Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Three Books

I've finished three books recently, all new ones to me, and all three were worth my time. The first was The Greatest Game Ever Played, a golf story about the 1913 US Open. This book was subsequently made into a movie, and one can easily understand why even after hearing only the synopsis. Francis Ouimet, a 20 year old amateur golfer, came out of nowhere to win the 1913 US Open. In doing so, he beat Harry Vardon in a head-to-head 18 hole playoff to take the title. For those unfamiliar with Vardon, the best way to think about it is to envision a 20 year old unknown knocking off Tiger Woods. But only after Tiger had been playing another decade further building up his mystique. Moreover, Francis played with a small, truant 6th grade schoolboy as his caddy and had a father that violently opposed his playing golf thinking it a frivolous hobby of the rich. If Francis had a love interest, this would have needed no altering for Hollywood. Anyway, the book is fantastic and I read it quickly enjoying every minute. The portraits of the various people brought them to life and made me want to read more about Vardon and the other golfing greats of that time. It was all peachy right to the last page. And then I found this:
A NOTE ON THE WRITING
In employing dialogue to bring these scenes to life, I used source material for direct attribution wherever possible. In its occasional absence I attempted to infer intent from prose or reportage, remaining as true as possible to what I understood to be the spirit of the moment. In rare exceptions, with a dramatist's license, and in the utter want of eyewitness, I took the liberty of elaborating on those perceptions beyond what I could absolutely verify. It is my hope and belief that in no instance did I violate the underlying truths, laboring only to illuminate them.

Translation: It's all true, except for the parts which I had to make up to make it more interesting. And the truth was not delineated from the fiction in his account. Which was really disappointing. I had thought at several points throughout the book that the people involved sure had good memories of so long ago, but I also knew that much of this book was based on biographies and autobiographies of the people in question. But the story was good enough without this. There was no need to go doctoring up the dialogue, no matter how slight the author thought it was. Still a good read, but it could have been just about perfect if not for that.

The next book was a big switch; Marooned in Realtime is a sci-fi murder mystery set millions of years in the future on an all-but-deserted Earth. As sci-fi goes it wasn't bad and as a murder mystery, it wasn't bad even though the author didn't really play fair with the clues. It may have been more explicable if I had read the preceding book The Peace War before this, but it still was okay. The author had a flea in his ear about the "next stage of human evolution" or some such, positing it to be right around the corner of the next 50 years or so along with an ever-increasing pace of technological development which hasn't really been borne out by experience (the book was written nearly 25 years ago), but read as I read most sci-fi (more like fantasy) it passes muster.

The final book I read was Till We Have Faces, CS Lewis' "Myth Retold". Simply put, I can understand why so many people I have spoken to consider this to be his greatest book. This book is a reflection on the nature of love told through the myth of Cupid and Psyche, though the book is entirely from the perspective of Orual, Psyche's sister. I'm not the best one to judge, of course, but I think Lewis did a good job of understanding a woman's perspective in order to write this book in a convincing and realistic manner. In addition to being a great story, it truly gives one to think about whether one treats those one loves with love. The point is made that often we justify our behaviour by saying that we do what we do only for another's good, or because we love them, but when we do this we are not thinking of them but of ourselves. A powerful book.

Jack Bauer, Mass Murderer

Okay, so presumably he's killing bad guys within the context of his job as a federal agent or whatever, but this is still a pretty high body count for only five days. Wouldn't you say?

Monday, May 29, 2006

Google me this

An interesting article about the history and direction of Google, that company which is rapidly becoming the next Microsoft in many ways. As far as I can tell, this is a pretty good history of Google, hitting the important points. While I don't agree with all of his conclusions and opinions, the author does have some good cautionary thoughts about seeing Google as an unmitigated force for good in the world. Most widely known is Google's discarding of their "deeply held" beliefs about the sanctity of information freedom when the chance to make a buck in China came along. Microsoft has long been mocked as selling its soul in order to gain more money, hence such things as "Micro$soft", but Google's behaviour to get into the Chinese market was at least as reprehensible as anything Microsoft has done. It's silly to trust Google just because they claim their mission statement or motto or whatever is "Don't Be Evil." They are a for profit company. Their primary mission statement is "Make Money", and most anything that stands in the way of that will get brushed aside.

I'd like the hand grenade meal with my burger.

Several times this year.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Excerpts Promised

Long, long ago (almost a month now) I promised to supply a couple excerpts from All I Survey. Right, here you go.

From On Fictional Conventions:
Again and again, the modern reader may read a sentence like this: "Peter had already noticed a smiling, blue-eyed girl, with a bright, shingled head, slip in among the new-comers, suspected of being gate-crashers, who thronged the door." Or the sentence may run: "Slim, lithe, and brown-eyed, with a delicate and fiery tan, Joan stood poised on the distant rock, about to dive." There are a hundred other examples; but all habitually assume that the first thing that anybody notices about a woman is the colour of her eyes. Now, it is perfectly possible to be on tolerably intimate terms with a person for a long time and yet be unable to recall suddenly the colour of his or her eyes. And certainly nobody ever saw the colour of a stranger's eyes all the way across a ball-room in Mayfair, a big studio in Chelsea, or the wide sands at Lido. One would suppose that a girl's blue eyes were enormously big blue lanterns, and shone afar off like the green and red lanterns of a railway signal.
....
I knew a lady, with a very hearty sense of humour, whose business it happened to be to write frankly conventional romances for the old frankly conventional Press, the Press that provided healthy but somewhat sentimental serials and novelettes. She got great fun out of her functions and she told me once that she had written a long serial romance, with a stately and tragic heroine, only to be told at the end that the public, or at least the publishers, insisted on a petite and sparkling heroine. With a noble calm, disdaining to alter a single incident in the whole narrative, she merely went through the manuscript, altering black eyes to blue eyes... Amanda's large and shady hat grew less large and shady, and was turned up with a rose or something; her raiment grew less sweeping and severe; but nothing else needed any alteration. And it sometimes seems to me that many who write in the most revolutionary fashion write quite as much according to a revolutionary formula. They merely go through their own story and put in the terms which are supposed to make the heroine chic or distinguished, according to the momentary modern conventions of unconventionality. The heroine has no more real individuality, amid all the fuss of individualism, than the adaptable Amanda whose eyes turned so easily from black to blue.
....
If Homer had written a realistic description [of Helen of Troy], it would have seemed to us a rather vulgar description... But ages shall pass and civilizations shall perish, and time shall never turn the keen edge of that great indirect compliment, that older and wiser fashion of describing the effect and not the external instruments.

Bookly Things

I don't think I'm going to quite match last month's total of 19, but I should finish one or two more books this month to reach 17 or 18. Respectable enough. Ah, for the lost opportunities of January.

The only book I've read recently that was new to me was Dixie Betrayed by David Eicher, and, as its subtitle states, it is a look at why Mr Eicher believes the South really lost the Civil War. In brief, his idea is that it was because the South could not agree politically on the prosecution of the war and this resulted in tensions between the states and the central government that doomed the South's war effort. While I do agree with him that the ability of the South's generals and enlisted soldiers has been overblown in much of the writing about the history of the Civil War, and the North's numerical advantage in both men and materiel, while significant, was not solely decisive, I think placing all one's eggs in one basket, however sound, is foolish. Further, there were similar political difficulties in the North during the conflict and the shuffling of generals around the North took place on a par with what was done in the South. Arguably, the South was able to find their ablest generals more quickly than the North did and still this did ultimately avail them. It would be more accurate to say that the South was beaten for a variety of factors, economic, numeric, tactical, strategic and political. One may certainly argue about the relative importance of each and there are good cases to be made all the way around, but to cleave to one reason to the exclusion of the others is foolish.

The book itself, while covering the entirety of the war with commendable thoroughness and speed (Sumter to Appomattox in under 300 pages), is difficult to read in places. Eicher is not a great writer and his phrasing is sometimes infelicitous. Moreover, he cannot decide whether he is writing a scholarly work with a scholarly tone or a popular history with asides from the author to make his text friendly and the result is a feeling of it being off-key. His portraits of the participants in the Southern political dramas are well-done, but he spends too much time quoting directly from first-sources when it isn't necessary. Over all, I'd rate the book as being fair-to-middlin' and worth a look for the serious and casual student of the Civil War, though probably a bit much to take for anyone who doesn't read in the field frequently.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Books

Re-read The Amazing Power of Ashur Fine, which was one of my favourite books as a youth. It is a book aimed at rather young readers, but the concept was one with which I was quite enamoured. Wouldn't make a bad movie, really. The author, Donald Sobol, is the same guy that wrote the Encyclopedia Brown series, which everyone read as child, right?

I read Ordeal by Innocence while in Canada this past weekend. It was okay; it didn't feature any of Christie's recurring detectives, but it also didn't involve a criminal mastermind or the supernatural, which was good. The author didn't really play too fair with the clues until the very end, so I didn't have the murderer guessed, but I wasn't terribly engaged in the book anyway.

Finally, I finished reading The Glory of Their Times which was a book consisting entirely of interviews of baseball players that played 70 to 100 years ago. The stories were fascinating and funny and it was very interesting to read different opinions of players everyone has heard of and that we all think we know well, such as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Excerpt from a letter

As the chair of the Information School's Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) Admissions Committee....I'm sorry to inform you that we will not be able to offer you admission for autumn 2006.

Friday, May 19, 2006

World Record 100m Time

So you run all out, cross the line in first place and turn to look at the clock and see... a new World Record! How great must that feel? Pretty great, I bet.

Then, five days later, your phone rings...

Cracked me up.

Laughed out loud. Honest to goodness.

Danger + Opportunity

You know that story about how the Chinese word for crisis includes the characters for both danger and opportunity? False. I always hated that story even when I thought it was true.

Mexican Elections

It turns out that in a particular area of northern Mexico, so many people have crossed the border to the US, they're having trouble finding people to man the election. (Link is to a story in Spanish, but there are plenty of translation tools available on the intertron.)

Spurious Quotations

GK Chesterton is famous for saying "Once a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing, he believes in everything." Or something like that. Which is the point. Some research was done on what Chesterton might have actually written, and this is what turned up. Interesting, I think.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

An Helpful Guide for the Confused Pagan

Confused by the differences between Catholics and the Orthodox? What is the deal with the Rapture anyway? Well, now your questions have been answered. Click the link to be led to such informative jewels as:
Fundamentalism
The belief that basic elements of play - like passing, ball handling, and defense - are the essential building blocks of a winning basketball team is generally referred to as "fundamentalism." The fundamentalists formulated their doctrine in the 1980s against the showy, heretical play of Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers. Leading fundamentalist institutions include Bob Jones University and Syracuse. Larry Brown's failure to get the Knicks into the playoffs has been seen as a major setback for the cause of fundamentalism.
And even if you are a Christian, it's useful for evangelising your unchurched friends!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

50 Books

Just noting in passing that the 50th book I have read from cover to cover this year was just added on my side-bar there to the left. If my math is correct (always an iffy proposition!), then I'm on pace to read about 135 books this year. Not too shabby; a little better than a book every three days. And just shy of the pace to read 60 new books this year (22 to date).

My master list of unique books read is up to 972, so I should pass the 1000 mark easily this year.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sky Flying! Field Running! Water Splashing!

Massacre!

Okay, so it wasn't quite so bad as that. But it wasn't a very good movie.

I watched House of Flying Daggers recently and it was rather forgettable. Andy Lau was good in his role, but he didn't have as much screen time as I thought he should. The love story was unconvincing, the ending unsatisfying and too many loose threads were left untied at the end of the film. I'm not really an expert on serious Chinese cinema (or any Chinese cinema for that matter), but this was the worst of the three movies I've seen like this. The other two are Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was a good movie by any standard, and Hero, which was a decent movie, if overly preachy about the need for Taiwan to submit to the ChiComs. (If you saw that movie and are wondering what I'm talking about, read this; you'll need to scroll to the last point.)

Crouching Tiger was a good love story, well-acted, with interesting fights, good characters and everything was managed well to make an all-around great film. Hero was decent, had some interesting characters and a fair-to-middling plot, but it went on too long, the direction became overly arty (the colours! the colours!) and the resolution was unsatisfying besides the "Sino-fascist subtext" Derbyshire refers too in the link above. Flying Daggers was insipid characters, a weak plot, forgettable action, a stupid love story and too many loose ends. Skip it.

Books

I started to read Shopgirl by Steve Martin, but I couldn't finish it. Which is saying something because I was already about halfway through and it's only about 150 pages long. The story was sort of interesting, but I didn't like any of the characters and the writing was awful. It was like he was trying to be like Hemingway (who was bad enough) and falling short even of that. I haven't canceled my hold on the DVD at the library; I'm holding out hope that it will be better than the book.

I did finish reading The Real Jimmy Carter and it was informative and interesting if not precisely enjoyable. The subtitle to this book is "How our worst ex-President undermines American foreign policy, coddles dictators, and created the party of Clinton and Kerry". And he backs it all up. While it is a book about how it is far off the mark to canonize Carter, it does not demonize him. Hayward approvingly notes the work Carter does with Habitat for Humanity and the good he did speaking out for human rights in Cuba in 2002 among other things. But his point is that these things do not obviate the fact that Carter spends most of his time working and speaking against freedom and in favour of repression around the world and taking every chance he gets to criticise America. If you want a quick run-down to give you an idea of the sorts of things discussed in the book, check this out. An especially useful book for anyone born in the late 70's or more recently who wouldn't remember Carter's presidency first-hand.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Day 2: The Adventure Continues

Made it successfully through the latter half of yesterday despite my lovely wife being absent. (She is off cavorting with friends in another part of the state this weekend.) Have had no caffeine and yet pushed through to 10 pm last night after working all Thursday night and getting about 3 1/2 or 4 hours of nap yesterday morning. Was up at 4:30 this morning and am feeling rather well, actually.

Jokes about fathers being incompetent to care for small children aside, the house isn't too much of a wreck, moderately nutritious foods were consumed by all and everyone was fairly happy until it came time for my daughter to go to bed. Even that went rather smoothly until it came to the actual act of setting her down in her crib and leaving the room. After a period of mourning, she did settle down for the night well before I toddled off to bed. We, or at least I, slept through the night and I anticipate few problems once we get into the swing of things today. Taking care of my daughter is not really so bad. What mystifies me is how my wife manages that and does other things like, ensuring there is food available for general consumption, laundering clothes, preventing the house from deteriorating into a federal disaster area over the course of a week and other seemingly impossible tasks. My hat, if I were wearing one right now, would be off to you, my dear.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Day in the Life

I finished reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich yesterday. It was quite a good book, even though a bit depressing. I've read part of The Gulag Archipelago as well, though I haven't finished that, and that book is far more depressing. Which is not too surprising since One Day was allowed to be published by the Soviets and Gulag was not, if I remember correctly. The book does trace, quite literally, one day in the life of a fictional camp prisoner or zek in the camp slang. What makes this book even more depressing than it would have already been is that when we get to the end of the day, Ivan decides that it hasn't been such a bad day after all. Knowing that, one is left merely to imagine in horror how awful a bad day would really be. I'd suggest this book to anyone interested in learning a bit more about the excesses of the Soviet system and why moral equivalence between them and us is so misguided. It's short (my copy is small and still only has about 150 pages) and it reads easily. It's worth remembering that the Soviets kept their concentration camp system running for nigh on 70 years while the Nazis only were in power for about a decade and that communism has killed (and in China, is killing) far, far more people than Nazism ever did. And yet the hammer and sickle is still acceptable avant garde wear, Che t-shirts are fashionable and communist thought is socially acceptable when the swastika with a quarter turn is considered beyond the pale. Read the book and reflect on why one evil gets a pass and another does not.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Daily Comics Read

The list of comic strips I read, which I detailed here, has changed somewhat since that date. I've added a few comic strips and dropped others. The current list is 9 Chickweed Lane, Big Nate, Dilbert, Frazz, Get Fuzzy, Pearls Before Swine, Pibgorn, Sheldon, Unfit, Foxtrot and The Order of the Stick. I've dropped, PvP, Rose is Rose and Luann; the additions are The Order of the Stick, 9 Chickweed Lane, Sheldon and Unfit. (OotS and Pibgorn update less frequently than once a day.)

PvP I stopped reading for the reasons listed here, and while I've read the odd strip since then (I've seen specific strips linked from other websites several times) I don't really read it any longer.

Rose is Rose got the boot because it stopped being funny. Simple as that. It's now merely "cute". Part of this probably has to do with the fact that Pat Brady no longer has anything to do with the day to day creation of the comic. He's the "creator" and some guy named Don Wimmer actually does the writing and illustrating.

I lost interest in reading Luann when it got less and less funny and the plotlines ceased to go anywhere. This, I have often noted, is a problem for some comic strips. Nothing changes for years, people don't age, their lives don't advance, their characters don't change, but one day the artist wakes up and thinks "Character development! Persistent changes!" and proceeds to craft a storyline that alters the world of the comic strip or its characters in a lasting and permanent way. But then what? The story line runs its course and then the writer has to decide if he will continue to develop characters or allow them to become immobile once again in this new setting. The latter is the choice made by Greg Evans. Some comics can handle only advancing in a permanent way once in a blue moon. Luann cannot.

Unfit I started reading after I saw it on the front page of comics.com as the feature strip of the day one day. I read back through the 30 day archive and laughed quite a bit, so it got added to the daily rotation. Lately, however, the jokes have gotten stale and stupid and the artwork was always mediocre (and that's being generous) so it's one I'm thinking about dropping as well.

Sheldon was added in the same fashion as Unfit, but the artwork in it is of a higher quality and the humour has continued unabated. I don't know that Sheldon is a comic that appears in newspapers, in fact, I rather doubt that it is. On rare occasions there will fail to be a comic available for a given day or two running and one would hardly think that a newspaper would accept that.

Finally, 9 Chickweed Lane is a comic by the same person that writes and illustrates Pibgorn. There are a few characters that occasionally cross-over between the strips, but Chickweed is much more firmly grounded in reality. I'm somewhat on the fence about it too since not too long ago since the cast of characters has changed and the current storyline involves a nun who ceased to be a nun because she fell in love with a priest and their currently burgeoning relationship. So far, nothing deal-breaking has happened that would cause me to quit reading, but I am uncomfortably suspicious that something of that nature is in the offing. Moreover, Pibgorn has ceased to be light-hearted and delightfully entertaining and rolled over into pretentiousness. I am hanging in there because the current storyline can last only so long and its end will, hopefully, mark a return to more enjoyable times.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Interesting little known facts

The pro-illegal immigration march on May 1st was primarily organised and funded by national and international Communist organisations. There is a short video about that here which points this out and asks why this sort of thing isn't mentioned by mainstream media coverage. Most of the large anti-war marches were organised and sponsored by the same folks. Interesting, no?

Also Funny

This would make a great shirt, which, incidentally, you can do through their website. This link will only work for 30 days, after which it will expire.

Humour

This post made me laugh out loud.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

New Book

I finished reading a Dorothy Sayers novel which I had not read before, and that is something that I have not done in quite a while. For quite some time I had thought I had read all of Dorothy Sayers' mystery novels, and I had included The Documents in the Case among them, but after reading it recently, I know that it wasn't something I had read before. It's an interesting book because it is present almost entirely as written correspondence. There's a few brief lines near the end that are spoken, but that's it. Sayers probably wasn't the first person to come up with the idea, nor was she probably the last person to use this conceit for a novel, but I do not know of any other examples. There are several other notable things about this book as well. It is an enjoyable read even though one can guess pretty easily who the murderer is quite early on. The method itself is also fairly easily determined, but the real mystery is how the murder is to be proved. I do confess that it would not have occurred to me, oh, probably ever. Another interesting thing about this book is that it is Sayers' only collaboration with another author; Robert Eustace in this case. (I'm not counting the atrocious Thrones, Dominations "completed" after Sayers' death by Jill Paton Walsh.) And finally, I believe this is the only full length novel that Sayers wrote that doesn't feature Lord Peter Wimsey. She wrote a fair number of short stories without him, but not novels.

Monday, May 01, 2006

And Again Books

Not feeling too well today, yet not unwell enough to not work. Haven't blogged in about a week and have neglected to even mention the last three books I read in April. All I Survey is a book collection of some essays by GK Chesterton. It was okay, I suppose. I actually didn't like most of them, some of them were terribly dated (as must be many things written for publication in a newspaper), but some were quite funny. I especially enjoyed an essay that skewered some tendencies of fiction writers. I'll find it again and type up an excerpt or two before it has to back to the library. He certainly covered a wide range of topics in his essays, everything from poetry to education to grammar to politics and even an essay titled On Eyebrows.

I also read Dragon and Thief by Timothy Zahn who is, apparently, a fairly well-known sci-fi writer. It wasn't bad and it had an interesting twist that I hadn't seen in an sci-fi book before. It included the standard interstellar travel, aliens, nefarious plots and super-weapons, but one of the main characters is an alien that looks like a dragon. Not only that, but he can only spend (at most) six hours in a three-dimensional form before he needs to return to a two-dimensional form on the body of his symbiont host. In other words, half the time he's a real dragon, half the time he's a talking, thinking, moving dragon tattoo. It wasn't long, the writing wasn't awful and the story wasn't bad. I'm gonna look for the next few in the series and give them a shot too.

A book I started but didn't finish was Market Forces by Richard Morgan. Both it and Dragon and Thief were recommendations from Unshelved, an online comic about a library (funnier than it sounds). Market Forces was inane post-capitalist drivel about how mega-corporations run the world and the way you get promotion is by killing your rivals on the highways dueling in armored cars a la Mad Max. Like Dragon and Thief it sounded like it had potential, but it failed miserably. The writer used far more profanity than was at all necessary, had a fixation with sex and conception of the direction of world was laughable. I should have looked at the books he consulted before reading the first five or so chapters; featured prominently among the influences are several books by Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky.

The last book was an Agatha Christie novel featuring Tommy and Tuppence, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, this time not as young marrieds but as a middle-aged couple on the cusp of retirement. It was both a bit darker and less satisfying than many of her other books. It featured a serial killer, a child murderer and an international criminal gang (though, to Christie's credit, she didn't have a super-villain at the back of absolutely everything this time). What was most disappointing to me, however, was that though the murderer got his/her comeuppance (sort of), several accomplices after the fact who covered up for the murderer out of feelings of loyalty and affection were given a pass even though their actions had led directly to a half-dozen other innocent people being murdered by the same person. Made me sick to my stomach. I can't stand it when someone who has been blocking the detective through the whole book and allows other people to get bumped off because of her obstruction is given a pass at the end. "Oh, that's okay. You loved him. We understand." I hate that. Ridiculous.