that I'm not giving anything away here... no spoilers.

There are two main characters - the entire book is told from the POV of one or the other - the time traveler and his wife. Niffenbegger saddles her hero with a real doozy of a problem: he can't hang onto his place in time and space with any reliability. With some frequency he just disappears to some other time and location - poof - leaving everything he was carrying and wearing behind. He'll return to the place he left eventually, but it may be hours before he does so, or just seconds. The process is unpredictable. The heroine, though, is totally normal in her relationship with time and space.

That's a challenge of a premise, and I think it - and a number of things that fall out of it - are what most of those who dislike the book are bothered by. But for those of us who like fantasy or science fiction literature, it's not a problem. The willing suspension of disbelief came easily for me, particularly because the rest of the book is so wonderful.

What The Time Traveler's Wife is actually about is the relationship between Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire. It's a well written love story, with interesting characters and real situations, set against background of uncontrolled time travel.

Of course all the classic issues presented by time travel are present too. Can you meet yourself and what happens if you do? Can you change the past or the future? Niffenbegger has answers for these questions and more in her world, but they come up naturally in the course of watching a couple meet, fall in love, and build a life together.

In this case Clare meets Henry for the first time when she's only 6, and he meets her for the first time when he's 28, but he's only 8 years older than she is. Understanding that, and all that goes with it, is a lot of fun.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell

Assassination Vacation
Sarah Vowell

With Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell hits 3 of 4 with me as successful volumes.

In it she describes her researches into the history of 3 presidential assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. It sounds macabre - and it is - but Vowell pulls it off and keeps a sense of humor about it.

She manages that by adding things to the simple dry history, things like her own opinions and musings on what those involved were saying and and thinking.

I enjoyed reading this, and I learned a few things in the process. Alas, my brain is lousy at holding on to details - I'm better at remembering emotions for some reason - so I'm afraid a lot of the actual history here won't stick with me.

Still, it's fascinating to learn that Robert Todd Lincoln - the president's son - was at or nearby during all three of the assassinations Vowell documents.

I will take a few other facts away from this, too: McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was a depressed anarchist. Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, was probably clinically insane. And Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, actually thought he was doing good for the country.

I recommend Assassination Vacation for it's quirky humor mixed with Vowell's opinions and real history. An odd but nice blend.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Get Shorty, Elmore Leonard

Get Shorty
Elmore Leonard

This is another in my occasional series of readings that come from wanting to know how the movie differs from the book. Exactly why I want to know that isn't clear even to me, but it is the case.

Get Shorty - the book - is fun. I read it in just a few days and took it to work to read over lunch time. That was a good sign given my recent string of books I haven't been all that enamored of.

The story revolves around Chili Palmer, a movie lover and shylock who is tired of that business - for various reasons. He finds himself getting involved movies when he goes to Las Vegas and then LA to look into some loans that are past due.

There are, of course, all kinds of complications. Chili winds up dealing with some local drug dealers who are laundering their money through a B movie production company, and so on. It's well written and well paced.

For those who have seen the movie, it differs from the book in both small and medium sized ways. Example: the drug courier's father is never mentioned in the book, and never makes an appearance. Nor does the wife of the writer - Doris, played in such outrageous fashion by Bette Midler - exist in the novel.

Other semi-important changes include the fact that it isn't Harry Zimm who causes Ray Barboni to go to LA, and there isn't even a confrontation between Barboni and Zimm, so that hospital scene - "Who wants to take a crack at wiring Mr. Zimm's jaw?" - doesn't happen in the book either.

The smaller changes are too numerous to mention, and yet don't add up to anything all that important.

In all I'd have to say that the conversion to the screenplay was done with skill and attention to detail.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker

The Mezzanine
Nicholson Baker

I'm not at all sure what to make of this one.

Is it philosophy? It examines the meaning of life through the study or our simple, daily activities and thoughts, so perhaps.

Is it humor? It clearly points out some of the oddities of human nature in ways that make the reader laugh, or at least crack a smile.

Is it satire? Certainly some bits - like the long footnote about footnotes - can be thought of that way.

Is it meditation? Nothing "of the world" discussed here is particularly important, and yet, something about the presentation makes the whole something greater than the sum of its parts.

Is it some kind of high art? Well, maybe, but I'm not sure I could defend that description.

In my opinion, The Mezzanine is a novel written in the style of Jerry Seinfeld, only extended. Seinfeld's comedy has been described to me as being "about nothing", or at least about nothing important.

The Mezzanine - in which the entire plot revolves around the author's thinking over one escalator ride, with extensive diversions into things related to those thoughts - is Seinfeld's comedy on steroids.

Instead of a few lines about broken shoe laces, we get whole pages with footnotes and later references. We get an interesting discussion of the frequency of the author's thoughts about various topics, and the idea of comparing that data with similar charts for others. We get expositions on cashier efficiency and polishing the handrails of escalators. In all, it's a disordered and unrelated group of chapters, very loosely bound together by the author's occasional reference to his return from lunch.

But in the process of writing these un- (or barely) related blurbs we actually examine the way people think. There is amusement, at a minimum, in these pages as a result.

In all honesty I don't know that I learned from The Mezzanine. I already assumed that everyone had crazy thought patterns similar to my own, but different in their specifics. Still, I did enjoy it. Recommended.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Carson McCullers

This is one of those reviews in which I let Doug down. If memory serves he loves this book.

Frankly, I didn't particularly like The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. From what I've read elsewhere, it's a classic of American literature, but it didn't work for me.

I found it to be a disorganized presentation of several barely related stories, all of which were bleak, dull, or both.

I felt a small attachment to only one character - Mick - over the loss of her music at the end. Truth be told, though, none of the characters discussed seemed particularly real to me, and their struggles weren't all that important.

None of McCullers's characters grows much in any way during these pages. They just soldier on, suffering through their lives - we follow 6 or 8 of them for a year - and learn essentially nothing.

On a technical level I have to appreciate what McCullers did, though. As a rule I dislike excessive use of writing in the vernacular of the characters. When an accent or speech pattern gets to the point of inhibiting comprehension, I get frustrated. In this case the author walked a fine line. The southern speech was understandable, but because she wrote it in the vernacular it could never be called great English prose. Despite that her writing was pretty good. I give her credit for striking that balance.

I just wish the story had something in it for me. I didn't learn anything new about the human condition or about these people. I can't even tell you how the title is related to the contents.

In a week or two I'll have forgotten it all, and I won't be sorry.

Don't let my dislike stop you from reading this, though. There are a lot of things in the world that others love but which just aren't for me. This may be another in that category. A lot of reviews - and Doug's opinions - strongly support that theory.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Gardens Of The Moon, Steven Erikson

Gardens Of The Moon
Steven Erikson

Gardens of the Moon is book 1 of a projected ten volume fantasy series. It's full of action and warfare, magic, political intrigue, assassins, thieves, and so on. It was recommended by a friend, so I ordered a copy from

As it happens, what we have here is a HUGE pile of back story. Erikson's history is vast and deep. His notes about any single place he mentions - and he mentions a lot of places - must include at least 5 or 6 conquests spread out among the various races that have peopled his planet. If you want a world with history, this one has it.

But that's about all it's got. His characters are mostly cardboard cut-outs, with very little in the way of real depth, and despite the fact that they live in a world with all that history, we never understand it. Facts from that history are thrown at us as if we should know them, but there is no cohesive way to piece them together. And it gets worse. There are maps at the front of the book, but they don't cover everything described, and it was only at the very end that I learned one of the major characters was "2 continents away" from where she'd started out. Excuse me?

There are many different groups or individuals that could be viewed as major characters, but we have very little to go on for motivations, and they mostly react to things going on around them. Some of those potential major characters are on stage only briefly throughout the course of the novel, so we don't really even know if they're important. And as for that plot they're supposed to be a part of, it's almost a random series of events. Things - sometimes very improbable things that we as readers have no way to know anything about or anticipate - just happen, and these people (or creatures, or gods, or whatever) are bounced about like pieces on a checker board during a 6.5 earthquake. Whenever one of those potentially important characters winds up in a precarious position, we find ourselves introduced to a new player who gets him or her out of the jam. Sometimes those new players are mortals, other times they're not. Usually we had no idea they even existed when they are slapped in our face.

Another thing that pushes characters about is magic. Vast quantities of totally unexplained magic. We don't even get good descriptions of what is going on when magic is involved. And (of course) there are a zillion different types of magic - and a flock of gods, some current, some ancient, and some dead, but all (apparently) capable of other types of magic - that we're supposed to keep track of. Or maybe Erikson doesn't care that we can't keep track of it. I honestly couldn't say.

In a nutshell I couldn't follow the story, I got tired of the "here's something you didn't know" method of dealing with things, the characters (who could have been memorable) aren't, and it was all just too contrived.

So why did I finish it? I could have quit after 50 or 100 pages, but I didn't. I did regularly put it down - sometimes mid sentence - simply because I was sick of it, but came back and finished it in the end. (It took a while... I've been busy and this hasn't been a fun read.)

At some level I think Erikson has affected me in a manner similar to Martin's Fire & Ice series. There are major issues with it, but I kept reading in the vain hope that I would figure things out, or that it would all make sense at some point. Sadly that point never came.

With Erikson I don't think I'm going to bother continuing. Reading a few reviews on I am convinced that the later volumes are more of the same and I have far too many other things to read to bother with them. That's a shame, but such is life.

Some people will love Gardens of the Moon, but not me.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dead-Eye Dick, Kurt Vonnegut

Dead-Eye Dick
Kurt Vonnegut

This book didn't exactly win me over. Unlike much of the Vonnegut I've read, this one actually had a recognizable plot, though, which was something in its favor. The premise, however, was pretty thin, and there just wasn't much meat here.

I finished reading it 3 weeks or so ago and I honestly don't remember all that much from it. Flipping open to a few pages at random I am reminded of things, but the whole work doesn't snap back to me.

What I am learning from my efforts at reading Vonnegut is that he's really a hit-or-miss writer for me, and this was a miss.

Sorry fans. I can't recommend this one.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Don't Panic, Neil Gaiman

Don't Panic
Neil Gaiman

Subtitle: The Official Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion.

This was written in 1988, after So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, but before Mostly Harmless, and long before Adams died.

I can't find an ordered list of Gaiman's works all that quickly, but this one feels a tad off. Perhaps it was an early work, or maybe he just didn't take it all that seriously. Regardless, it doesn't feel like he put a lot of effort into it.

That said, there is still some good info in here for Hitchhiker's fans everywhere. I learned a few things, and seeing some of Adams's wit on display again was good. I need to acquire the BBC radio series, though, and listen to them. Believe it or not I haven't done that yet.

As always, I miss Douglas Adams. A lot.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Order of the Stick, Rich Burlew

Titles: Order of the Stick
Vol 1: Dungeon Crawlin' Fools
Vol 2: No Cure for the Paladin Blues
Vol 3: War and XPs
Vol 0: On the Origin of PCs
Vol -1: Start of Darkness
Author: Rich Burlew
Rating: Good

What is The Order of the Stick?

Well, I'd never heard of it either until recently, but my gaming past is somewhat limited. In any event, OOTS is a webcomic that follows a party of D&D adventurers as they try to accomplish a large and difficult quest.

The books are essentially graphic novels. The art is deliberately simplistic - stick figures, in fact - but Burlew uses that to his advantage and lets the story shine with it.

If you were ever a gamer you'll get a good laugh out of the D&D rules jokes, particularly if you had campaigns cross rules editions. But beyond the rules jokes - which actually diminish over time - the story gets bigger and grander. At the end of War and XPs you've watched a huge battle - on the scale of things seen in the LOTR movies - and the outcome was not good for the heros. Still, there are lots of laugh-out-loud moments in these strips. Burlew is a good writer, and knows how to tell a story.

These are recommended, and you don't even have to buy them. you can read them all online at:

Suggestion: The titles above are listed in proper reading order, at least so far.

Woken Furies, Richard K. Morgan

Woken Furies
Richard K. Morgan

Woken Furies may be the best Takeshi Kovacs novel so far. Once again it's a cyberpunk novel set in the fairly distant future, but this time I feel like Morgan has really hit his stride. The writing is crisp, the settings interesting, and the story well thought out. We learn a lot more about the motivations of the hero this time, which I found intriguing.

A short summary that doesn't give things away: Kovacs is on Harlan's World on "personal business" (my phrase, but I don't want to give away what he's doing there) when he gets involved with a group of people who specialize in destroying mechanized, semi-intelligent warfare equipment left over from a previous conflict. Each member of the team he falls in with has a slew of modifications to help them perform this work, and the commander is particularly well linked in with just about anything networked. She, however, goes down during a skirmish and Kovacs finds himself protecting her. He also learns that someone is coming after him, someone he knows very well and has reason to fear. And that's saying a lot for an Envoy. Soon, however, he discovers that he's not actually the primary target, and things get even more complicated.

Morgan covers a lot of ground here. Philosophy, violence, technology, surfing, weapons, rock climbing, sex, diving, you name it.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

James Herriot's Cat Stories, James Herriot

James Herriot's Cat Stories
James Herriot

A short review for a short volume. These are extracts from his earlier works, specifically about cats. They're nice, and I like his introduction - which was new with the volume - but overall I found the dog stories book a bit better, and the original books better yet. Still, these are warm, enjoyable stories. Don't hesitate to read them if you come across the book, but I don't think it has anything in it that you won't find in his longer works, except the introduction.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Hot Zone, Richard Preston

The Hot Zone
Richard Preston

I don't remember why I ordered this one from Something about it caught my eye and I have a ton of credits built up over there, so I requested it. Then it sat on my TBR shelf for a while, and got picked up a couple of days ago because it looked like some light reading.

And it turned out to be light reading, but not in the usual sense. I think it's written at about a 6th grade level, making it simplistic to read. The sentence structure got a bit repetitive at times, but the information it was interesting - and dark - so I didn't give up on it.

This is the true story of the first outbreak of Ebola in the US in 1989. What? You didn't know we'd had an Ebola outbreak here? You don't remember news stories about people dying in hideous ways? Well, I didn't either, and the story is interesting in various ways. We got very, very lucky in this case. I won't spoil it, though.

The story covers the historical background of Ebola and some other viruses. Some - like Marburg - are related to Ebola, while others - like AIDS - aren't related but came from the same area, and so share some of the same background.

On the whole this book was good, despite the simplistic writing style. It brought home the risks we face as a result of new viruses. Bird Flu is a new one - not mentioned in the book at all - that shows the planet actually is a really big petri dish, and we're just potential carriers for the next nasty disease to come along. One note: If you can't read about animals suffering, this is not a book for you. Monkeys play a major role here, one they did not willingly chose for themselves.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson

This was an interesting read. At a bit over 900 pages in an oversize paperback edition, it was a huge, long read as well. That's part of why you haven't heard much from me lately. Well, that and work.

I enjoyed this book a fair bit, actually. The first third or so might have been a bit slow - it took me a long time to get through it - but the rest went reasonably quickly. This is a geek book, though. It discusses any number of topics in depth, possibly far more depth than you're interested in reading if you're not a geek. Happily I am a geek and it worked well for me.

The plot revolves around the interconnected lives of several people at two different times: during the second world war and now. In particular we follow a marine in WW II, and cryptographer and mathematician working in WW II, and a programmer working now. Others factor in, of course, but those are the three main points of view. The marine winds up doing and seeing all kinds of interesting things during the war, some of which are never adequately explained, the cryptographer is more straight forward in some ways, and the programmer could be any of a number of people I know, at least in terms of background.

I think that - apart from it's sheer size - Cryptonomicon is an approachable book by Stephenson. I've read two others by him Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. For my money, this may be the best of the three. If you're looking for something substantial to read, this might be it. I ought to get credit for 3 or 4 regular books on page count alone.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Programming in Python 3, Mark Summerfield

Programming in Python 3
Mark Summerfield

I didn't finish this and I don't think I ever will.

We're thinking of doing development in Python 3 at work. For those who don't know, Python is an object oriented scripting language that has had a lot of people saying nice things for some time now. And Python 3 is the absolute latest version thereof.

Interestingly, Python isn't necessarily compatible between major versions, and since we hadn't been using much Python before, we decided to go straight to the latest. Given that I didn't know Python at all, I went looking for a book specifically about Python 3, and this was the only one I could find.

What a waste. I'm a reasonably good programmer, and this is a terrible book. It can't be used as a reference, so forget that. His examples and overview stink too, though, which means that newer programmers who need more to get the gist of things are out of luck as well. I was over 100 pages into it, for example, before I ever saw anything that showed how to open and read from or write to files.

At this point I've resorted to the documentation on If you're considering Python, I suggest you do the same and give this book a wide berth.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Assassins' Gate: America In Iraq, George Packer

The Assassins' Gate: America In Iraq
George Packer

This was a really tough read for me. Some of the reasons are my own fault, one is the fault of the book, and some are the result of all kinds of environmental things going on during the five or six months I've been slogging through it.

And there we hit my first problem: six months. I can't even remember when I started it now. It was a long time back, though, and anything I have to say here must be tempered by the fact that a lot of this book was read long enough ago that it's a hazy memory now.

So let's start at the beginning and I'll review and confess my way through this.

First off, this is an important work. I'd read a few NYT columns by Packer over the years, mostly sent to me as links by a friend. I found his insights into Iraq interesting and honest. When I heard about his book, probably on NPR, I thought it would be a good read. I got ahold of a copy through and here I sit.

One of the things I have noted over the years is how so many people seem to think that things are simple. Yes or no. Right or wrong. Paper or plastic. In reality the world is a lot more complicated than that, and the Iraq war is a good example of that fact.

Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. Of that I have no doubt. At one point he did have WMD, and his regime was brutal in every respect. That's all well documented from many years ago, long before we went to war in Iraq. But at what price is a thug like Saddam removed, and when does it become the responsibility of the United States to make that happen? That isn't a simple question. The neoconservatives, for all the difficulties the war had and created, take the long view that it will all have been worthwhile in the fullness of time. But there's no knowing that now, of course. Others think that we should never go to war, or that we should only do so when forced. But Saddam had gassed people living in his own country, had threatened neighbors, and was brutal in the extreme. Where is the moral high ground if you leave someone like that in power?

The Assassins' Gate discusses the Iraq war in a mostly unbiased way. It was ground researched in Iraq by Packer himself, and he presents it with all the complexity from which an event like this actually suffers. Even more interesting, part of his presentation is specific stories about specific people living in Iraq as the chaos goes on around them. The writing is eloquent and well edited. It should have been a smooth and satisfying read, but it didn't go that way for me.

In truth my reading of this book was in trouble long before I went back to work. There are so many names and places presented I couldn't keep them all straight. Not even close. Coming back to it after having set it down was always an exercise in trying to remember what I'd read before, even when it had been interesting and enlightening.

Some of the problem stems from the organization of the book, and this is the only thing I can lay at the feet of the author. I had the hardest time telling when something I was reading was related to. Chapters would go by without a date - not even a year - and I couldn't pin down where we were in the process as a result. This made various sections disjoint to the point that I couldn't hold them in my head. The addition of a time line, calling out major events and when the various people he mentions were in the places described, would have helped me immensely.

In any event, I struggled on, knowing I was learning things, if only peripherally. Then came November and I went back to work. I was at least 2/3rds of the way through when that happened, and for a while all progress completely stopped. Coming back to it after that was even harder, but once again I managed it.

Now I'm finally done, and what have I really learned? Alas it isn't as much as I'd like, but that's basically all my fault, not the author's.

Packer managed to reinforce my conviction that Iraq was a mess from the start. That we totally botched the planning by thinking all we had to do was win the fight and get out, making no plans for winning the peace. It is clear that many are responsible for that horrible miscalculation, but the Rumsfeld and Cheney seem to be on the top of that list. Whether or not Bush himself was planning an Iraq war on coming into office I can't say with certainty, but it's still possible as far as I can tell. Those who were in charge actually believe that what we did (and are doing) there will transform the entire middle east, making us all safer in the end. I retain my doubts. Strong doubts.

In human terms the Iraq war has, so far, lead to mixed results. Some Iraqis think they were better off with Saddam. Others disagree, confirming the complexity of the situation. What we've done, though, is unleash the religious differences that had been held in check in Iraq and greatly increased the influence of Iran. I doubt those were the administration's goals going in, and they clearly weren't expected by the exiles and outcasts who pushed for this intervention so forcefully.

Whether history will be kind to President Bush I can't say. It is entirely possible that I won't live long enough to know. Sadly, though, I believe there were other avenues we should have taken that might have lead to Saddam's ouster in ways that were better accepted - by the region and the people of Iraq. The loss of those opportunities is something I believe we should all regret.

Those wanting more information - deep and detailed - about the first half of the Iraq war are encouraged to read The Assassins' Gate. I think it's got a lot to recommend it, even if I had trouble.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Dangerous Book For Dogs, Joe Garden

The Dangerous Book For Dogs: A Parody by Rex and Sparky
Joe Garden, Janet Ginsburg, Chris Pauls, Anita Serwacki, and Scott Sherman

This is - as the title suggests - a parody of The Dangerous Book For Boys. Fortunately, it's much better than that, since the original was junk. (I read and reviewed it some time ago. I hated it. I'm not even going to give it a link here. It was awful.)

This is funny, at least. And that makes it worthwhile. The authors are all contributors to The Onion, which gives you some idea of the kind of humor involved. They've also got a similar volume out for cats. I suspect we may be taking this entire concept way too far, but what the heck.

It's light reading - I got it for xmas, had to wait for my wife to read it, mostly recover from a cold, and deal with other issues before I could start on it, and still I finished it today. As you can tell, it's not all that long or that deep.

Still, it was amusing, though not laugh out loud funny most of the time. If you're a dog lover you'll probably enjoy it. If not, it won't make much sense to you.

And with that my first review of 2009 is done. I just hope it isn't also my last. There are far too many things going on in my life and my reading has been impacted in too many ways. Still, I'll be here reading and learning.