Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category
As long-time readers know, WC is a fan of the Order of the Stick, Rich Burlew’s stick figure web comic. WC isn’t alone in his admiration for Burlew’s work; Burlew’s Kickstarter campaign to raise money to publish second editions of some of the books is among the most successful in Kickstarter history. The forums that discuss the comics have thousands of comments on each new episode.
Burlew was injured and the web comic was on hold from September 13 – December 31, 2012. There was a lot of Jonesing in the OOTS community. But he’s back to drawing regularly now. The plot twists and writing is as good as ever. The amounts of emotion that Burlew can wring out of stick figure cartoons remains astonishing.
There’s just one problem. The story is moving along very, v e r y s l o w l y. We’re about ten years into the story, with 883 episodes to date.
Burlew has told us there is a long ways to go.
Some people are all “he’s gonna plan to end it at strip 1000.” Absolutely not. It will go way past strip 1000 because we’re already at 833 and we’re not done with this book yet, and there’s at least two more books left. So yeah. It’s to go. If you’re not a reader, there’s still plenty of time to jump on.
Over recent months, Burlew has averaged about a comic a week. He did do nine consecutive daily cartoons, but that was to meet a Kickstarter pledge. If we take him at his word, and assume the total count will be in the range of 1,400 cartoons, then at 50 per year there are about ten years of comics to go. He’s covered 883 in ten years, but then initially Burlew wrote 2-3 cartoons a week.
Ten years. Yikes. It’s good news and bad news, isn’t it? It will be delightful to have the cartoon around that long; but crikey that’s a long time to wait to find out how the Forces of Good will triumph…
Please excuse WC now; he has to go check if there is an update…
Robert Beckhusen has an interesting article on the psychological processes by which a disaffected person become a terrorist. Relying on the work of Roger Griffin, a professor of political science at Oxford-Brookes University, he traced the two-step process of “splitting” and then “doubling.” WC isn’t sure how useful the idea is – it’s not going to help identify higher risk characters in advance – but it is insightful.
Just when WC thinks he has lowered his expectations enough, too. Page two is worse.
Finally, WC just finished reading Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, by Yang Jisheng. It is a searing portrait from a Chinese Communist Party member of the manmade famine that killed at least 36-45 million people in China. Brilliantly written and translated, it makes grim reading.
Yang uses some effective techniques to personalize the story. It opens with the death from starvation of his uncle, the man who had raised him. It tracks the deaths of scores of individuals. And Yang meticulously documents the horrific, staggering self-deception at the highest levels. Perhaps the most staggering and grimmest chapters in Tombstone relate what happened in Xinyang Prefecture, in Henan Province. A lush, bounteous region, Yang describes it as “the economic engine of the province,” with a 1958 population of 8.5 million. Chairman Mao’s policies drove the peasants from their individual small holdings that had fed the province for centuries. They were forced to work communally and forced to yield almost everything to the state, either to feed the cities or — crazily, absurdly, tragically — to increase exports. That’s right: China vastly increased it exports of grain while its citizens starved to death. The peasants were allotted enough grain for just a few months. In Xinyang alone, Yang calculates, over a million people died.
Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, along with most of the rest of the bureaucratic elite, are painted as “the falcons and hounds of evil,” according to Yang. As crop yields dived, they assured Chairman Mao that agricultural production had in fact soared. Mao himself proclaimed that under the new dispensation yields could be exponentially higher. “Tell the peasants to resume eating chaff and herbs for half the year,” Mao said, “and after some hardship for one or two or three years things will turn around.”
Tombstone is banned in China. It was published in Hong Kong in two immense volumes in 2008. This translation by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian was published in late 2012. This is a monumental work. It drives a stake through the heart of Mao and Maoists. It’s a graphic, detailed, painfully documented description of the murder of 36 million people. We still agonize over the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields, and the genocide there; this is twenty Killing Fields.
WC’s most sincere thanks to Yang Jisheng on a grim story, exceptionally well told.
WC’s email, whenever WV mentions Sir Terry Pratchett, includes requests for a suggested reading order. After all, say WC’s correspondents, there are some 40 Pratchett books? Where to start?
There have been serious quarrels among Pratchett fans over the proper reading order, and precious little agreement. However, Pratchett’s Discworld books to break into groups based upon the cast of characters appearing in them. Here’s one of the better done groupings, originally developed by Keitzman.
If you find the small print to hard to read, here’s a link to a larger version.
WC suggests that a new reader start with either Going Postal or The Wee Free Men, both of which start a new series and both of which feature Pratchett writing at the height of his powers. Going Postal is officially an “adult” story; Wee Free Men is officially a “young adult” story. Either can be read by kids or grownups with pleasure and delight.
It’s true that WC has been a little more cranky than usual lately. There are reasons. There are lot of reasons. In an effort to exorcise his bad attitude, WC will share just a few of those reasons with his patient readers.
Reason #1 – The Weather
This photo speaks for itself, but what part of “last week of March” does the weatherman not understand?
Reason #2 – Pratchett and Orangutans
In the second novel of his DiscWorld series, The Light Fantastic, Terry Pratchett wrote of a magical accident, in which the Librarian of Unseen University, the great school of magic, was accidentally transformed into an orangutan. It was a one-line gag, but over the course of the next 35 DiscWorld novels, the transformed Librarian became a much-loved, recurring character. In 1995, Pratchett traveled to Borneo, the home of the orangutan species. There was a BBC video and a disheartening essay, “The Orangutans Are Dying.” Ook, indeed.
Pratchett, now Sir Terry Pratchett, is returning to Borneo for a follow up look. Of course, his illness makes this much more of a challenge, and there are far fewer orangutans left than in 1995. So the BBC video this time has the signature Pratchett humor, and at the same time makes you think.
A killer title, from a man dying of Alzeimer’s, WC thinks you will agree. But for WC, it’s also a reminder of both the tragedy of WC’s favorite author’s wrenching decline and the loss of another species on our much-abused planet. A double whammy. Who knows if and when the BBC special will be available in the U.S. WC will endeavor to find out.
Reason #3 – Faith-Based Economics
What Dermot Cole has called the repeal of ACES faith-based efforts to increase the flow of oil in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Those faith-based efforts are about to become law. Dermot is too kind, although he does a nice job of showing just how hard it will be to decide if Captain Zero’s Grand Plan succeeds at anything but giving away buckets and buckets of money. Since no one can agree on what projected throughput in the pipeline will be in 2022, it’s somewhere between difficult to impossible to determine if Parnell’s “solution” will succeed at doing anything but kicking the State of Alaska in the financial groin.
Faith is for church, not economics. Not the financial well-being of a state government. What will we have from the Governor next: a resolution that we all pray for oil?
Worse, there will be two more bad consequences for this breathtakingly stupid financial experiment. First, it gives the Republicans an excuse to pretend Alaska is in desperate financial straits, so that they can axe more programs on the grounds that we can no longer afford them. Pre-school classes, programs to protect women and children, education funding, substance treatment programs; all will stupidly and needlessly be cut. Second, we will have to listen to our legislators brag about how they have saved the State from financial ruin.
The only way you will see the lost tax revenue again is to buy stock in Exxon, Conoco-Phillips or BP. Because the only place the lost tax revenue is going to go is in to shareholder dividends.
All of which, yes, makes WC a little cranky.
Wolfgang Frisch, Martin Meschede and Ronald C. Blakey in Plate Tectonics have written a terrific summary of state-of-the-art plate tectonics science at 2011. From the early history of the geological revolution to the latest in explanations of the Rocky Mountains, Firsch et al. cover the fifty year history of plate tectonics, the unifying theory of geology. The book is both complete and readable. From a cogent explanation of radiometric age determination in zircons to challenges of ophiolite sequences, the authors cover it all. Most of the writing is at an advanced layman level, with the occasional dip into mid-level geology classes. It’s reasonably exhaustive without being impenetrable.
Two features make the book especially accessible: the Glossary at the back and the geological history in the front plates. Those plates are supplemented by time bands showing the approximate dates of the events the book discusses. It helps minimize the risk of a reader getting lost in the geology’s sometimes obtuse nomenclature. Where the discussion in the text is incomplete, there’s also an extensive list of references. It does lack a table of abbreviations – if you miss the explanation of Ma on page seven, you are going to be baffled many times.
The only serious drawback are the numerous and lamentable typographical errors. Some of them bring a reader to a full stop. A careful proofreading would have helped. Laypersons tend to judge books on subjects they don’t know by what they do know. Spelling errors can impact credibility, as well as readability.
Still, it is by a considerable margin the best book WC has read on current plate tectonics. Excellent diagrams, excellent explanations and a strong sense of just how far this revolution in geology has come.
Recommended to anyone with an interest in geology.
National anthems are one of the very odd aspects of modern culture. America’s national anthem is a bad poem by lawyer and very amateur poet Francis Scott Key called “The Defence of Ft. McHenry,” written in 1814. Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, who saw that the words fit the popular melody “The Anacreontic Song“, by English composer John Stafford Smith. It was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London. The octave-and-a-half drinking song was popular in America at the time. Nicholson stole the tune, set Key’s poem to it and took the poem to a printer in Baltimore, who anonymously made the first known broadside printing on September 17. Much, much later, in 1931, it was made the national anthem.
The song celebrates the survival of a naval fort guarding Baltimore following the British Burning of Washington and the British Raid on Alexandria, Virginia, although you won’t glean that from the part sung at baseball games. While we only sing the first stanza, the national anthem in fact has four stanzas. The American national anthem is solemn, pompous, plodding and famously difficult to sing. It’s against the law to be disrespectful during a playing of the national anthem.
But sacred cows make the best hamburger, as the late Jay Hammond used to say. And no one is better at cutting down sacred cows than Terry Pratchett. The fictional city of Ankh-Morpork, the biggest city on the Discworld, has an anthem, too. Unlike the U.S. anthem, the stanzas after the first one are largely reduced the “ner, ner, ner” since that’s what folks sing anyway. Here, in its glory, is the Ankh-Morpork National Anthem:
When dragons belch and hippos flee
My thoughts, Ankh-Morpork, are of thee
Let others boast of martial dash
For we have boldly fought with cash
We own all your helmets, we own all your shoes
We own all your generals – touch us and you’ll lose.
Morporkia owns the day!
We can rule you wholesale
Touch us and you’ll pay.
We bankrupt all invaders, we sell them souvenirs
We ner ner ner ner ner, hner ner hner by the ears
Er hner we ner ner ner ner ner
Ner ner her ner ner ner hner the ner
Er ner ner hner ner, nher hner ner ner (etc.)
Ner hner ner, your gleaming swords
We mortgaged to the hilt
Hner ner ner ner ner ner
We can rule you wholesale
Credit where it’s due.
Ankh-Morpork boasts it has never been invaded. It’s true that invaders have entered the City many times (the City gates are rusted open), but in each case, after a few days they find they no longer own their horses or armor, and a month after that are just another minority with its own graffiti, ethnic restaurants and complaints. It shouldn’t be a surprise; it’s all there in the anthem.
In mocking national anthems, Pratchett is reminding us that patriotism is well and good, but that when it slips into jingoism, into chauvinism, that patriotism becomes dangerous, not just to other countries but to the health of our nation. Pratchett explored this in more detail in his terrific novel, Jingo [Amazon link]. The most virulent strain, American exceptionalism, is especially dangerous. Most recently, it got us into a horrific and wholly unnecessary war in Iraq, as just one example.
There is much to admire in the United States. But there is room for improvement, too. Anyone who tells you, “My country, right or wrong,” is a fool or a liar, and not to be trusted. Pratchett coats the lesson with humor. WC isn’t sure that the super-patriots understand it’s a joke.
Something to think about the next time you have to listen to the national anthem.
Sir Terry Pratchett is a British national treasure. Not only is he the second best-selling author in Britain. He is a brilliant writer, whose humanity and humor have entertained, educated and enthralled WC and 80 million other readers for more than four decades now.
But Pratchett is dying. His impending death has been an implicit aspect of Pratchett’s life and work since he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, in 2007. Terry Pratchett, a man of razor-sharp wit and superb writing skills, is slowly losing both.
He deals with it through scrupulous candor, rage at the failure of health care systems to give the dying a choice of when to die, and a steely determination to work around the “embuggerance” of his disease for as long as possible. He lost the ability to use a keyboard in late 2007; the five novels since were dictated using voice-recognition software, with the assistance of the patient and talented Rob Wilkins.
Pratchett’s novels have always dealt with serious subjects like death, poverty, illness and evil with scrupulous honesty. Pratchett never lies to his readers. He may sweeten harsh truths with his patented humor, but he never hides the truth. His most recent novels are even a bit darker. For example, the young witch Tiffany Aching has to deal dark horrors, especially in I Shall Wear Midnight. But her easing of the death of the Old Baron in that novel might be exactly the kind of death Pratchett would wish for himself.
Pratchett has always written as if he knows that the most fascinating place in all possible universes is ours, this one, right here. Pratchett uses a flat world carried on the back of a giant turtle, slapstick comedy and dreadful puns as tools to tell stories about racism and religious hatred, war and the nature of bigotry, love and sin and sex and death, always death, flawlessly knotted into the ersatz adventures of talking dogs, zombie revolutionaries, crime-fighting werewolves, tooth fairies, dwarves coming out of the closet, crocodile gods and strange men who sell suspicious sausages on street corners.
Interviewed recently by Laurie Penny for the New Statesman, at one point, in a tea shop, in mid-interview, Pratchett started singing the old English folk tune “The Larks They Sang Melodious”. It’s a tune that figures conspicuously in Midnight. Penny reports Pratchett has a good voice, a quavering baritone that has lost none of its strength, and that he didn’t give a damn that half of the café had turned to look. Pratchett is utterly secure in what he is and what he does. He cares deeply about the world, and worries about what we are leaving to our children and grandchildren. But that doesn’t stop him from being Terry Pratchett.
WC is torn between rage that a disease like this can happen to someone as rare and marvelous as Terry Pratchett, and awestruck wonder at the maturity and calmness of Pratchett’s response. WC would like to tell you that he will handle his own death as well. But WC would be lying.
WC can only handle a limited amount of Jasper Fforde’s writing at a time, but there is no question the man has a twisted kind of genius. Take this conversation among the grammar police from The Well of Lost Plots:
“Good. Item seven. The had had and that that problem. Lady Cavendish, weren’t you working on this?’
Lady Cavendish stood up and gathered her thoughts. ‘Indeed. The uses of had had and that that have to be strictly controlled; they can interrupt the imaginotransference quite dramatically, causing readers to go back over the sentence in confusion, something we try to avoid.’
‘It’s mostly an unlicensed-usage problem. At the last count David Copperfield alone had had had had sixty three times, all but ten unapproved. Pilgrim’s Progress may also be a problem due to its had had/that that ratio.’
‘So what’s the problem in Progress?’
‘That that had that that ten times but had had had had only thrice. Increased had had usage had had to be overlooked, but not if the number exceeds that that that usage.’
‘Hmm,’ said the Bellman, ‘I thought had had had had TGC’s approval for use in Dickens? What’s the problem?’
‘Take the first had had and that that in the book by way of example,’ said Lady Cavendish. ‘You would have thought that that first had had had had good occasion to be seen as had, had you not? Had had had approval but had had had not; equally it is true to say that that that that had had approval but that that other that that had not.’
‘So the problem with that other that that was that…?’
‘That that other-other that that had had approval.’
‘Okay’ said the Bellman, whose head was in danger of falling apart like a chocolate orange, ‘let me get this straight: David Copperfield, unlike Pilgrim’s Progress, had had had, had had had had. Had hadhad had TGC’s approval?’
There was a very long pause. ‘Right,’ said the Bellman with a sigh, ‘that’s it for the moment. I’ll be giving out assignments in ten minutes. Session’s over – and let’s be careful out there.”
It’s worth the time and effort to work your way through the quote (reading it aloud helps). Because, incredibly, it makes perfect sense at every point. Although at some of those points there is danger that, like the Bellman, your brain will be in danger of falling apart like a chocolate orange.
The Thursday Next books are certainly among the most unusual fantasy novels WC has read. Not for everyone’s taste, but if you enjoy word play and gentle mocking of classic literature, Fforde’s your writer.
WC has described k.d. lang’s incredible cover of Hallelujah at her Fairbanks Concert Association show here in 2011. It remains one the of the ten or so best live performances WC has ever heard, and WC has been to a lot of concerts. If you need a refresher, here’s a link to lang’s performance at the Junos and here’s a link to the late Jeff Buckley’s interpretation.
It may be that Hallelujah is a little over-exposed now, performed badly on American Idol a few too many times. But the story of the song is nearly as fascinating as lang’s interpretation.
Alan Light, in The Holy or the Broken (Amazon link), traces the remarkable history of the song. Written and originally released on Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions in 1984, the song wasn’t regarded as even the best on the album. In fact, Light reports that when Walter Yetnikoff at CBS heard the album, he said, “What is this? This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. This is a disaster.” It was eventually released, but the song was so obscure that Cohen’s live performance of it was cut from the broadcast version of his 1988 appearance on Austin City Limits.
John Cale, formerly of Velvet Underground, heard the song and decided to record it. He called Cohen to ask for the lyrics. He got 15 pages of them on his fax machine. He selected slightly different verses than Cohen had recorded. And when the late Jeff Buckley recorded, he chose slightly different verses still.
And that’s part of why there are more than 200 different covers of this 1984 song, as Light carefully documents. Select the right verses, and you have a sensual, sexual story. Select different verses and you have exquisite religious imagery. Select others and you get a spiritual. Still others and it’s a song for a synagogue. It’s the same song in each case, but the lyrics the artist selects and the interpretation make it extraordinarily different.
And that has allowed this same song to be used in the cartoon Shrek, as part of the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics, as a wedding hymn and at funerals.
In Cohen’s original version, on Various Positions, he sang as the fourth and last stanza,
I did my best; it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah!
And there’s a triumph there. Cohen, as is usually the case, is being very modest. His song has taken its place as one of the classic songs of the 20th Century. More adaptive than John Lennon’s Imagine, easier to sing than Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. Apart from a beautiful melody and vivd imagery, it has the nearly unique ability to adapt to almost any emotional tone.
Light also provides some biography on Cohen, including the incredible story of his manager, Kelley Lynch, who embezzled millions from him and then stalked and harassed him, eventually going to jail for criminal violation of protective orders. And there is a brief sketch of the late Jeff Buckley, whose fame is in large measure a consequence of his recording of Hallelujah. There are interviews with some of the hundreds of artists who have covered the song, including John Cale, k. d. lang, Rufus Wainwright, Jon Bon Jovi and Bono of U2, among many, many others.
It’s a fun story of an amazing song, well researched and well told. Hardly earthshaking, but the book certainly has its moments.
When WC was researching – it may surprise some readers to know that WC does do research – his earlier blog post on banana republic tactics, WC wondered about the origin of the phrase. Etymology, as WC’s good friend and Borough Librarian Greg Hill could tell you, is a dangerous business. Please allow WC to explain.
One of America’s great short story writers was William Sydney Porter, who wrote most often under the pen name O. Henry. Porter lived an adventurous life. While out on bail after being indicted for embezzlement, he skipped the country and ended up in Honduras, a country which at the time had no extradition treaty with the United States. While holed up in a seedy hotel in Honduras, he wrote the wholly remarkable Cabbages and Kings, a collection of linked short stories that form a kind of episodic novel. It is a terrific read, and the denouements are absolutely up to the O. Henry standard of surprise endings. The casual racism of the time is politically incorrect, but no more offensive than Huckleberry Finn.
And it was in Cabbages and Kings, set in the fictional country of Anchuria, that Porter coined the phrase “Banana Republic,” now used to describe almost any small, unstable tropical nation in Latin America. Which is how WC stumbled onto O. Henry’s terrific collection of linked short stories.
And that is the peril of etymology. A simple search for the origin of a word leads you into a delightful, if time-consuming book. For WC, it’s an acceptable risk. But be warned.
Iain M. Banks writes science fiction set in his Culture universe. The Culture is a galaxy-spanning society of multi-species humanoids and Minds, artificial intelligences that are all too human. Banks has envisioned what he calls a “post-scarcity” society, so technologically advanced that there is no money, little traditional economy, and everyone has pretty much anything they want. Refreshingly, the Culture is not earthlings; in fact, in an earlier short story, the Culture made brief contact with Earth and decided to pretty much leave Earth to itself for now.
While immensely powerful, the Culture has its rivals, and is surrounded by a number of other, less advanced species. The informal, loosely structured government of the Culture has a division that deals with those other species: Contact. And where those other species present a threat to the Culture, or are so outrageous as to offend the Culture’s loose norms, then there’s a part of Contact that isn’t bound by Contact’s usual moral strictures: Special Circumstances. Most of Banks’ novels involve Special Circumstances, even if it isn’t always obvious. Even if Special Circumstances’ meddling doesn’t always work out for the best.
Part of the fun of Culture stories is the ironic, self-mocking tone of the Culture. Many of the artificial intelligences – Minds – are space ships. And the ships give themselves names like Attitude Adjuster, Frank Exchange of Views, Serious Callers Only, Not Invented Here and a principle character of The Hydrogen Sonata, Mistake Not… Which turns out to be a shortened version of a much longer name: Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath. And that reveal comes at the perfect moment, too.
The Minds – the ships themselves – and the various habitats managed by Minds are among Banks’ characters. The challenge for Banks is to effectively and persuasively depict beings that think millions of times faster than humans, for whom a millisecond is the equivalent of a human lifetime. And at the same time to keep normal, slow-thinking humans relevant as characters. Through nine novels and one collection of short stories, Banks has done so, always entertainingly and sometimes brilliantly. You have to work to keep up in a Culture novel. But it is worth the effort.
Banks isn’t afraid to experiment. In Use of Weapons, the two plot lines wrap around each other in tightening spirals to a truly staggering revelation. In Inversions, where the story involves seeing the Culture and Special Circumstances from the other side, Banks slowly and carefully reveals that that the reader is seeing different views of the same story. While The Hydrogen Sonata is a more traditional, linear story, the plot still has its non-traditional moments.
Nor is Banks afraid of tackling the Big Issues straight on. In the eerily prescient Consider Phlebas, we see one small episode in an intergalactic war between the Culture and Idirians. Idirian society is a theocracy, engaged in a jihad, whose slogan is ”Idolatry is worse than carnage.” Phelbas was written in 1987. In the later Look to Windward, Banks deals seriously with the psychological damage to humans and Minds from such a no-holds-barred war.
In The Hydrogen Sonata, Banks describes a society whose core involves a book of religious prophecy, The Book of Truth, and what happens when that book may have been fraudulent from the start. The disclosure, or threat of disclosure, comes at a critical time for the society. As Banks frequently does, the novel climaxes with a spasm of graphic violence in an unlikely setting involving unlikely characters. WC promises that the last 50 pages of any Culture novel, emphatically including The Hydrogen Sonata, will grip you and leave you stunned.
A final characteristic of the Culture novels is moral ambiguity: it can be terribly hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Sometimes all of the characters are villains by any sensible definition. Bora Horza Gobuchul, the protagonist of Consider Phlebas, is an enemy agent, an amoral sociopath, but as he careens from disaster to debacle, he gains a great deal of a reader’s sympathy. Similarly, the Minds and humans who try to find out the truth about the Book of Truth provoke escalating conflict, death and destruction. Does the truth matter? Is it worth the cost? Banks is much too good a writer to answer the questions he presents. But by asking the questions in the way he does, Banks forces you as a reader to think.
Sure, it’s grand concept space opera. But it is superbly written, entertaining, imaginative and thought-provoking. WC urges you to give the Culture a visit.
The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks (Amazon link)
Note: Banks also writes horror, as Iain Banks, without the middle initial. It is certainly horror. Stories like The Wasp Factory will make your skin crawl. But it’s not as good as his science fiction.
After what was for WC the disappointing science fiction novel, The Long Earth, WC had some concern that Sir Terry’s latest book, Dodger, might be a similar let down. Needless worry, as it turns out. Dodger is a terrific story, very well written and a seamless blend of history and fantasy.
Set in the early years of Queen Victoria’s London, it tells the story of Dodger, orphan, guttersnipe and geezer, a tosher in the sewers of a vividly described, smelly and dirty London. From Dodger’s point of view.
“But those in the know always said about the London rain that, try as it might, it would never, ever clean that noisome city, because all it did was show you another layer of dirt. And on this dirty night there were dirty deeds that not even the rain could wash away.”
And on that night and in that storm, Dodger rescues a young lady from a beating. And sets his feet on a path that Charles Dickens would recognize immediately. In fact, one of the first characters Dodger meets is that very Charlie Dickens.
It isn’t just the rescue that changes Dodger’s life. The morning after the rainstorm, as he is trolling the sewers for treasure, he finds fellow tosher Grandad, impaled and dying on sharp timbers, pinned by the flooding waters from the rainstorm. Grandad, the oldest tosher in the business, is just 31 years old. Dodger, as we watch, absorbs the cold reality of his future as a tosher.
And as Dodger’s world expands beyond his knowledge of the London sewer system, we learn about London. Dodger meets the homicidal barber, Sweeney Todd, British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, the founder of modern police forces, Sir Robert Peel along with a host of others. But Pratchett never lets the history or the historic figures detract from his story. They lend an aura of historic realism, although there is prolepsis, as Pratchett cheerfully acknowledges. Dodger is sketched by John Tenniel for Punch magazine, about ten years before Tenniel drew his first cartoon for Punch. Oh, and Dodger notices the incipient mustache.
Yes, there is romance. Pratchett skillfully and plausibly includes Dodger’s head over heels infatuation with the lady he rescued. And yes, there is adventure, because Dodger is, after all, Dodger. And if you believe Pratchett, Dodger is the inspiration for a Dickens character, along with the phrase, “great expectations.”
There are moments of terror, moments of the signature Pratchett laugh-out-loud humor, and the wonderful humanism that characterizes all of Pratchett’s work. As he has in Discworld stories, Pratchett finds nothing amusing in the Punch and Judy puppet shows; instead, he uses them with great effect to cause Dodger to reflect on how we are taught to laugh at things that really aren’t very funny. And Pratchett makes you laugh as he is doing so.
This is a delightful book, technically, WC supposes, a young adult story, because the protagonist is a young adult. But it is a terrific read, a break from Discworld for those who might not appreciate pure fantasy. There is much to admire about Sir Terry; despite a very serious health condition, he continues to produce absolutely first rate novels.
And Dodger is one of them.
 A geezer is a man – in this case, a lad – of resource, who is recognized as such in his small corner of the world.
 A person who supports himself by searching for coins and valuables in the sewers. A better job than a chimney sweep, whatever impression Dick Van Dyke may have given you.
 Prolepsis, the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.
 Theater of Cruelty, a Discworld short story.
By popular request, here’s the books that WC can recall being listed on John Froines suggested reading list for aspiring subversives, c. March 1969.
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Abbie Hoffman, Revolution for the Hell of It
Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb
James Watson and Francis Crick, The Double Helix
Ernesto Che Guevera, Che Guevera
L. Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice
Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed
Those are the ones that WC can remember. The list was eclectic and reflected the issues of the time. The full list was single-spaced, covered a whole page and is long since lost.
Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history.
- Senator Ernest Gruening (D. AK) to Rachel Carson, June 4, 1963
September 27 will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book would be on any historian’s short list of the most influential books in American history. Like Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, it provoked a very strong public reaction and helped change laws. It certainly had a profound impact on WC. But what, you ask, does it have to do with the U.S. government’s show trial of the Chicago 7 (or Chicago 8, if you count Bobby Seale)?
In the autumn of 1968, WC enrolled at the University of Oregon. Among his fall classes was Physical Chemistry, and his instructor was Ass’t Professor John Froines. Froines was a good teacher, with a dry wit and an engaging speaking style. He had assembled a group of lab assistants who were very good at helping students through the arcane processes of physical chemistry.
But on Thursday, March 20, 1969, Prof. Froines announced to WC’s class that he had been placed on leave without pay by the University. (The University later said he had asked for and received administrative leave.) He had been indicted as a co-conspirator in the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago that led to the police riots there. He was innocent, he said, but the University didn’t want him around. He gave all of us a recommended reading list as a going away present. And on that list was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
(Oregon seemed to make an effort to expurgate any trace of John Froines from its records; WC’s transcript shows his P-Chem classes were taught by Dr. Don Swineheart, the department head. Never mind that the first two quarters were taught by Froines.)
So on Prof. Froines’ recommendation, WC read Silent Spring over spring break, and more than any single factor, it made WC an environmentalist. It’s still a terrific read. Sure, Carson got some of the science wrong, but not much. And the impact on birds is indisputable.
Froines was acquitted by the jury – eventually, all of the defendants were acquitted of the crimes for which they were indicted. The trial itself was a circus, and marks a low point in the history of the U.S. criminal justice system in the modern era. The trial judge, U.S. Dstrict Judge Julius Hoffman, was blatantly biased in favor of the prosecution. He had no idea how to cope with defendants who were more interested in acting out than being acquitted. The courtroom artist’s drawing of Bobby Seale, bound and gagged in the courtroom, depicted a watershed moment in American law.
Judge Hoffman held all of the defendants, including Froines, in criminal contempt after trial, but all of the convictions against Froines (and most of the other defendants) were eventually thrown out. The feds never really had a case.
WC has two, quite different, conclusions to this post. First, in May 1970, WC attended an off-campus lecture by a vindicated John Froines, recounting the trial and surrounding media circus from his point of view. WC chatted briefly with Froines afterwards, and snagged a photo for the Oregon Daily Emerald. WC asked Froines if the incident had affected his activism. Froines said it had not, but that it had taught him that the consequences of activism could be far greater than he had known before. WC then had Froines sign his copy of Silent Spring.
Second, when WC wandered off to law school at Northwestern University in the fall of 1972, WC was appalled to discover his first class was in a classroom memorialized by a grateful alum of NU Law: Julius Hoffman. Yep. A bronze sculpture of Judge Julius Hoffman frowning down from the wall. And the professor in the second lecture WC attended there was the late Jon R. Waltz, co-counsel for John Froines in the Chicago 7 trial.
If there’s any significance to either of those conclusions, WC will leave it to you to sort them out.
WC has previously described Judge Richard Posner as a national treasure. While WC disagrees with Judge Posner on any number of issues, it’s impossible to fault his courage, his incredible work ethic, his writing skills or his utter willingness to call out folly when he sees it.
All of which makes Judge Posner’s acidic book review in The New Republic of Antonin Scalia’s and Bryan A. Garner’s Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts by Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner [Amazon link] both extraordinary and expected. Justice Scalia, after all, is one of nine people who have the opportunity to review and overturn Judge Posner’s decisions. But that doesn’t prevent Judge Posner from doing an absolute intellectual slap down of Justice Antonin Scalia and his judicial theory of textual originalism.
Okay, this is admittedly arcane and “lawyer stuff,” but Justice Scalia’s supreme court opinions impact the lives of all Americans. Justice Scalia claims to rely upon an approach to decision-making called “textual originalism.” The approach to the law is summarized by Posner:
[Scalia] advocates what is best described as textual originalism, because they want judges to “look for meaning in the governing text, ascribe to that text the meaning that it has borne from its inception, and reject judicial speculation about both the drafters’ extra-textually derived purposes and the desirability of the fair reading’s anticipated consequences.” This austere interpretive method leads to a heavy emphasis on dictionary meanings, in disregard of a wise warning issued by Judge Frank Easterbrook, who though himself a self-declared textualist advises that “the choice among meanings [of words in statutes] must have a footing more solid than a dictionary—which is a museum of words, an historical catalog rather than a means to decode the work of legislatures.”
But Posner doesn’t stop at criticizing the illogic underpinning “textual originalism.” He also examines Justice Scalia’s many opinions and holds up for the reader the many, many instances in which Scalia has utterly disregarded his avowed precept. A sample:
Scalia and Garner defend the canon of construction that counsels judges to avoid interpreting a statute in a way that will render it unconstitutional, declaring that this canon is good “judicial policy.” Judicial policy is the antithesis of textual originalism. They note that “many established principles of interpretation are less plausibly based on a reasonable assessment of meaning than on grounds of policy adopted by the courts”—and they applaud those principles, too. They approve the principle that statutes dealing with the same subject should “if possible be interpreted harmoniously,” a principle they deem “based upon a realistic assessment of what the legislature ought to have meant,” which in turn derives from the “sound principles…that the body of the lawshould make sense, and…that it is the responsibility of the courts, within the permissible meanings of the text, to make it so” (emphasis added). In other words, judges should be realistic, should impose right reason on legislators, should in short clean up after the legislators.
All of which vividly illustrates why Judge Posner chose to call his essay, “The Incoherence of Antonin Scalia.” It’s pretty extraordinary for a court of appeals judge to call a supreme court justice incoherent, but, in the case of Judge Posner, we’ve come to expect nothing less. It’s pleasure to read Judge Posner’s complete destruction of Scalia’s book and the principle it espouses.
WC thinks that any theory of legal interpretation which freezes meaning to the time a constitution or statute was adopted is errant nonsense. The world view of the Founding Fathers did not encompass the world of the United States today. An agrarian ribbon of thirteen states with a population of, perhaps, 3 million people has little except history in common with the United States today. Attempts to apply a construct like textual originalism to, say, the internet, or nuclear arms is the purest folly.
Judge Posner just says it better.
(A H/T to Paul Eaglin for the lead to Posner’s review.)
No one on the web describes WC’s life better than Aaron Johnson in his classic web comic, What the Duck. His cartoon of September 12 captures part of WC’s dilemna perfectly:
Johnson has gone to weekly updates, instead of the daily updates earlier. But his 1,300-plus on-line collection is quite good if a weekly update isn’t enough for you.
Essayist and novelist Jonathan Franzen is a birder, and reads here from his recent collection of essays, Farther Away (Amazon link):
Laura Helmuth, a writer for Slate Magazine, thinks he is annoying. WC thinks Franzen’s sometimes cranky and dyspeptic tone is pitch-perfect for our times, and that he captures the mood of a birder perfectly.
As much as anything, Franzen seems to WC to be a modern St. Francis, the patron saint of birders and the man who, in conformance with the direction of Matthew, strove to find brotherhood in nature, and especially in birds.
In his essay on his commencement address at Kenyon College, “Pain Won’t Kill You,” Franzen wrote:
It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it is very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.
And when that passion is confronted by mindless killing of birds, by frightening habitat loss, climate change and environmental poisoning, well, it’s a wonder to WC that Franzen can keep his tone as positive as he does. He doesn’t give up on birds. Not just because they are his passion, but also because to give up on birds and birding would be to give up altogether, to admit there is no hope for mankind on our sadly abused planet.
Not all of the essays in Farther Away focus on birds and birding, but it is a recurring theme. It’s also a superbly written collection. Recommended.
The quintesessential “shaggy dog story” is in Mark Twain’s Roughing It (Chapter 53), where he is told by his buddies to go and listen to the great story Jim Blaine tells about his grandfather’s ram. Twain does, and listens to increasingly incoherent and tenuously linked yarns, until Blaine passes out from the corn likker.
“I learned then that Jim Blaine’s peculiarity was that whenever he reached a certain stage of intoxication, no human power could keep him from setting out, with impressive unction, to tell about a wonderful adventure which he had once had with his grandfather’s old ram—and the mention of the ram in the first sentence was as far as any man had ever heard him get, concerning it. He always maundered off, interminably, from one thing to another, till his whisky got the best of him and he fell asleep. What the thing was that happened to him and his grandfather’s old ram is a dark mystery to this day, for nobody has ever yet found out.”
The planet is wearing out. It’s a disaster novel. Overcrowding, terrorism, resource depletion, catastrophic class struggles, secret cabals. There are even mini-chapters between chapters categorizing all the ways humanity can come to a disastrous end. And then the plot thread is abandoned.
But one ultra-wealthy character is rescued from his own criminal stupidity by a pod of uplifted dolphins. Shades of Brin’s Uplift series! But the the dolphins, the rich brat and plot thread are all abandoned.
The wife of one man who (re)discovered one of the mysterious digital glass bottles is chased through a Chinese city by hordes of mysterious men. She and her baby are rescued and hide in a Shanghai Disneyland. And then the plot thread is abandoned.
Ostensibly, it’s a story for First Contact between man and an alien species, except it turns out not to be the first, not by a long shot, and it turns out to not involve actual physical contact. Ostensibly, it’s an explanation why attempts to detect radio signals from other intelligent life – the Fermi Paradox – have been unsuccessful. It’s because the preferred manner of communication is the high-tech equivalent of a message in a bottle, not broadcasts. Except it’s more like a virus infection, and the messages, the memes, in the high-tech bottles are contagions. Sort of like Brin’s plot threads, only one “message bottle” in a million may reach someone and cause an “infection.” But it’s a doozy.
So it’s a Dire Alien Menace story, too. Except that other digital message bottles warn against the D.A.M. The Big Confrontation, with one digital message bottle set against another? That’s never described. The plot thread is abandoned. Instead, the story jumps ahead a decade or two, to the Asteroid Belt, where apparently still earlier versions of the D.A.M. are still duking it out, with lasers, no less, and some of our plucky characters are caught in the cross-fire.
And then the scene shifts again, this time to a noble venture to “cure” all those unfortunate alien species of the contagion represented by the D.A.M. Except that plot thread, too, gets abandoned, along with the reader, for a gravity-lens-powered telescope.
Oddly, Jim Blaine’s grandfather’s old ram doesn’t actually appear in Existence, but the rest Blaine’s sins as a storyteller are fully present. The novel is a shaggy mess of a story. Great ideas – including some recycled concepts from Brin’s controversial Transparent Society – but if you are looking for anything like a plot, expect repeated disappointments. Brin can and has written very good novels. Award winning novels. This isn’t one of them.
Hardcover: 560 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition (June 19, 2012)
If you have read Mark Obmascik’s fine The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession or seen the movie loosely based on that book, The Big Year, then you really need no introduction to Sandy Komito. He still holds the all-time record for most bird species seen in North America in a calendar year, an incredible 847 species.
This is his autobiographical account of that record-shattering year. And you have to be a hard core lister to work your way through it. Essentially, it is a chronology of what he saw, where he saw it, and the trials and tribulations he experienced getting there. There are some nice, if somewhat dated, notes for would-be rivals, and appendices with specific lists of what he saw and where. But there are no big reveals after the introduction.
Or at least none that are intended. What Komito doesn’t say is much more revealing than what he does. Even allowing that a birder doing a big year is a birder in a hurry, Komito comes off as someone who is willing to let others do the work, and after they have found the bird, take a look at their finds. It’s especially true during Komito’s highly successful month on Attu Island, at the far, far west end of the Aleutian Islands, where he never once describes finding a year bird on his own; it’s always going to see a bird that someone else has already found. While it’s pretty clear Komito is a scrupulous birder, never fudging on a sighting, always getting the field marks to confirm the species, it’s also clear he’s a selfish birder, letting someone else, more often than not, do the hard work of scanning acres of terrain, and then taking the look in the scope.
And while Komito talks about pinching pennies, seriously, he spent a fortune. He mentions the great Kenn Kauffman’s Big Year described in Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder, which Kauffman did for less than $1,000 (hitching to Alaska not once but twice). Komito never discloses how much he spent. But just one of those round trips to Gambell, Alaska cost more than Kauffman’s whole budget.
It’s also clear that Komito attaches a low priority to the environment in which his much-loved birds live. He made two round trips from his home base near Newark, NJ, to Barrow, Alaska to get one species, Ross’s Gull. Even by WC’s dubious green credentials, that’s a shocking amount of CO2 for a single species on a checklist.
And while he has superlative birding skills, Sandy Komito is not a proofreader. If he had an editor, the incompetent buffoon should be shot. Some of the typos and spelling errors bring a reader to a full stop to try and puzzle out what it is supposed to say.
Komito didn’t get a Great Grey Owl in his Big Year. Ironically, in his visit to Delta Junction, Alaska (one of at least five trips to Alaska), en route to get a Common Crane near Delta, he was less than 200 yards from an active Great Grey Owl nest. And didn’t get the bird. Maybe there was no one around to get it in the scope for him.
Recommended for hard core birders, especially those thinking of undertaking a Big Year themselves. There are useful tips. Or it may be interesting to a clinical psychologist as example of what wealth, skill and a fowl obsession can lead to. Non-birders? Not a chance.
Publisher: Bergen Pub. Co; 1st edition (1999)
Some of you have commented on WC’s seeming breadth of topics. A few of you have even commented on WC’s seeming breadth of experience. Piffle.
If you want breadth of experience, you want Count Harry Kessler (1868-1937). You’ve never heard of him, most likely. You’re hardly alone. But consider:
Kessler met with the aging Otto von Bismarck,who told him that the German people were too “pigheaded” for democracy. He visited Paul Verlaine, who sketched a portrait of Arthur Rimbaud on Kessler’s copy of Les Illuminations. Kessler dropped by Claude Monet‘s studio in Giverny to discuss painting the Thames by night. He dined with the aging Edgar Degas and they discussed the late Oscar Wilde. He met the incomparable Sarah Bernhardt. He loaned money to Rilke. He discussed airplane design with Wilbur Wright and aerial bombardment with Otto von Zepplin. He gave Richard Strauss the idea for Der Rosenkavalier and witnessed the premiere of Rite of Spring and partied afterwards with the cast, including Nijinsky.
All in the same year. Well, 14 months anyway.
He was also a friend of Nietzsche‘s family, and after the old man’s death, helped with the funeral. He closed the eyes on the corpse of Friedrich Nietzsche. There’s a metaphor for you.
And, as you have likely guessed, he was a hardcore, profligate diarist. But many of those diaries were lost, particularly for the period prior to World War I. The missing volumes were only discovered in a bank vault in Mallorca in 1983.
A voluminous but still incomplete selection from those lost volumes has been translated by Laird Easton and published as Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918 (Amazon link). WC made it 215 pages.
It’s not that it’s hard reading. Although even in translation the German sentence structure is sometimes a challenge (Mark Twain: “Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”). Rather, it is hard to fully understand.
Let me give you an example. Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud may have been/probably were lovers. Kessler’s visit with Verlaine and Verlaine’s sketch of Rimbaud on a volume of Rimbaud’s collection of poems came after a violent quarrel between the two. Add that Kessler himself was at least bisexual. Now that diary entry means a great deal more. A lover’s apology? A polite rejection of an offer? Do you see how context changes and enriches Kessler’s simple entry?
WC ended up reading Abyss at his computer, with Wikipedia open, his copy of Incompleat Education at hand and a pen and pad for taking notes. WC is a liberal arts major, a credentialed dilettante and has read a few books. But a full third of the people mentioned in the diary were completely new to WC. Cosima Wagner? (Richard Wagner’s widow, and harsh guardian of his music.) Another third were just names from history (Josephine Baker). And there were the third or so about whom WC had a smattering of information.
It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle, where the pieces make little sense unless you understand all of the other pieces and not just the one in your hand, the diary entry before you. And while highly enriching, it is also a time-consuming, exhausting business. WC spent about ten hours trying to understand the entry for November 28, 1903, where Kessler described his first meeting with Claude Monet, and who and what they discussed.
An absolutely amazing man. Erudite, impassioned, connected to everyone and everything. But WC has set Abyss aside until he has a couple of spare months to read and truly appreciate this man and Easton’s translation.