October 2004
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October 2004 Archives

October 30, 2004

Crichton - Eaters of the Dead

Michael Crichton
Eaters of the Dead

Michael Crichton might be a very bright guy in person, but he has a real knack for writing stupid books that become popular books. His books have a peculiar kind of stupidity - the book itself acts as if it is quite clever, and so the reader is left trying to decide if the book is so smart that they can't see what is so smart about it, or if the book is meant to be a deadpan parody of a smart book. Either way, I don't much like them.

I did enjoy watching the movie The Thirteenth Warrior and so I grabbed this off the shelf of audiobooks. Bad idea.

I wish I could give a better critique, but after getting into disk 2 of 5 nothing has happened worth taking any note of. Its pointless rambling annoyed me, and I turned it off. Not recommended. In fact, I need to remember to save time and aggravation and simply say no to anything else this guy wrote.

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Red Ted
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Shipping News

E. Annie Proulx
The shipping news
Hingham, MA : Wheeler, 1994.
Narrated performance by Paul Hecht.

This might be a good book, but it is not a book I wanted to listen to. I got into disc 2 of 11, with our hero finally making it to Newfoundland, and I found that I just had no desire for more.

On the good side, Proulx writes well with a lot of moments where a turn of phrase or a metaphor jumps out and grabs you. But, many of her characters talk alike, almost in shorthand, and Hecht reads their lines alike as well. It may be intentional that Diamond, the African-American copyeditor, and the Aunt, born in Newfoundland and all pale white and blotchy, talk in exactly the same rhythms and with exactly the same trick of phrasing, but it bothered me.

It is an effective way of phrasing: lots of clauses; strung together like lumps of coal; crossing and re-crossing their sounds. I liked it; it kept me reading, listening, as things moved past me. But, as you can see from this parody, it gets old quickly.

I might try this again in paper rather than as an audiobook. I kept wanting to skip ahead a bit, to get past the bit where Quoyle is being a great lump of a nebbish and into the bits where he changes and evolves. I suppose I have little patience for unhappy books, and the start is so over-the-top unhappy that it must have been meant to be funny.

Not a good audiobook.

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Red Ted
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Bend It Like Beckham

Bend it Like Beckham

Great movie.

I like little movies, stories about a couple of interesting characters and a moment of change or transition. No more big special effects, explosions, or the like for me - give me complete and compelling characters and I will be happy. This movie has characters in spades. Many are over the top, intentionally so, which is why it is filed as a comedy. But the best comedies are about truth, and the dilemma at the core of the movie rings true.

You know the premise - Anglo-Indian family has two daughters. One likes boys, the other likes football (soccer). The parents are overprotective, want only the best for their daughters, and can handle the girls but are nonplussed by the football. It goes from there, and it goes well.

J. almost never watches movies. She watched this one twice - once when she was taking care of the infant and again when I was watching. We thought about buying a copy - and we never buy movies. Good stuff and highly recommended.

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Red Ted
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October 22, 2004

Loewen - Lies my Teacher Told Me

James W. Loewen
Lies My Teacher Told Me: [everything your American history textbook got wrong] Audiobook.
Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, p2002.
Narrated by Brian Keeler
Orig Pub: New York : New Press, 1994.

This is an important book.

It is also a preachy book.

Loewen makes some powerful arguments about the problems with history textbooks - they tell feel-good stories for affluent white boys while marginalizing and distorting the histories of non-white, poor people, and women. They tell all their readers that everyone can succeed, and never recount the history of the procedures and systems that made it almost impossible for anyone but affluent white men to do well until very recently, and whose impact continues today. He charges his textbooks with making everyone into a hero, telling happy stories about them instead of digging into what they actually did. So, to use his opening examples, the texts tell us that Helen Keller learned to read, write, and speak. They never tell us that she grew up to be a leading socialist. The texts tell us happy stories about Christopher Columbus, they never discuss his second voyage where he conquered Haiti and began a process of forced labor, expropriation, exile into slavery, random murder, and disease that together killed some 4,000,000 Arawak indians within 40-odd years of his arrival.

It is a powerful book - one strong enough that I seriously considered shifting to teaching high school so that I could tackle some of these problems at the source rather than trying to fix them in college students. If I don't find a full time teaching job, that is probably what I will do, because I do love to teach.

Reading this started me thinking about Louie Simmons, the powerlifting guru, and Lynne Cheney, the conservative critic of history education and former head of the NEH (also Mrs. Vice President at the moment.) I want to say something about an odd contrast between the two, but the thought is not even formed up enough to blog about. So, it will go onto the main blog in a couple of days.

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Red Ted
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October 14, 2004

Going Upriver

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
George Butler

This is a political biography in film format. I watched the compressed online edition, downloaded from Thekerrymovie.com while grading yesterday.

I have a couple of quick thoughts. The first, this is a good, powerful, well edited documentary covering the years from 1965 through about 1973. It opens with a montage of Kerry's childhood, ends with his debates against John O'Neil. It presents events as they were understood at the time, and makes the point that Kerry was a highly effective leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War because he was able to take powerful and heartfelt anger and translate it to the larger nation. The others would have ranted; Kerry spoke eloquently. Kerry held things together and helped the vets channel their anger into useful debate, even when Nixon tried to provoke them into doing something stupid.

The second thought is that just as there is a big change in George Bush's speaking patterns from his Texas gubernatorial debates to 2004, so too has their been a change in Kerry's language and presentation. In the 1970s he was an incredibly eloquent idealist, speaking from his heart about what he saw as a moral challenge to the nation. I had read the text of his Senate testimony before, but this was the first time I had seen the video footage. Even knowing some of the words, I was stunned by their power and force.

Modern Kerry only rarely touches that moral conviction expressed through prose. He touched on it a couple of times in the third presidential debate, but for most of the time he now speaks like a politician and not like an idealist. This may simply be a case of him continuing to present the raw ribs of conviction under an appealing coat of plaster and paint, but it still markes a change. On the other hand, in the 1970s Kerry was being eloquent about one big thing - justice - and looking for justice in the war, the war conduct, and the nation's actions and future. In 2004 he is talking about many things, and he speaks mose eloquently and most powerfully when he returns to that theme of justice. It may be that he has not so much covered over that earlier conviction as added onto it, with wings and outbuildings around the core structure of a search for a just world and a moral nation.

I think I will burn the downloaded copy onto a CD and mail it to my folks, who don't like Bush but also don't like what Kerry did in the 1970s.

Highly recommended.

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Red Ted
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October 13, 2004

Zahn - Green and grey

Timothy Zahn
The Green and the Gray
New York : Tor Books, 2004.

Speaking of bad books, here is another one.

Before I ran screaming I figured out that there are two groups of aliens hiding in New York City, that the Greens have ties to trees and the Greys to stonework, that somehow a ritual killing of one Green would settle the war between the two, and that a dysfunctional New York couple have gotten into the middle of all this.

As with most bad books, this was bad because it was not compelling. The couple was dysfunctional and flawed - he was both weak and demanding, she was clumsy and helpless - and the couple was beginning to overcome their problems under the stress of the situation. But they still were not people I had any intention of spending any time with. The aliens were generic; the prose was not compelling; the situation was too contrived for my taste. It may be that they were being true to genre and I do not care for that particular genre, always a possibility, but from where I was sitting it just sucked.

So I stopped reading. This is another "could not start."

I don't know if I will read Zahn in the future, so far the only half-decent things he wrote were his first few Star Wars novels. The rest of his material has just barely been enough to get me to take it off the shelf, but this was the first that looked even interesting enough to follow me home. It was a very disappointing experience.

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Red Ted
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Barnes - Cestus Deception

Steven Barnes
The Cestus deception
New York : Ballantine Books, c2004.

Steven Barnes is a perfectly competant writer. He has done some collaberation with Niven and Pournelle; his Streetlethal and followup novels are a nice mixture of martial arts, distopia, and love; he is normally someone whose stuff I like to read.

George Lucas presides over an ever expanding empire of suck. This empire has gone from the first movies to the later dreck, from the first few novels to the great Star Wars writing franchise, and at every stage the quality has declined.

The Star Wars book empire has hired a number of good writers to do novels for them. Some of them are not bad - I liked Walter Jon Williams' Destiny's Way while Timothy Zahn's Star Wars stuff is better than his stand-alone works. Most of them are terrible - all the faults of Lucas' world and none of the charm.

Barnes Cestus Deception is in the clone wars subset of the Star Wars franchise and, well, I found it absolutely unreadable. The header for this entry reads "did not finish" but it should have been called "could not start." The characters are more wooden and paper-thin than usual. The dialogue sucks. The premises are faulty. The politics are stupid. Nothing about the entire experience was enthralling or compelling. I found that I had no reason to care about the events, the characters, the plot or the world. So I stopped. And all that suckiness was in the first dozen pages. It was really most remarkably bad.

I like Barnes. I will read his next book whenever it comes out. Unless, of course, it is in Lucasworld. I have started a boycot of Lucasworld.

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Red Ted
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October 12, 2004

Doohan & Stirling: The Rising

James Doohan & S.M. StirlingThe Rising: Flight Engineer v. 1
Riverdale, NY : Baen, 1996.

This is space opera. I like a good space opera. This is the engineer as hero, fixing things and re-routing things so that he can save the day. The engineer-hero is a classic motif in science fiction. This is a story about a fighter jock, with several characters referring to peas and grapefruit to describe our hero. Fighter jock novels can be fun. This is not a serious work. I like light reading.

So, it is a well-crafted space opera, with many of the traits and faults of the genre, and while it does not always remain plausible, it does always remain true to genre. In space opera, what is important is that you remain true to genre, so on those terms this is a very good book indeed.

I liked reading it. I read it in a couple of hours after midnight with a cranky boy in my other arm. I might even read some of the other books in the series. But, I feel no compulsion to read more - this is fiction by the yard, in a fine pattern, but without compelling cut or style.

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Red Ted
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Forester - Lord Hornblower

Cecil Scott Forester
Lord Hornblower
Bath, [England] : Chivers Audio Books ; Hampton, NH : Chivers North America, p1999.
Read by Christian Rodska.
Novel Orig. pub. Boston, Little, Brown and company, 1946.

Lord Hornblower is my least favorite in Forester's series, but it was one of only two available on audiobook so I started it.

The good: Forester tells some interesting stories, Hornblower is a wonderful male wish-fulfillment character: capable yet self-doubting, inarticulate and clumsy yet women love him, smart and strong and tone-deaf. Forester gives a good simplified view of the Augustan navy - folks who like this sort of thing might want to read N.A.M. Roger The Wooden World for a deeper look at patrons and clients, shipboard routine, and the institutional mechanics of the 18th century navy.

The bad: it is just not a compelling book. I don't like the plot; I don't like what Forester does to several of his continuing characters; I don't find the supporting characters all that compelling; the whole thing feels like a writing exercise and not like a tale that must be told.

So, I turned it off after about 3 tapes.

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Red Ted
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Master and Commander

Master and Commander

Watched this in two stints, about a month apart, while rocking cranky babies.

It is a darn good action adventure. It is a good look at the nature of manhood, as translated from the late 18th century to the modern world by Patrick O'Brien and Peter Weir.

I liked it.

Afterwards, I went out and summoned a couple of Honor Harrington novels from the library. I like Napoleonics and Napoleonic fiction, and David Weber writes some of the best, albeit in a science fiction context.

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Red Ted
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October 01, 2004

Asaro - Primary Inversion

Catherine Asaro
Primary Inversion


Let me say that again.


I took a few days to write this one up because I liked it a lot and yet was having trouble figuring out what all to say about it. This is Asaro's first book in her world of the Skolian empire, I think it might be her first published novel. And it is good.

What did I like about it? She creates a plausible interstellar world. Her characters are real and complex, and each has a history and that history matters. We meet Soz as a fighter pilot on leave with her squad, and we see them moving through a neutral city trying not to cause too many waves. Slowly we learn more about her, her onboard cybernetic computer, her co-pilots, and their world.

While on leave she meets a young man from their hereditary enemies, but he does not act correctly for who he is. Things go from there, and soon we have a rollicking space-opera adventure of starfights, captures, rescues and escapes. But, we also have a wonderful drama of love, love lost, and love found again. The characters change, Soz changes a lot, and those changes all grow from inside the characters. At the end, we do indeed have a love story, and a strong one. Asaro combines an action plot, a romance plot, and hard science fiction to create a fully compelling narrative.

Luckily, she has written over a dozen books. I just hope the quality holds up.

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Red Ted
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Asaro - Catch the Lightning

Catherine Asaro
Catch the Lightning

This is the second book in Asaro's Skolian empire, and it is not a sequel. Instead it deals with, I think, the nephew of the original heroine. The story is told from the perspective of a young woman on an earth very like our own, an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles trying to survive in a world of gangs and guns, who stumbles across a very lost space pilot. The plot goes from there, but it includes Asaro's trademark mixture of serious physics and serious romance.

Asaro is a working physicist - or was, I think she left the lab to write fiction - and her universe contains real math. More, her hyperspace vision is a plausible one that works within Einsteinian relativity. As a result, the science feels real.

Asaro cares about her characters' emotions. Her novels so far have been love stories, complete with the problems of emotional intimacy, personal privacy, and cathartic release that come with a serious love story.

The combination is powerful. I will be reading more of her work.

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Red Ted
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England - Rewind

Terry England

There are some interesting questions we could ask about what happens if aliens arrive, visit for a while, turn 13 random people into 13 year old children - with their adult personalities and memories - and then leave.

England does not ask them, at least not before chasing me out of his book at around the 100 page mark. Instead he gives us a dystopia where government studies go wrong, the rewound people are remanded to the custody of their families, treated as minor children, and taken advantage of. He may have done more with the idea, but I doubt it. I was so turned off that I did not even bother flipping ahead to the end to see what happened.

Great concept, stupid execution.

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Red Ted
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Graham - Fifth Ring

Mitchell Graham
The fifth ring

Some books are remarkable for their plot. Others are remarkable for their prose. A few are remarkable for both. The Fifth Ring is remarkable for both.

Consider the plot: an psychpathic despot rules the East after having had his last attempt to conquer the world stopped by a coalition of the free states. He finds a new magical artifact, but it requires something possessed by a young farmboy who is also a skilled fencer. The farmboy heads to town for a fencing tournament, but meets a dark and forbidding stranger on the road, looking for someone. It goes on, but I did not.

The prose was also remarkably bad. The dialogue was wooden, the situations contrived, the few interesting moments carved with a chainsaw not shaped with a knife.

I could not decide which was more annoying, the plot or the prose, and after changing my mind a few times I resolved to end the debate by closing the book never to re-open it. I think I got 40 pages before my cliche quota was overwhelmed, and my prose filter clogged.

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Red Ted
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Liberty Valance

The man who shot Liberty Valance
Paramount Pictures, 1962 ;
screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck ;
produced by Willis Goldbeck ;
directed by John Ford.
Cast: John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine, Ken Murray.

This is a classic western, one that pops up again and again on the cowboy channel, but one that I had never watched more than a few minutes of.

Just a couple of comments: I was struck by the melding of 1960s Cowboys with a reading of 1870s politics - there is an election held in a bar and a territorial convention featuring a band, a rodeo trick roper, and all sorts of shouting. I was struck by the nearly monochrome nature of the cast: all white, one black (Pompey) and no indians. This matches the 1960s view of the West, and it matches the mythic west created in part by John Ford in movies like this; it does not match the historic west. Edmond O'Brien does a wonderful job of chewing on the scenery as the drunken editor - I found myself admiring the Shatnerian quality of his performance.

I like the basic moral problem at the core of the movie, with Jimmie Stewart living a public life built around the fact that he was given credit for something that he had tried to do, but that someone else actually did for him, and we can see the pain in his heart every time he is praised for his action. And yet, when he thought he had done it, he refused to take political credit for it. Only after learning the truth does he take the public stage. As such the movie is a good moral study in truth and responsibility.

Good movie, glad I watched it.

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Red Ted
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