Saturday, January 27, 2018

word freak

I picked up Word Freak at a library book sale, thinking my wife would want to read it.

Nope.

Word Freak, with its ridiculously long sub-title; "Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players" is by Stefan Fatsis, the writer and author who you sometime hear on NPR, talking about sports. It looks like Fatsis went looking into the world of competitive Scrabble, to get a better look at the strange world he only saw glimpses of, in pick-up games in the park, played by sketchy looking folks with time clocks--a la chess.

After digging into this strange, obsessive sub-culture, Fatsis found himself losing his objectivity to a certain extent. Yeah, he went down the rabbit hole.

Now I guess Fatsis would say that he never lost his objectivity, and I guess that's probably true enough, but if he was there originally to simply report on competitive Scrabble, as an interesting sub-culture, sort of related to sports do sports writers report on chess and crap like that? then I think changing that intent, or allowing it to evolve, into more of a spectator/autobiographical story, has a little taint of rationalizing after your project has gone off the rails. Fatsis makes no bones about the fact that he pretty quickly became obsessed with the game, and is now, incidentally, one of the higher ranked competitive Scabble players in America.

Word Freak* traces Fatsis's trip down the rabbit hole, his struggles with the game, the obsessive studying of words and anagramming, and perhaps most interesting, is the history of Scrabble, and the personalities of the people who play competitively. It was an interesting romp.



* Hasbro, the new-ish Owner of Scrabble in the U.S. wouldn't allow the use of their trademarked board game in the title of Fatsis's book.

Friday, December 29, 2017

house of spies

House of Spies is another installment of the Gabriel Allon adventures, by Daniel Silva. My wife is a fan, and she bought this one in hardcover, so I grabbed it now that she is finished with it. This is a follow-up to Black Widow, which I read in September, just after she bought that one along with this one. After reading Black Widow, I needed to take a break from Silva; Widow seemed a little too heavy-handed for me. I'm happy to report that that is not the case with this one.

There are a couple of interesting tidbits in this story that I think are worth pointing out, and I don't think rise to the level of spoilers. If you'd rather not read anything about the content, you can skip to the next paragraph. Silva appears to have predicted Trump's statement about Jerusalem being the capital of Israel. I don't follow politics enough to know if Trump said as much on the campaign trail or not, but there you have it. Second, Silva has also indicated that Israel--and possibly other countries--who work in conjunction with the US on counter-terrorism and counter-espionage projects, sometimes allow the US to take credit for the work that they or other countries may have done. This may be a plot twist only, or it may be Silva's personal belief or suspicion about the way things are done in the spy business. and American politics

Allon seems like a busy guy, and it appears that he continues to have trouble delegating as much as he should, perhaps, but that is a character trait we've come to understand about him. There are a few situations in this story that I had a hard time suspending disbelief over, and I think that it has come up in Allon stories before, namely, putting civilians in harms way. This device allows for some pretty dramatic situations, but I can't believe that an intelligence service would allows these situations to occur.

Overall House of Spies was fun and fast moving, and I'd rate it right up there with the rest of the series, and a little better than the last installment.


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

seabiscuit

This paperback copy of Seabiscuit was given to me and my wife by a librarian who we both worked with on one of our projects. I was going through the book sale shelf at her library and didn't find anything, which she noticed, so she took me to the back to look through the boxes of books she had for the book sale. Seabiscuit came with her recommendation.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend was published in 2001, written by Laura Hillenbrand. I've had this one on the shelf for a while, and I just haven't gotten to it. Non-fiction is not my first choice, but I do enjoy the well written ones, and Hillenbrand delivered.

My knowledge of Seabiscuit as a racehorse is pretty limited to pop culture references, like Bugs Bunny cartoons, and old movies, where the name of the horse is used to refer to a great winning horse.* Things I didn't know about Seabiscuit, could fill a book, so that's what Hillenbrand did. I had no idea the country was so completely taken with this horse. Seabicuit had more inches of newspaper print nationwide than Roosevelt did! Its crazy. People piled onto trains, known as the Seabiscuit Express just to get to the track to see him run.

The story of his owner, trainer, and jockey is where the story really comes together. I explained to my wife as I read, that's its not really a story about the horse, although there is a lot to tell. What makes the story so interesting is the story of how these three men took a horse that many were ready to give up on, and turned him into the winning-est horse of the late 1930s. Its no wonder they made a movie from this story; the characters are larger than life.

You don't need to be a horse racing fan to enjoy this one. Good job Laura Hillenbrand.

Read this book.


* In "Confederate Honey" the narrator states that this story takes place in Kentucky in the year 1861 B. Sea. (Before Seabiscuit.) They don't play this one on TV, the racism is atrocious.
 

Friday, November 3, 2017

count of monte cristo ii

What a monster of a novel! Nearly 1500 pages of Victorian era melodrama. yeah, bring it on!

Alexandre Dumas, nice work, my pal.* You'd think by now, I'd have read everything this man has written, but alas. I guess I'll have to get busy. Dumas, often titled, père (father)--to distinguish him from his son, Alexandre Dumas, fils (son) who was also a writer--was a prolific writer, who often wrote serially, for publication in the newspaper. Its amazing to me that he could write this way, without an opportunity to re-visit earlier plot points, or edit at all, after it made its way out into the world.

I've read The Three Musketeers, but there are 3 sequels to that book alone, including The Man in the Iron Mask. I'm going to have to read that at some point. I just read that another novel was discovered in 2005, called The Knight of Sainte-Hermine; the English title is The Last Cavalier.

Near the end of the story, Monte Cristo says that he, like Satan, once thought himself equal to God, in that he could assume God's responsibilities to punish the wicked on earth. A presumption he eventually regrets, but I don't think he felt bad that he passed out the ass-kicking, I think it was the presumption that bothered him. That and a twinge of guilt for the innocents that got in the way.

As I said in an earlier post, this is, by far, the best story about revenge there is. Monte Cristo is high with it, along with the other substances his place in society made available to him, as my 9th grade teacher alluded to. Monte Cristo is cold, aloof and exacting in his revenge. But we see the tender, sorry side of him as well. Dumas walks that line very carefully with his character so we don't just dismiss him as a psychopath. When Monte Cristo grits his teeth and says to himself, they're going to pay for what they did to me and my family, we grit right along with him.

And its Monte Cristo's money that allows him to do what he does. He has so much, his fortune is almost a secondary character in the story; it plays a supporting roll, whose support never wavers for a moment.

I don't think I'm out of line when I say that I think Monte Cristo may be the best Dumas wrote, and I think Dumas may even agree with me. He named his home, outside of Paris, the château de Monte-Cristo, which has been restored and is now open to the public. clicky-click on the link. the place looks amazing Lastly, I think its worth pointing out that Dumas was not given a burial fitting of his talent, probably because of the color of his skin. In 2002, French President, Jacques Chirac, directed his body be moved from the cemetery at Villers-Cotterets to the Pantheon of Paris.




* You too, Auguste Maquet, who apparently helped plot and ghost write much of what Dumas produced.




Saturday, October 14, 2017

le comte de monte cristo i

The cover of my pilfered copy
O, sweet, sweet vengeance.

But that will have to wait for now... I'm not quite at the half way point of The Count of Monte Cristo, one of my all-time favorite books. This must be the third, or perhaps the fourth time I've read it, but its been over 10 years since the last time, so while I remember the story, the details are what really make this story a pleasure to read.

Alexandre Dumas wrote and published The Count of Monte Cristo as a newspaper serial, beginning in 1844, the year he published the Three Musketeers. One can imagine folks eagerly awaiting the next installment, taking turns reading them privately, or perhaps aloud to one another, as other forms of entertainment for work-a-day families and the wealthy alike, were limited. The long form novel, rich in detail, action, and intrigue is just the kind of thing that kept Dumas's readers enraptured during the long months it would take to receive and read the entire story.

My first experience with The Count of Monte Cristo was as a class assignment in the 9th grade. Mr. A___ assigned the book, and we all got a copy of the paperback. In order to introduce us to it, he described the book as full of sex, drugs and violence. Cheers erupted from the classroom. Nice work Mr. A.

I, however, did not read the book. I wasn't a reader. But occasionally, Mr. A would read from the book aloud during class. Looking back, I think he understood that this was very likely how many people enjoyed it originally, and it also helped us to bang out a chapter or so without actually having to read. The other thing it did, as least for me, was interest me in the story. Something that I have done with my own children. Again nice work Mr. A. What did me in, was the final exam on the story. It was either essay questions, or multiple choice, which I failed miserably. Not having read the book, I was not in a position to know the answers, but I found myself wanting to. This is the second time this happened to me; the first being the previous year, when my 8th grade English class read The Hobbit. So I did what worked for me so well the previous year, I failed to return the book at the end of the year, and read it over the summer. Those two stolen books made me a reader. I'm not sorry, its the best money my school department ever spent.

A closer look at the image of the cover of my 1978-9 copy indicates that the book I originally read, and then probably read again a few years later, was abridged. That's not the case with the tome I'm pounding through now.

Back to le Comte, who has just recently returned to Paris...




Saturday, September 30, 2017

woman in cabin 10

The Woman in Cabin 10 was an exciting read. I picked it up at the hospital gift shop when a visit lasted longer than I thought it would, and I finished the book I brought. Ruth Ware is an English author with just a few titles to her name, but it looks like she has a future here.

Laura Blacklock has hit the jackpot: her boss is on maternity leave, and she gets a gig for her travel magazine's spot on the maiden voyage of a super-luxury, small, and exclusive yacht. 10 cabins only, small crew, fancy food and drinks, chefs, suites with private balconies... you get the picture.

The rich bigwig who owns the thing has invited a combination of high end travel media types--which is why Laura's magazine has a spot--and a small collection of potential investors, to come along on the maiden voyage into the north sea, with a hope of seeing the Aurora Borealis. 

But Laura comes to the trip with a little extra baggage, her apartment was recently broken into while she was home, and she has an anxiety problem. Which she sometimes treats with an extra drinky-drink. So after diner and a few drinks, she is startled awake in the middle of the night by a scream, and a heavy splash from the balcony next door.

But there is no one staying in cabin 10.

So mystery.

WiFi and telephone is out (maiden voyage, issues not worked out) so we've got an isolated group of suspects, and not everyone is convinced that anything has even happened.

Flavors of "Gaslight," Murder on the Orient Express, and And Then There Were None abound in this high tension mystery. Everyone seems like a suspect and Laura's anxiety amps up the tension throughout. Nicely done Ruth Ware.

Friday, September 29, 2017

east


My oldest read this book ten years or so ago, while in middle school. It was apparently a favorite then, so it was time for a re-read. I got the chance afterward, along with a glowing recommendation. How could I say no?



East is a YA novel based on a Norse myth, which may grow out of, or be related to, the story of Eros and Psyche, and/or the Beauty and the Beast fable. In this case, our heroine, Rose, is taken by a talking polar bear, and adventures and misadventures, quickly ensue.



This book was a page turner, and although its beefy, the text is large, and the chapters are small. All the hallmarks of what YA readers want. The story moved forward quickly, and the author’s technique of telling the tale in the voices of many of the characters, kept the story lively and interesting. Knowing that you’re working with a tale that is already well known, probably removes some of the worry about where to go next, but this does not seem like a simple re-telling to me. Pattou even throws in a Viking-like character named Thor to hearken back to the story’s roots.

Edith Pattou does a good job. This was fun.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

atrix wolfe

The Book of Atrix Wolfe is a fantasy novel by Patricia McKillip, whom I don’t think I’ve read before. All in all, this book has an interesting story, and the way the fable is written—slipping in and out of what I assume is Faerie—is pretty well done, once I got the hang of how it was being described. Prior to that point, it just seemed to get dreamy and surreal. In some cases, it was because someone was, in fact, dreaming, and in other cases it really was Faerie. But how to tell the difference? Or, is there a difference? Perhaps not. Sometimes its just oak leaves blowing in the wind.

Atrix Wolfe is a mage, who takes on the shape of a white wolf sometimes, to make his way about, or to hunt, or to just hang with the wolves. Wolfe can also take the form of just about anything, from water to oak leaves, and tends to in a pinch, but is probably most comfortable as the white wolf. Maybe even more comfortable than in his human form. He’s also the most powerful mage anyone in this small kingdom seems to know, or has even heard of. 

He also has a bit of a temper, and maybe a lack of patience. Not a great combo for a dude who can do just about anything from capturing the moon, to rustling some oak leaves.

Talis is the king’s younger brother, born on the night his mother and father were killed in a terrible battle. His older brother has assumed up his father’s crown, and did his best to raise Talis as the second in line for the throne. As part of the young prince’s education, the king has sent his younger brother to a mountaintop retreat to learn magic from the mages. All except Atrix Wolfe, who has not been seen or heard of since the terrible battle that killed the former king and queen, and left the current king and prince as orphans. While away, Talis learns only basic magical skills, such as lifting a small object, of making the leaves of an oak twirl in the wind.

On his last day of mage sleep-away camp, Talis does two things: climbs nearly to the top of the mountain where the mage’s retreat is, crawling through snowy crags, and drifts of oak leaves, eventually catching a glimpse of a wolf; and then whilst playing hide and seek, discovers an untitled book of simple spells, which he asks the headmaster if he can borrow.

Then destiny happens. 

And more oak leaves

I have few minor points about this book, but they’re not really worth mentioning. oak leaves If you’re a fan of faerie stories, you’ll probably enjoy this one. This probably falls into the YA category, if it matters, even if its touted as adult fantasy fiction.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

wyverns

I recently read Terry Pratchett's The World of Poo, which included a short segment about a wyvern, including an illustration. no, that's not it I've run into wyverns in my reading in the past, but it got me thinking: Wyverns are similar to dragons, but we don't see them often. They don't seem to be as well known a beast as a dragon. Until more recent times, wyverns were nearly interchangeable with their dragon cousins, in British heraldry, for example, but seem to have fallen out of favor. Perhaps as literacy has taken over for iconography, and heraldic symbolism has become less important, folks simply forgot about wyverns. But we haven't forgotten dragons. What is it about dragons that captures our imagination, more than wyverns?
Wyverns appear, to this observer, to be a much more likely anatomical form that their four-legged dragon counterparts. Wyverns have two legs and two wings, like a bird. Seems odd right? Dragons--western dragons anyway--have four legs, and two wings. Which seems to make more sense. 
A wyvern is built like this bird: two legs, and two wings
But when you compare these beasts to others in the animal world, its actually the dragon that's odd. Most animals have four limbs. A wyvern has four limbs too, but a dragon has six limbs: four legs and two wings. What else has that? Nothing, that's what. 

A dragon is built like nothing else: four legs, and two wings
Is there really nothing else built like a dragon? An insect perhaps? They have six legs, right? But flying insects have six legs and two or four wings, for total of eight or ten limbs!* And antennae, and exoskeletons, so... probably not a good archetype. 
Know what else does have four limbs plus two wings? Flying horses, griffins... and angels. Maybe it's because this anatomical form is so alien to us, is why we've chosen it for our most popular mythical creatures. 

And maybe that why most of us don't know what a wyvern is. Maybe it's oddness just isn't odd enough for us.



We need crazy, just as much as crazy needs us. Wyverns just aren't as crazy as they need to be.

* like octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish.