Sunday, July 6, 2014

shadowings

I borrowed Shadowings by Lafcadio Hearn from my office lending library yeah we have a lending library and I didn't know what to expect. Half-way through, I still didn't know what to expect. Hearn is an international type guy. He was born (according to a Wikipedia article about him) on the Greek isle of Lefkada (presumably where his middle name comes from; full name Patrick Lafcadio Hearn) to an Irish father and Greek mother. He father happened to be stationed there during the British occupation in the 1840s. Lafcadio came along in 1850. A broken home and a re-stationed father left young Lafcadio bopping around for a while, until he made his way to the US in his late teens. A few years later he found work at a newspaper, and by 1890 was sent to Japan on a story, and he never left.

Hearn stayed in Japan and continued to write, and eventually took the Japanese name: Koizumi Yakumo. He became pretty well know internationally for his writings about Japan, and Shadowings is one of those books. Shadowings seems like a collection of whatever Hearn had on his desk when print time came, and maybe all of his books are like that. This volume includes translations, and re-tellings of traditional Japanese folks tales, the history and meanings of Japanese female names, and at the end a series of ghost stories and essays about dreams. Sometimes dreams about ghosts.

These essays at the end--which are written by Hearn, as opposed to researched and documented or translated, like the first half of the book--are where the book comes into its own. The essays are like a cross between Tom Robbins, Edgar Allan Poe, and maybe a little Carl Sagan or someone like that. He's very honest with himself, his writings are almost journal entries, and he's questioning and probing all kinds of things: life, and its meaning, the after-life, a higher-power (or lack thereof), reincarnation, love, humanity, and the nature of intellect. He even tries to figure out why Gothic architecture is gloomy, and does a thought experiment on the crowd behavior. This is a busy guy!

I didn't love this book, but it was interesting to read.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

her (robot love iii)

I don't do a lot of movie reviews, and I'm not even sure this is a movie review, but I saw her last night by Spike Jonze starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson and I had to write about it. It has everything that I've been interested in, when thinking about the singularity, all in one place; things I've written about here on the blog in the past. Spike Jonze actually showed up most recently here at the blog, when I wrote about his sci fi short: I'm Here. I titled that blog post to recall another post about this subject, robots in love, or maybe more accurately, people in love with robots.

The robot jr. post has one of the highest hit rates on the blog, and I just had to write it after running into one too many references to folks falling in love with artificial intelligences. AND, I probably should add, I've got this sci fi book of my own that's been brewing for years, and there is some artificial intelligence interaction in my story as well. One of the reasons I'm drawn to these stories is so that I can witness all of my fresh ideas from my 20 year old book being scooped while my book languishes, but enough about me!

Jonze and company look hard at the potential realities of future human/artificial intelligence relationships and what they come up with is much like you might expect for any inter-species relationship: some things are amazing, and other things, not so much. What I found fascinating was how closely the hiccups and major road blocks to such a relationship--as well as the uncanniness of some element--struck nerves with me that are very closely tied to feelings I have about fairness, equality, and human rights.

Are these types of relationships the next logical step for mankind as some would have us believe, or will they be a more modern version of the typically ill-fated May-December relationship?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

redempton street

I heard about the Moe Prager novels on NPR at some point a while ago. I'm not sure what the show was, but they had some folks on there making recommendations, and it may have even been for summer reading. This was a few years ago and I took a note and looked them up. Based on what I heard on NPR, I thought my wife would like them, but they were a little hard to find. I didn't find them at my library and they didn't have them at the Barnes & Nobel, but I did find them up in Vermont. I was driving through Brattleboro on the way to Manchester and I stopped to eat and found a bookstore that specializes in mystery books. The bookseller knew exactly what I meant and told me he actually met Reed Farrel Coleman when he visited the store himself.

I wrapped up three books from the Moe Prager series and sprung 'em on the better half, and she started with this one... but didn't like it. bummer So I gave it a go and I can see why she didn't like it, its done in the old style. Think first person private dick, film noir, chit-chat and private banter knocking around in this guys head while he takes a gander at who's puttin' the screws to old Mrs. Brown from down the block. This guy is ex-cop, Brooklyn born, Jewish city guy who now owns a wine store with his brother, and has secrets from his past that eat away at him like the night sky eats away at sunny days in the park.

Coleman wrote this, and the other Moe Prager novels in the early 2000s but they are set in the 1980s, when the 1960s and even the 1950s are still someone fresh memories to many. Its part of how Coleman taps into the gumshoe era. Coleman has that continuous inner-dialog, street-beat down pat and it carries the story along as it bubbles through the narrative.

Coleman notes in an Afterword that Redemption Street is the book that most folks write to him about, saying that although its not their favorite Prager novel, its the one that they felt the closest connection to. Prager airs some of his fears, secrets and even dips into his feeling about religion and trust in this story, and according to the Coleman, this is really the only one of the novels that does that. Maybe that soul searching under current is what turned off my wife on this one, I found that it helped me understand this character and really brought him to life for me.

There are two more of these in the house somewhere. I'm going to keep my eye out for them.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

abyssinian proof

The Abyssinian Proof is the second novel by Jenny White, and the second in her series of Kamil Pasha mystery novels set in Constantinople in the late 1800s. The first is The Sultan's Seal, and the third is called The Winter Thief. this is only one I've read so far White has done some serious research into Turkey and has written a number of books on Turkey beginning in college. Her most recent book is also on the subject. SO, I'm saying, the lady knows her way around Turkey. And that shows in her writing.

White has put together a detective in the old timey tradition, similar to a Sherlock or a Dr. Thorndyke story, from that grand era in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, which includes such great protagonists as Charlie Chan, Hercule Poirot, and others. And her detective, Kamil Pasha fit in there well with his peers. White has created a sleuth, that like so many of these earlier generation detectives, weren't actually detectives, and are more the 'unwilling hero' a la Joseph Campbell. Kamil Pasha is mid-level judge, and does what he can to aid the police in solving crimes, if only to satisfy his betters above. At least to begin with.

Kamil Pasha is soft spoken, thoughtful, measured, fair and very thorough. He is also a bachelor, reasonably well off and grows orchids in his small greenhouse. White weaves a very compelling and fast paced story, spinning in threads from religion, history, mysticism and cult practice to the politics and class struggles of Constantinople in that era.

This was a fun one, and I'll be looking for the others. Read this book.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

shadow over babylon

Shadow Over Babylon is (was) David Mason's first book. Its says on the book jacket that Mason was trained as a sniper so he comes at this early 1990s novel from the perspective of a military man with specialized training and that shows in the detail he includes in this thriller. I didn't find anything since this one written by Mason, but that doesn't necessarily mean he didn't write one. right?

Mason imagines a very different outcome in the post Iraq war era, and populates his story with a band of organized and dedicated ex-service men (mostly) who decide--with very little prompting, it seems to me--to take matters into their own hands and remove a lingering middle-eastern problem. Mason has actually hatched a very intricate and elaborately planned mission, that he spins out for us as it takes place, keeping the reader wondering where this team is headed, and how they'll accomplish what they've set out to do. The story is well paced, really well thought out and suffers only a bit from a huge cast of characters that is at sometimes a little difficult to keep track of. the main characters seem pretty well flushed out, but the other are almost inter-changeable in a lot of ways.

There were a few sub-plots that kind of seemed like Mason had cooking, and then sort of let them boil off and come to nothing. The final story may have been better without them, but who's to say. It was fun to read an alternative history, and also fun to read something a little different than the regular stuff I read, if you can call the range or stuff I read regular.

I would have read something else by this guy, but it doesn't look like I'll get the chance unless he cracks out something in the future!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

black list

Black List is the latest (for me) by Brad Thor. Scot Harvath is an ex-Navy SEAL working for a private American national security and anti-terrorism firm. He's on location in Europe, doing his thing, when the crap hits the proverbial fan. Harvath is, for one of the first times in his life, completely at a loss and just barely scrambles away with his life. According to the interwebs, Scot Harvath is a recurring character, and Black List is the 11th installment in the Harvath series.

And then it gets worse.

Thor writes a pretty good spy novel. The action is tight and the characters have some weight to them (in most cases). I'm sure I've seen his books around the house, and after reading this one, it seems like the kind of stuff my wife reads pretty regularly, and we have similar tastes, so I'm willing to bet that I've read me some Brad Thor in the past.

The comment I made about most characters having some weight to them became especially relevant near the end of the story, when a pretty minor character came back in and I found that I didn't really know anything about this character. It seems as tho there is really only enough room in an action novel for the action and fleshing out the main characters. I don't mind that so much, but don't expect me to feel for a character you haven't told me anything about.

I bet there are some more Thor books around the house, I'll know what I'm in for when I'm checking them out for my reading list. my reading list consists of a few titles I'm too cheap to buy, and I sometimes know what I'm reading next, an...that's about it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

anna and the king

There have been a number of movies made from this story, the most well known is probably The King and I with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr; a musical released in 1956, which also went on to be a stage play which ran for years with Yul Brynner as the king. They even spun this movie into a short-lived TV show. The original movie came out just 2 years after the book was published, and has the same title as the book: Anna and the King of Siam. The '46 movie starred Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. A number of adaptations have been made over the years; one of the more recent starred Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat.

The book is based in fact, but according to the author, Margret Landon, its been fictionalized in order to keep the story coherent. In an author's note in the backmatter, Landon says that the story is 75% true, and 25% fiction. Also in the note, she describes how she discovered two memoirs written by the main protagonist, Anna Leonowens, describing her adventures as a governess to the crown prince of Siam: The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1872). Leonowens was married and living in India with her husband and two children when her husband died and she needed to find work. Working for the King of Siam took her to the royal court--and harem--of King Mongkut.

Leonowens lived in Siam and tutored the King's children, and some of his wives, in English. All the while she worked to improve living conditions within the harem and did whatever she could to improve the lives of the women and children she schooled and became friendly with, she also did what she could to instill in the children a sense of fairness, and an understanding of the emancipation struggle that was going on in the US during the same period.  Leonownes was clearly a strong willed and determined woman, and felt certain that by the time she left, she had made a positive influence on the young prince and help to set him on his path of greater tolerance and freedom for his people. Thailand literally means, the land of the free.

Landon also mentioned in her author's note, that she had to cut much of the slow moving action-less information from the two Leonowens memoirs, and adjust the sequencing in order for the information from the two source stories to make sense in her book. Even with the cutting, the story was a little long but that probably partially based on the writing style from that era, when folks were more apt to want to curl up with a book for a while. It took me a while to pound through this one.

The book itself is a handsome volume, with a leatherized paper wrappers with gold tooling and titles on the spine, handsome unbleached endpapers and deckle-edged pages, and to top it off: a bound red satin ribbon to keep your place. The inside cover also has a pretty ex libris plate which says: "From the library of."

Monday, May 12, 2014

leonardo, yeah, that one

Leonardo and the Last Supper is my third or fourth Ross King book, I'm not really sure. One of them: Brunelleschi's Dome, you'll see down along the right hand column under 'great.' Leonardo won't be on the 'great' list. was that too abrupt?

Its been a while since I've read one of Ross King's books, pretty much everything I read now ends up on this blog and there aren't any of his books listed on 'the books' tab, so its a few years anyway. I also read one about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which was also very good. This latest installment wasn't up to those standards however, and I'm not sure why, but I have some guesses. In order for my guesses to be proven out, I'd have to go back and do a little comparative analysis, but that's not going to happen; this isn't science I'm doing over here.

Here's my guesses for what I think is missing from this book, when compared to the other two I mentioned. First, historical data. King seemed to be short on it, as is everyone else, and he did an admirable job in putting together this story from what seems like not very much. He had to rely quite a bit on other biographers, and then suggested that maybe those other biographers were wrong, or at least weren't above conjecture. Second, there isn't much to the story; da Vinci took a number of years to paint the Last Supper, but that seems to be because he was always busy doing something else. There isn't a whole lot of information about how the panting/mural was done, who worked on it, or what happened day-to-day. For that matter, there isn't much information available about what da Vinci was doing during this time either. So that brings me to my third point, the book is more filler than substance. Because so little is know about what the master was actually doing and how he did it, this book is more about what was going on in Italy at the time, centering mainly on his sponsor in Milano, Ludovico Maria Sforza, or as he was known, Ludovico il Moro (Ludwig the Moor.)

The Sforza story is a very interesting story, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Leonardo's name in the title was more about selling books than a true reflection of what this story is about. "Il Moro and Leonardo's Last Supper" might have been a better title given what I read. I'm not saying you shouldn't read this book, especially if you are a fan of Leonardo da Vinci, just don't expect that King uncovered some amazing treasure trove of lost information about him.

Last complaint: there are a handful of color plates in the center of the book, but no image of da Vinci's Last Supper. No where in the book, in fact, is there an image of the entire work.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

song of the vikings

I'm guessing that Nancy Marie Brown, author of Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths is an academic. I may be saying that because its mentioned somewhere in the front matter, or because the book is so well researched, including pages of end notes. But part of the reason I'm saying that is because this book reads like it was written by an academic. That's not a bad thing, and I certainly wouldn't expect a book like this to be written like a racy, historical fiction, it was just a little methodical, and occasionally repetitive. For example, I'm not surprised that I guy living 600 years ago died at the end of this book, and I didn't mind that it was foreshadowed in the text, but it may have been mentioned 2 or 3 times. I get it

Brown explains how she came to the story of Snorri through her love of Tolkien; the same connection is why I picked this book up after hearing about it on the radio. After reading Beowulf a little while ago, it became pretty clear that not only did Tolkien enjoy reading, studying and translating these old works, he borrowed from them too in his efforts to weave together a mythology for Britain. It was when I read Tolkien's translation of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún though, that I really understood his connection with Snorri Sturluson's work, and so when I heard about this book by Brown, I figured I had to give it a read.

This is Brown's biography of Snorri, and of Iceland. Its clear from the beginning that Brown is in love with Iceland, and that theme of exploring Iceland through Snorri, and Snorri through his life in Iceland is what carries the book. Snorri Sturluson may have singlehandedly saved the oral tradition of Norse myth for future generations, by writing down, and sometimes embellishing stories that had been told for hundreds of year, and maybe longer. He also inspired others in his own generation and in the generations that followed to continue the tradition.

This book was a lot of fun, and interesting to the Tolkien fan, but there weren't too many surprising moments, and only a few solid Tolkien tie-ins. What this isn't, is a translation of the Prose Edda, but what it is, is a great companion to go along with that, and a ringing tribute to the man that gave northern Europeans a mythology to rival the Romans and the Greeks.