Monday, December 29, 2014

1491

I picked up 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a little while ago and then put it down, assuming that it was going to be a little dry. That was a mistake.

Charles C. Mann is writer of research. He studies things and then writes about them. Magazines, books, etc. He describes some of the early research he did for this book as research for smaller projects: articles about newer discoveries about earlier Central and South American Indians. He describes how some of these newer discoveries were at odds with what he learned (we all learned) in high school. Information printed in our textbooks based on the prominent theories of the time, taken as fact, but without a lot corroborating evidence. What Mann was finding, as that in many cases, that corroborating evidence is only recently being discovered, and a lot of what we used to think was true was based on the only evidence available, 50 or even 100 years ago, in the form of journal and log entries by Europeans who visited the Americas and documented what they saw, in some cases incorrectly either from a lack of understanding, and lack of investigation, or simply exaggerated to please whomever was footing the bill for their trip.

Mann compiles the most recent archeological evidence and compares and contrasts the current theories on early American Indian populations and their civilizations and they way the may have lived before the Europeans arrived. Its a fascinating look at cultures that now appear to have been much more complex, advanced, and populace then I thought. Mann discusses how even now, theories based on new data still contrast with one another. The science is still very much in process, so this makes for an extremely informative snapshot of what the current thinking is on the myriad cultures that inhabited these lands for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. And the language he uses really helps translate the scientific theses into terms I could get my head around.

Mann wrote a follow-up, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, in 2011, so I'll have to keep my eye out for that one.

Read this book.


the enlish girl

Its been a while since I've posted what I've been reading so I have a little bit of a backlog which I'm trying to get cleaned up. The English Girl is a Gabriel Allon story by Daniel Silva; I've read a few of these since the first one I found in the English language section of an Italian bookstore in the town I was visiting. The selections was small so I figured it would make much difference, and I was pleasantly surprised. Since then I've read a few of Silva's books and they've been pretty good. I actually had another one on my list to read next: The Fallen Angel, but I couldn't find it and found this one instead. I had planned to read a non-fiction story a few books ago and kept putting it off. This was one of the infills.

The English girl in question disappears under some pretty mysterious circumstances while vacationing with some friends on a tropical island. This particular girl happens to work for the British government, but not in a very lofty position. One that wouldn't normally require British secret service to look into, but they do need to look into it because this particular girl happens to be pretty closely connected to someone pretty high up in British governance. So high up that they can't even risk British secret service being involved, so they turn to Gabriel Allon for a favor.

The plan is pretty simple, find out where she is and get her back before they kill her.

It doesn't go according to plan.

Allon is an interesting character because he becomes too personally involved in his work. What other spy novel writer constantly remind us is that this kind of personal involvement gets you killed; but in Allon's case, its an asset. What typically surprises me is how a character that can be so caring, can also be so brutal when it comes to carrying out his duties, but Silva manages to make that dichotomy balance in this character. I think its why he's so fun to read.

I also sense the emergence of a new character in this book, and I get the feeling we'll see this character again. its a mystery

never go back

After picking up the book I'm reading right now, I didn't make it through the introduction before I decided to put it down and read something more fun first. Its nice to switch it up, and the Truman Capote book was a little heavy to lead right into another slog, so I went to the pile of books my wife has burned through looking for something fast. I found Never Go Back, a Jack Reacher book by Lee Child. It turned out pretty well. For me that is. And not for anybody who got in Reacher's way.

I've read a number of the Jack Reacher stories, and while you get to know the Reacher character pretty well after a while, Child does a pretty good job of spinning a story that doesn't lean too heavily on the same things. What makes these stories fun, at least for me, is the mysteries or problems that Reacher has to solve are typically complex, and take some work to unravel, and Reacher isn't a genius, he just keeps at it, and the problems he has to solve typically require both brawn and brains. And knowing when to use each for maximum efficiency.

Another good installment.

Friday, November 28, 2014

in cold blood

Truman Capote was a reporter as well as a writer, and did quite a few short stories as well as novels. I think that mixture of writing talents helped him hone his craft. In Cold Blood is basically a long newspaper story. That's the ways its written anyway. Matter-of-fact, emotionless recitation of the way the story happened, with an eye toward careful unrolling of how it happened. Capote comes right out at the beginning and tells you what happens in the end. Everyone knows at that point, its been in the news for years. There isn't a person in America that hasn't heard what happened to the simple, proud family of four late one November night in the cold Kansas moonlight.

What Capote's readers want to know is how it happened, and maybe more importantly, why it happened. Capote did the research, read the court documents, and I think he even talked to the killers, multiple times. In fact, I think he may have been there throughout the court proceedings and the penalty. Capote had access to their own words, through testimony, interviews, personal correspondence, and he used it whenever he could to fill in the blanks. He even included letters from their families,* sometimes complete, to tell the story of these two men, the lives they led, and how they came to be at the home of the Clutter family, in Holcomb Kansas that night.

The take away: these two men were there to rob the family, based on bad information that there was anything in the home to steal. Apparently, killing the family wasn't the prime objective. That's what makes it so horrifying, there was no money to steal. So how did it happen? And why did these people have to die?

Capote does a good job explaining those points, as best he can. The thing is, normal people just can't understand why people are murdered in cold blood. You can read about it--and you should, this is a good book--but I'm not sure there ever will be a good understanding of why people do what they do. Capote seems to think its because they have no feelings for anyone else but themselves. Maybe 55 years ago they didn't have a name for that, but they do now.

Read this book. Maybe leave a light on. Maybe lock the door, too.


 * Capote changed the family names of the killer's families when he could, presumably to protect the family member's privacy.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

mockingjay

I'm glad to say that the heaviness of the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy, which lightened up in the second, stayed that way in the third. I was wondering what could happen after the first book that would make a sequel and an eventual trilogy worthwhile, but Suzanne Collins managed to do it. She's transformed the story of the first book into the horror that spurns on the next two books. Maybe that was the plan from the beginning, I don't know. I was under the impression that The Hunger Games was a one-off that turned into a trilogy, but as usual, I haven't done the research to either confirm or dispute that hypothesis.

Mockingjay is a good story, and nice ending to the saga. Solid YA SF. young adult speculative fiction Again, call me crazy, but I think and company did a lot for the book sales, and I think they got lucky that she was so well received in her role in Silver Linings Playbook, which came out in the same year. Silver Linings put Lawrence on the map as a quality leading actor; she won the Oscar for her portrayal of Tiffany. And I have to think that helped with The Hunger Games movie, which came out in the same year. Last movie tie-in note: Suzanne Collins did the screenplay too.

Mockingjay follows Katniss Everdeen through her growth into the reluctant hero, and a figurehead for the people, who are fed up with the oppressive government which holds the Hunger Games each year, and sacrifices their children to violence and death. Good on you, Katniss. Its easy to get behind a hero who has so much evil to fight against. Its great to establish a real nasty in a storyline, so that it becomes easy to dislike the bad guy and get on board with the ass whoopin' which we all know is coming down the pike. It really moves a story forward, don't you think?

This was a fun trilogy.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

library as third place

In his popular book, The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg gives us this idea of a 'third place' as a place we can gather, talk, socialize and build community. If your home and those you live with are your first place, and your workplace and co-workers are your second, your third place is the place you go to exchange ideas, spend time, think, and talk. Together.

image: Stanford University's Peer Community of universities in graph form, from the  Stanford University Libraries Digital Humanities, used without permission.

This is not a book review. I have yet to read Oldenburg's book myself,  but I understand the concept. Its not that hard after all; Oldenburg is essentially telling us something we already know instinctively. But by drawing our attention to this third place, and discussing how it fulfills a critical function in society, he has raised this term to the level of a generally accepted nomenclature in fields of study such as urban planning. And lots of examples are cited, from pubs to coffee houses to churches to barber shops. In fact, coffee houses are often cited as the incubator of the Age of Enlightenment across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. There are even some geeks out there talking about--and using--virtual third places. The point is, these are spaces we need, and if we don't have them, we make them.

I've done some projects in Western Massachusetts for towns that are strictly residential. There is no general store, no gas station, no coffee shop, or pub. I hear stories from the people there who tell me, in all seriousness, that they see their friends and neighbors once-a-week and the transfer station. Yeah... the dump. This is a public place; its outdoors, and normally open for a few hours each week on a weekend, and that's where people chat, catch up, trade gossip, and share town information, and lots of times there is a place for swapping items that a little too good to throw away. I know of one small public library that gets lots of their puzzles from theirs.

Which is a good segue to my question: why aren't public libraries included in the normal list of 'third place' examples? It seems like a natural. Even those small towns I talked about have a church, temple, synagogue, etc. where people can gather; and religious facilities are often included on the list of third places, even though they aren't strictly, in my opinion, a third place unless you consider their extra-curricular activities such as social hour. The library doesn't have the structured worship that calls for the attention of its attendees on a particular subject, patrons are free to do what they choose, making it perfectly suited to be our third place. The only thing I can think of is a mostly outdated notion that the library is a quiet place, and not meant for discussion, debate, and the exchange of ideas that make a third place and build community. If this is really the case, we need to fix that.

I agree that especially in world where connectivity, increased pace of living, and the electronic barrage of attention seeking stuff in our lives, having a truly quiet place is important, and I believe that public library can fulfill that roll AND be a vibrant, active and engaging third place. There is no reason why quiet spaces for study, projects, and reading can't live in the same building as noisier activities. In fact, public libraries have always had areas that are louder than others. The entrance, and circulation or information desk, and the surrounding lobby areas of libraries have always been more active and noisy. The opening and closing of doors, foot traffic on the often harder and more durable floor finishes in front of doors, patrons speaking to circulation librarians, hunting through catalogs, whether computerized or (ugh) card! The cafés that have begun to appear in libraries, thanks to forward thinking librarians like Nolan Lushington, have capitalized on this idea, but some libraries have been slow or skittish to adopt them for fear of messes to clean and coffee machines to operate. Automatic coffee machines have been a boon for dispelling this notion, and we are now beginning to see folks sitting at the library, sipping coffee and chatting with their neighbors and friends.

We're almost there, so what else can we do to get the word out? How can we leverage this need to build community into building support and patronage for the library? Outreach. In a recent discussion with several public librarians I was involved in, it was the consensus* that public libraries are poor self-promoters. They do very little advertising, other than on their website or their blog. Some use inexpensive ways to get the word out, such as program notes on bookmarks they make and insert into checked out materials. But  these types of strategies have the same failing: they only reach existing patrons. Who else goes to the library's web site?

I'm not an advertiser, so I'm not sure what the solution is for librarians, but I do know that as patrons we can help at the grassroots level. We can ask our friends and neighbors to meet us at the library. When we say to our friends, do you want to go for a cup of coffee, what are we really asking? We're asking to spend time, to catch up, maintain our connections. The coffee is just a facilitator, and the coffee shop is just a place to meet. Its our third place. Lets take our friends to the library. Our library, or their library. Heck! They may even have coffee there. Or a talk, lecture, author reading, musical program, or learning event. If we're lucky, we may even introduce our friends to the library they didn't know they had.

And establish our library as a third place, and increase its worth in our communities. Its got to be better than the town dump.

* It was the consensus of our discussion group, which included 16 public librarians from 4 states.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

inferno

What’s a guy like me supposed to say about a guy like Dante Alighieri. Not much, but what I can say is that I didn’t read what Dante wrote. What I did read was small portions of the best guess on what Dante wrote, because his original manuscripts are gone, as is any agreed upon, concise copy of his original work. And of that work--the Italian version, edited by Giorgio Petrocchi in 1966-67 used by the Hollander's for their translation--I only read portions of it for two reasons: my Italian is poor, and Dante’s Italian is even more difficult for me to comprehend.

What I can tell you is, I did enjoy the translation of Inferno by Robert and Jean Hollander, which was complete with copious end notes after each canto. yeah, I read them The end notes give the whole experience a kind of scholarly endeavor feeling, and after I was about have way through, I felt that I should have probably just read through the poem first so I could maintain the story arc with less interruption, then I thought I would go back and re-read the poem by itself when I finished, but gave up on that after spending weeks on this book seemed like enough.

Inferno is the first of the three parts in Dante's Comedia, normally called The Divine Comedy, in English. I don’t have any immediate plans to read the Hollander’s translation of the next two books, Purgatorio and Paradiso, but maybe someday. Because this was a scholarly translation, the Hollander’s didn’t try to rhyme the poem as Dante did. This was one of the main reasons I read any of the Italian, which was printed conveniently on the verso, so I could get a little taste of that. The pronunciation of Dante’s Italian also complicated that little project; his version of Italian is difficult for me to read straight through so the cadence was a little choppy.
Robert and Jean Hollander are the husband and wife team who did the translation. They've worked on a number of Dante translations. Robert is a professor at Princeton and has been working on Dante since I was born, he also has a major hand in Princeton's Dante Project. Jean Hollander is a poet and a professor of writing who has also taught at Princeton as well as Brooklyn College and Columbia.

This book took me weeks to read, as I said. I took a break in the middle of this one to read another book, and since then I've read the third in that series without getting around to writing about this one. I'm glad I read it, but what a slog.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

cathing fire

I've been pounding through the first book of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy--Inferno--which is a newer translation, complete with end notes for every canto; pretty dense. So I took a break in the middle of it to read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. Its been a while since I read the first book but I didn't discover the books until after the movie was announced. A bunch of books were sold after that, and after the buzz blew over, my library had a load of copies in the book sale. I should have picked up one of each at that point because when I was looking for copies after I read the first one, there was a waiting list and then I forgot about it until the next movie was announced. I'll have to keep my eye out for the third one.

This second installment is definitely the middle book; it extends the storyline, deepens the backstories, fills in some of the questions from the first book, and then leaves you hanging for the third book. That's not a bad thing, but I guess it would be nice for this story to stand on its own the way the first one did. This one does come to a close, sort of, but its a cliffhanger.

This is prime young adult science fiction, its got angst, action, teen love, dystopian future, class warfare, and like a lot of recent YA SciFi, death. At least the constant threat of it for the main characters, and lots of blood and death of those around them to remind them of how bad it is. Collins certainly understands the genre, and just like the librarian who originally recommended this to me said, its a fast read. I burned through this is 3 or 4 days. that's quick for me

Dante is good, and I'm even reading a little of the old Italian version. But man, are the end notes dry. Fascinating and informative, sure, but... [yawn.]

This one is not as up close and personal with the death of children. It seems like that may have been a little harsh for some folks in the first book. Collins has found an interesting way to calm that down, and to also pull back from it so its not so immediate to the reader. I'll keep my eyes out for the third book at the library. Maybe I'll get it before the third movie comes out.



Monday, October 6, 2014

simplicissimus

Simplicissimus is a 15th century German novel that is often called the first bestseller. Personally, I'm not so sure that's even possible. The book that came before this one that sold the most copies would be the previous bestseller, even if the copies sold amounted to 12. Perhaps what is meant by this is that this is the first book that sold in large quantities, very quickly. That, I can understand.

This book is funny, baudy, crude, and very entertaining. It's written in first person, so Simplicius gets to tell his own story, and because he's so vulgar the first person allows the author to separate himself from this character, and because Simplicius is so simple, he can get away with much more than any polite member of society would be allowed, simply because he doesn't know any better. Quite a trick. It may also help explain why this book became so popular; well heeled folks could laugh at it because the protagonist is so simple. And make no mistake, given the literacy profile of the population  in the 15th century, it's definitely the upper classes who are buying and reading this book.

Simplicius Simplicissimus follows the life story of this young man from his ignorant peasant upbringing through his various trials in all the walks of life, driven by the engine of the ongoing 30 Years War. As this simple boy is tossed by the war raging around him, each place he falls places him in a different situation, which then allows the author to commentate on each of these stations from the point of view of a simple young man who is surprised by almost everything he sees, thus allowing him to point out what he sees at the outrages that swirl around us without our focusing on them.

The author is listed on the title page as Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, but it seems that he is known as Hans rather than Johann, in English, I also saw one reference to Jacob vs. Jakob. While we're at it, the original title in German is "Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch." In English, that's translated as The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus.

The translation is marvelous and I think it his work that allows this story to resonate so powerfully today. The ideas themselves deserve credit however, and observations made then could in many cases by made much the same today. Human nature is indeed immutable. Mike Mitchell did this translation in 1999. Mitchell is described in the frontmatter as "one of Dedalus's editorial directors as is responsible for the Dedalus translation programme."

Who knew 1668 was so much fun in Germany! Read this book!


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

magician's land

Quentin, you old dog!

Quentin Coldwater and the gang--well, some of them--are back for Lev Grossman's third and final book* in the Fillory Trillory. yeah, I made that up Brakebills has only a supporting role is this book, much like the second. We pick up Quentin's story a little while after the end of the second book. Quentin is beginning to heal, deal and un-feel some of the damage done to him, and as always, damage he has done to himself. Both physically and emotionally.

Quentin gets his feels on more deeply and complexly than his archetypes, Harry Potter and  Peter Pevensie. Everyone knows who King Peter is, right?  What makes Grossman's characters so much more compelling is that they DON'T fit the standard fantasy story mold. Grossman's characters, settings and personal interactions are just as fun, magical, and fantastic as Lewis's or Rowling's, but they are more real, adult and complicated like Tolkien's. I think that's because Grossman's audience is not kids, or even young adults, I think he's writing for adults.

Its been a little while since the second book came out and I found that I remembered the first book very well, but I had forgot a lot of the details in the second book. So I went back and read both of those after I finished this one. If I had more time, I might have put this one down and re-read them first, but my daughter was waiting for me to finish, and she was headed back to school.

The Magician's Land--the whole trilogy--is about finding your dreams. About making your dreams come true, because, in the end, that's the only way we find them. Quentin Coldwater is normal guy, who works hard, and knows what he can expect from his hard work, but above all, Quentin never quite knows whether or not he's good enough or deserving enough. In this book, I feel like he is finally making headway. Everyone has to grow up, and it seems like Quentin has done that too. And maybe his dreams came true, or maybe they didn't. But if anything is true, I think he's grown up enough to dream new dreams now.

Read this book. Read all of them, and then write me a note and tell me I was right.


* if you ask me, and I know you didn't, Grossman left room for more books if he decides to revisit Quentin and Co. 

... and I know you didn't ask me this either, but the Fillory Trillory one would make good movies, if done right.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

hitchhiker's guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is another book that I've had on my reading list for a long time. If I had know it was as short as it was, or as funny, I might have read it a little sooner. They made a movie a little while ago, but I didn't see it and I got the impression it wasn't well received, but I'm not sure.

The book has that British humor twang to it, that is so funny, but somehow not really identifiable, unless its the sarcasm. The Brits do sarcasm better than anyone. The storyline is big, and it jumps in pretty quickly. The galaxy is filled with inhabited planets and a great way to get around is by hitchhiking. Its not easy, so there is a fair amount of street cred that comes with it. But once you get out there, its not too long before you find that many of the same problems that we have to deal with on earth, are also problems just about everywhere you go.

That's what sets this book apart I think, and some of the other sci fi stories like it, its written in opposition to the two main trends in sci fi: utopian futures and dystopian futures. There aren't a whole lot of sci fi stories that predict a future that's pretty much just like the day-to-day crap we deal with now. But if the expanses of the galaxy are the same where ever you go, why would anyone travel? The answer is simple: the more things stay the same, the more they change. Each of their adventures is wild, screwy, unpredictable, and funny. And the funny, often verges on the ridiculous. Like a lot of British humor.

Read this book. Its funny and relevant now, just as when it was first written.

Then read it again in 20 years.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

princess bride

I've had The Princess Bride on my reading list for a while. I saw the movie years ago, and its was fun, romantic, swashbuckling, and over-the-top in every way. The book is almost the same as the movie, scene for scene, and nearly word for word, as much as I can remember the movie. This isn't a case where a movie was inspired by the book, or vice versa. The only thing that really differed was the narration.

In the movie version, and grandfather reads the story to his grandson when he is sick in bed, as his father or grandfather read to him. There is a similar but much more convoluted narration story in the book, designed to frame the story as true historical fact. I get how that could be fun--its another fairy tale--but in my opinion it was overdone. William Goldman seems to have beat on the factual history aspect so much as to make that also seem absurd.

The fairy tale itself, is just the same, and its a great story full of the traditional fairy tale story bravado, magic, monsters, heroes, fair maidens, and bad guys. This fair tale is tongue in cheek throughout, the author smiles at us even as he tells the story, as if to say, yes, I know isn't it hard to believe.

Goldman does a good job on this, even if he's a little heavy-handed on the history part. He's warmed up the best parts of our favorite stories from childhood, and brought them back to an older crowd; a crowd that the original stories he's celebrating, were probably intended for.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

age of dreaming

Jun Nayakama is a long-ago retired silent movie actor, and when he is approached decades after his last film by an interested reporter, this quiet, private man needs to decide if wants to step out of the shadows and be recognized again for the work he did, and was quite famous for, in his youth. And, if that's even possible.

Nina Revoyr weaves a subtle, personal story of this reserved Japanese-American man, who lives his life in almost direct opposition to his stardom in the early days of Hollywood. Revoyr paints a picture of a man who's life seems to have paused 40 or 50 years in the past, and who is now comfortable with his day-to-day busy work and his anonymity.

The decision whether to grant an interview sparks Nayakama's memories back to his time as a star in early Hollywood, the life he lived, his loves and his losses, and ultimately why he left the business and retired to quiet life in California, rather than returning to Japan. Some of the circumstances of his personal history are pretty mysterious, and Nayakama thinks long and hard about the things in his past that he hoped would never come to light, and had got to the point where he believed they never would.

Revoyr reveals her character slowly and carefully, keeping the interest up until the end. The stories of the heyday of Hollywood are fun to read about and to see them through the eyes of a man that should have been an outsider, but was too talented to stay on the outside, make for an interesting story.

The Age of Dreaming is set in the mid-sixties, when you couldn't just search for everything you wanted to know about a movie star on the internet, and mainstream publications where just beginning to move away from treating movie stars as royalty. The recollections of the characters take us even further back, to the 20s when Hollywood was young.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

empty ever after

I read this book on vacation, and I'm still playing catch-up. Its been weeks, and I've read a few books since I finished this one, so I'm going to keep it short on this one, and the next few so I can get caught up.

Empty Ever After is another Moe Prager novel in the series by Reed Farrel Coleman, and the third one for me. I wasn't able to find copies of them in order when I was looking but you can get them on Amazon now. Barnes and Noble didn't carry them last year when I was in there, but I did find them in a small, specialty bookstore in Brattleboro, Vermont; Mystery on Main Street.

So a few years has gone by for Moe Prager since the last story I read, and things haven't really improved for the guy. Prager takes it on the chin pretty hard, and while some things seem to go his way, like his cases (eventually), he certainly has his share of hard knocks along the way. Coleman uses this technique to keep Prager grounded, and to enliven his inner monolog, which we're privy to as the now semi-crusty private dick narrates his story and his life.

This one was good, I wish I read them in order.


Saturday, August 9, 2014

stones of florence

I borrowed this book from my office lending library. It looks like the type of thing someone might have read before a trip to Italy, to get a sense of Florence so they would be better informed about where to go, what to do, and to better understand Florence's people. It may also have been assigned reading in a design studio or art history course. However it ended up in our lending library, I will say that Mary McCarthy does seem to have done the research and has certainly traveled to Florence many times in the preparation of this book.

The Stones of Florence is a travel book, and art history book, and a history of Florence rolled into one, but it reads more like a travel journal. McCarthy gives us a sense of what its is like to be there (in the 50s, when this was written) * and weaves in the history behind what she sees, and then ties that history to the city that remains; was built and shaped by it, right down to its people. McCarthy describes the people of Florence as different from other Italians because of their unique history. McCarthy focuses on the Renaissance period as the most formative and walks us through the various political and religious upheavals in the city (or dukedom, before the unification of Italy) and the rush of famous artists who descended on the city, and the architecture which still exudes that uniquely  Florentine attitude.

McCarthy is--surprisingly, I guess--not a big Michelangelo fan (she refers to him as monomaniacal at one point), much preferring Donatello, saying;

"Michelangelo was the last truly public sculptor, and his works, so full of travail and labor, of knotted muscles and strained, suffering forms, are like a public death agony, prolonged and terrible to watch, of the art or craft of stonecutting."

This lady's not fooling around, or pulling any punches. This was fun to read, not least because of the time perspective; I found it really interesting to look at the Renaissance and 'modern' Firenze through the lens of 1956 pop America.


[A closing note: I was on vacation for the last two weeks in July, and I read a bunch of books. Some of these reviews and thoughts may be out of order, and may be slightly vague in my memory now.]


* I read the 1963 paperback version of this books which does NOT include the illustrations of the original 1956 book. I just discovered this (doh!) If you're going to read this, it seems like it would be better with the illustrations.



Friday, August 8, 2014

james deans

Reed Farrel Coleman's books can be hard to find. I talked about that a little when I described how I ran across copies of his books in Vermont in a review of Redemption Street. Unfortunately, the store I found didn't have a copy of all of the Moe Prager novels, so I ended up reading them out of order. I read The James Deans and Empty Ever After in the past few weeks while on vacation. if I think of it, I'll come back here and add a link to the review of the next one once I write it 

Maybe more than other series, it seems like it would be a good idea to read these in order if given the opportunity. They are dependent on one another, but one of the important aspects of the Prager character is his strong ties to the past, so the past comes up a lot in the books, and if you haven't read one of them, then the good news is that Coleman will fill you in a little, as he goes. The bad news is: Coleman will fill you in a little, as he goes. read them out of order and get ready for some subtle spoilers

The James Deans is a mystery inside of another mystery, and guess when one of them takes place. Yeah, in the past. Prager feels like he may just be lucky rather than talented when it comes to his detective work, but if you're successful, why does it matter. The fact that he thinks about it at all is where the interest in these stories lie. The Moe Prager novels are told first person, so while Prager tells his story, he also tells us all of the other things he's thinking as well, but that doesn't slow these stories down at all. In fact, these novels (the ones I have, anyway) are pretty short. The writing is lean and on point.

The James Deans may be more than one mystery inside a mystery, or it may be mystery inside mystery, inside mystery, its hard to tell. its turtles all the way down Coleman knows how to build tension, and surprise into his stories, and he's not afraid to do things that his readers don't expect.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

blood of flowers

This is not the normal type of book I read--if one could actually throw a net over the kinds of books I read--but it got the thumbs up from my wife so I gave it a go. It falls into that group of books written by women, and seemingly targeted to women, that I have occasionally read in the past (Diamant and Kingsolver, I'm looking at you) and which is sometimes referred to as Chick Lit. Or at least, it was, when that was a hip thing to say, like 10 years ago. The Blood of Flowers is good enough however, just as the others I've linked to above are, not to be simply dismissed as genre books.

Anita Amirrezvani penned this novel of Isfahan, Persia in the 1600s, which follows the life story of village girl who moves away from her village to Isfahan when her family falls on hard times. Her life in the city is a trial and she is often close to starvation or some other type of destruction which is sometimes caused by, and other times resolved by her stubborn nature. In fact, I think the entire novel is an examination of what its like to be a woman in this historic Islamic society, and what it would mean to be strong-willed and driven in such a case. Amirrezvani's character longs for power over her own destiny and that drive moves her forward, but also irritates some in the male-dominated world in which she lives, and she is made to suffer for her dreams as well.

Amirrezvani also weaves stories within the story: tales and fables told by women to one another, to give counsel, to give comfort, and to commiserate. These tales take the reader outside the story for a few pages, and even outside the time of the novel, and tie the novel to a larger social context. They give the story depth and texture and often help to illuminate particular points the author is trying to make without being too heavy-handed.


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.

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). According to the interwebs, Scot Harvath is a recurring character, and Black List is the 11th installment in the Harvath series.
I'm sure I've seen Thor's 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.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

templar salvation

Templar Salvation is Raymond Khoury's follow-up to The Last Templar. There is a three year gap between the two story lines, but the two main character's pick up where they left off, pretty much, in their efforts to uncover the origins and the secrets of the Knights Templar. I've said it before in another Templar book review, there is a lot of traction left in the Templar myth, and they'll be writing stories about them for decades--if not millennia--to come.

In this book, Khoury addresses religion, all religion, but especially the three Abrahamic religions, and the impact the Knights Templar had on those religions, and he speculates on their relationship with the pope at a time when the pope decided that to be a good Christian you had to suit up, march off and start killing people for believing in a different version of God. And take over the holy land by force. Khoury's spin on how the Knights Templar gained control of the temple, and how they later became so rich and powerful make for an interesting read.

Khoury writes a good story, but its all pretty pat, so there aren't a whole lot of surprises in the story arc; the fun is in the backstory. I smell a triple!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

nerax at aeronaut

Dan and Stew
The 18th annual NERAX (New England Real Ale eXhibition) was held this year at the brand new Aeronaut Brewing Company in Somerville, just a few doors down from my office. The guys at Aeronaut did a great job hosting, and I really think the festival fit perfectly with their community based business ideas they are fostering. Aeronaut will be open to the public and they have other vendors in their space with them, roasting coffee, making fresh foods, making chocolate, and organizing in indoor farmers market! This place is fantastic!

The guys and gals that run NERAX did another great job this year. The party started slowly on Friday, but by the time we had our fill and had to call it a night, the place was hopping. There were a lot of beers to try on Friday, and I went through the booklet they passed out while I was in line and made some marks next to ones I wanted to try. Sadly, a lot of those were gone, including BOTH Aeronaut offerings. I also noticed that on the American side, most of the casks came from the east coast--I saw one from California.  They also had two casks from Germany this year. I found plenty to tickle the taste buds; here what I tried:

Dark Age - Celtic Experience, Caerphilly, Wales (ABV 4.2%)
This dark ale was listed as mild, which must be a UK description, but it seemed apt. Thin, medium brown with a very light, foamy head. Sour mash nose. Dry and bitter with a slight Belgian basement tang, long bitter finish with chocolate, pith, yeast and leather notes. The clean, bitter taste hangs in the mouth until the next sip. A great way to start the night.

Duncan's IPA - Inveralmond Brewery, Perth, Perthshire, Scotland (ABV 4.4%)
This is one I put two stars on while waiting in line, and they had it. Beautiful, clear sunny gold color with an airy, bubbly head, that lasted until the last sip. Fresh caramel malt on the nose, with light bread and vegetable notes. Clean, dry and bitter with a pleasant pithy aftertaste. Dense hops profile, but quietly done. Nice.

Duncan's IPA quarter pint pour

Monk's Christkindl - Klosterbrauerei Weissenohe, Weissenohe, Germany (ABV 6.5%)
Malty, fruity and sweet smelling. Hazelnut brown, medium bodied boch, slightly cloudy with just the faintest skuds of suds on the surface and a few bubbles at the edge of the glass. Fruit cake, cherries, mollasses, and B&M Brown Bread! really on the nose. The body cleared as it rested. Burnt sugar, spice, Amaro, and bitter roots; super complex in the mouth. There is a bitter, sharpness just beyond the complexity that keeps this delicious holiday beer from being too sweet, but I couldn't figure it out.

Midnight - Monty's Brewery, Powys, Wales (ABV 4.0%)
This black-brown stout is rich with a creamy but thin head. Clean and light mouth feel, watery and deep. Dry, sticky, soft, almost powdery finish. Light smoke and espresso at the end.

Sunlander - Stonehouse, Oswestry, Shropshire, England (ABV 3.7%)
Pale yellow, bright and clear with a feathery, pale yellow head. Grapefruit citrus on teh nose. Sharp citrus attack, clean, bright hops and summery finish. Additional sips brought a coppery metallic taste. You know that flavor when you take a sip from a drinking fountain in a place you've never been, and discover that no one's used it in six months. Yeah, that; but in a good way. DOn't get the wrong idea, this beer was great.

Then there's this Twitter pic that NERAX had posted on their Facebook page. Yeah, that's me in the foreground, with the backs those two guys I was with. Their faces appear in the pic at the top of this post.

Looking back, I see that with all of the local beers, I stuck with Europe this year. Lots of the American beers I had flagged were kicked. See you next year!

Sadly, there is no 2013 post. I was sick.
Click here for my NERAX 2012 post
Click here for my NERAX 2011 post
Click here for my NERAX 2010 post

last templar

My wife gave me The Last Templar just after she read it, saying it was pretty good. I think that's a fair summary. I've read a couple of books by Raymond Khoury, and he can write a good story. Shortly thereafter, my wife asked me to have a look for the follow up to this one at the library, which I did, and they had, so I got it for her. I'll read that next, before it goes back.

I had just recently read Steve Berry's Templar book a few years ago when I first saw this book, but needed a break from the Templars, and then forgot about it. Ah... the Templar, they just keep on giving. Who doesn't love a bunch of guys who join a monastic order, take a vow of poverty, strap on some armor and go defend the holy land, and get filthy rich doing it, regardless of their poverty vow. Who knows. But then the Vatican became a war state there for a while, too. Maybe it was just a fad, you know how these young religious boys get.

Anyway, Khoury gives a little tease about what the Templars may have discovered during their time in the holy land, and how one of these treasures may have been lost. Fast forward to now, and the opportunity presents itself for this lost treasure to be found, and mayhem shortly ensues. Khoury puts together a tag team of foxy academic who can't help solving clues 'cause she's wicked smaht, and Doogood Supercop, who just wants to solve crime and make the word a better place, and so grudgingly accepts the help of the academic. I won't spoil it for you...

Khoury does a good job of dreaming up some interesting pitfalls for our duo, and the story chugs right along. I'm not saying that he going to win the Nobel prize here, we all know how this is going to end, we've read it before, but that's why we read these books. Its like watching a weekly TV show. You worry about the main characters when they're in trouble right before the commercial break, but as my mom said, when we were especially worried about The Six Million Dollar Man one night, "Don't worry, he'll be fine." And when we turned to her, our faces full of questioning awe, she followed up with, "He has to be, he's on again next week." << pop! >>

This was a fun read, and I'm going to bang out the follow up before getting to the others on my list.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

second foundation

Second Foundation is the third and last of the original Foundation Novels trilogy by Issac Asimov. Asimov later rebooted the series and added four more books in the 80s. Based on my experience with the first three, I'll end up looking those up at some point, but I think I'll take a break for a while and dig into something else. I actually have a few interesting books on deck

Second Foundation follows the loooooooong story arc instituted in the first book and continued in the second. Asimov visits the story every few generations to see how its progressing, and I can see why he eventually came back to it: of the 1000 year span he gave the story, the first three books chronicle about 400 years. So I guess there's more story to the story.

As the title implies, this installment centers on the second foundation, established at the beginning of the 1000 year story arc by its architect, Hari Seldon. I'm not a fan of spoilers, so I won't say more, but what I can tell you as that this set of stories is just as good as the first two, and it does help to fill in some of the blanks left by the earlier tales. It does not, however, resolve the story, as I mentioned above. One would assume that Asimov got to that in the four subsequent books, altho one of those is a prequel to the first book. I guess its fair to assume that there is a second trilogy and the prequel; that seems neat enough.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

foundation and empire

Its been a while; I read the first in the Foundation series back in 2011. Foundation and Empire is the second in the original trilogy, which many credit for creating the boom in space-based science fiction since then. Isaac Asimov wrote Foundation while he was in his early thirties, in 1951, and the follow-ups came in the years after, 1952 and 53, but Asimov returned to Foundation for additional volumes in the 80s, eventually expanding the franchise to seven novels. These additional 4 books are sometimes referred to as the Extended Foundation novels. On a somewhat related note, I also read a short story by Orson Scott Card a while ago, which riffed on the Foundation series.

The Foundation series is interesting if only due to its vastness. The story arc encompasses the entire galaxy, thousands (millions?) of worlds, hundreds of characters, and a thousand years; all on the same story arc. worth repeating, I thought Asimov decided to look at the galaxy-wide implications of a single idea: Foundation, as it ripples throughout the entire inhabited galaxy, over the course of a thousand years. Mind boggling in scope. But the very idea of Foundation is so interesting, that it drives the story, generation after generation, from planetary system to system.

Looking back at this classic tale now, I'm struck by the things that Asimov imagined, and others that he didn't. He does make the point that over such huge expanses, such as the galaxy, and the time periods we're talking about--a future so far distant that man has populated the entire galaxy, so far in the future that there is no memory, no extant record even, of where man originated--that things necessarily change. So I guess I can see that its possible for some things to have changed dramatically, or even to have gone through cycles, but even Asimov wasn't brave enough to write a story where women are equal to men for his 1951 audience.

Some other things Asimov foresaw: tobacco would be propagated out into the ether, and still widely utilized, space ships and ground cars run on 'nuclear' fuel, printed newspapers are still in daily use, private messages are physically sent in little, hard-to-open canisters, well-to-do middle class folks have servants in their households, and when a woman in the room gives her opinion, the men are surprised, a little amused, but do (thankfully) take her seriously and don't throw her out.

Enough about the 50s, Foundation, for all of its dated-ness, is a great story, or maybe more accurately, its a series of linked and related short stories. Foundation and Empire follows on in a chronological pattern from Foundation, tracing the history of this galactic millennium and chronicling the challenges to Hari Seldon's plan. I'm looking forward to the final book, Second Foundation.