Thursday, March 31, 2011

Some Stuff

I haven't started the new Kate Atkinson book yet. I've been reading a couple of fun books. You know, light and fluffy - I call them sitcom books. I should be ready to start Kate's new book this weekend. Usually I can't do anything other than read once I start one of her books, so I'm looking forward to it. I'm not sure where I'll go after that. I long ago abandoned the notion of reading the books in alphabetical order. Actually, I think I'll go with Swallows And Amazons next. I know nothing about it, so it will be an adventure!

Progress Pie Chart --

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Twenty-Four - Night Watch


This one is #29 in the Discworld series and I suspected by its title that I would see Captain Vimes again. I don’t recall his first name ever being mentioned in #8, Guards! Guards! but it’s Sam. He’s not a Captain any more. I like Vimes. He’s very sensible. Between #8 and this one many things have happened in the city of Ankh-Morpork. Many of these things are not good, but there does appear to be an increasing tolerance for non-human creatures, so chalk one up for diversity.

One fun thing about these books is the names Pratchett uses. Vimes is one letter away from vines – and Vimes becomes entangled in things around him. Ankh-Morpork has a “Bridge of Size.” Tangent: a weird thing about these books is that there are no chapters. I’ve just about gotten used to British books having no table of contents, but not even any chapter separations?

Night Watch begins with quantum mechanics. I am not entirely ignorant on this subject, having been tutored by my friend Mike who’s an honest to goodness astrophysicist. I was certainly never an expert but one thing I remember is the inability to predict behavior of quantum things. You cannot know how fast something is moving and know exactly where it is. It’s one or the other. It’s safe to say that quantum mechanics deals with more questions than answers. And this was the most interesting part about studying science for me – what they don’t know is so much greater than what they do and they’re willing to admit it. I kinda like that. I also noticed that scientists tend to use lots of hyphens and see beauty in stuff like mathematical patterns.

But I digress. Pratchett deals with quantum uncertainty in this book; specifically with the uncertainty/probability of an existence. There was an incident (read in Kramer’s voice) and even the “experts” in Ankh-Morpork aren’t too sure what will happen. The present can affect both the future and the past. Dude, it’ll blow your mind if you let it. But don’t you let it. Night Watch is part Somewhere In Time, part Prisoner Of Azkaban (i.e., the time turners) and part Back To The Future. Sam Vimes decides that even though he doesn’t completely understand the space-time implications, he’ll roll with it because there is something practical that needs to be done. “The job was in front of him.” Sam is one of those do-ers. He likes doing stuff. He probably works out in the yard a lot on the weekends when he’s not playing Discworld golf.

Ethical questions are prompted by the book: do you torture a torturer? When the oppressed suddenly come to power, do they treat their former oppressors kindly or do they, in turn, oppress? History teaches that the latter is true. Pratchett, by putting his characters in situations in their world, stimulates questions about our own. In our world as in Discworld, there are no easy answers. This book was published in 2002 and includes a discussion about the individual’s rights vs. the state’s need to protect. I have found, generally, when it’s one’s own rights under threat he doesn’t like it but when it’s someone else’s rights being taken away, one tends to roll with it. It’s human nature. “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.” (Pastor Martin Niemoller)

Vimes, as a police officer, talks about The Beast inside. The Beast must be controlled because if a police officer loses control, society is shattered. In this book Vimes fights a crazy man and in my opinion you can’t stop crazy. I don’t mean mentally ill; I define crazy as someone who has embraced the anger and the hatred – The Beast – and has determined to let loose The Beast to do what it will. Crazy people allow the anger and fear to take over; they encourage it to burn and then fan the flame until it is a fireball of rage. That’s my conception of The Beast.

Semi-tangent: I like to listen to BBC radio at work. I used to listen to NPR but it just got so depressing. BBC radio isn’t nearly as depressing because I don’t live in Britain. No, seriously, it sorta makes sense. The MP expenses scandal didn’t enrage me because I don’t pay their salaries and therefore didn’t pay for the duck pond or the porn. The thing I’ve noticed about BBC radio is that any time something bad happens they try to figure out why it happened and how to prevent it. Why did this child die? How was that child allowed to be abused? Wasn’t the family known to social services? How was this man allowed to kill someone? And I want to say to them – you can’t stop crazy. You can’t take every child who may possibly be in danger away from his parents. You can’t lock up every potential psychopath before he goes on a murder spree. Would you want to? Where’s the balance between the individual’s rights and the need of the state to protect?

So, yes, occasionally people will be crazy. People will strap bombs to themselves to blow something up because some of the people in our society are crazy. And you can’t stop crazy. This tends to make people feel uneasy, of course, so we try to act as if we’re in control of destiny/fate/karma/insert your belief here. If we only elect these people or pass this bill, all will be well. Dude, seriously.

Tangent on the semi-tangent: what exactly is a freehold? Vimes grants someone a freehold in this book and I’ve never quite got straight what that means.

Back in the book, Pratchett details the amount of land, work and animals necessary to feed and clothe the city of Ankh-Morpork, “The City.” Imagine this as any large city anywhere in the world.
It wasn’t a city, it was a process, a weight on the world that distorted the land for hundreds of miles around. People who’d never see it in their whole life nevertheless spent that life working for it. Thousands and thousands of green acres were part of it, forests were part of it. It drew in and consumed...

… and gave back the dung from its pens, and the soot from its chimneys, and steel, and saucepans, and all the tools by which its food was made. And also clothes, and fashions, and ideas, and interesting vices, songs, and knowledge, and something which, if looked at in the right light, was called civilization. That was what civilization meant. It meant the city.

Was anyone else out there thinking about this?

Yes, Sam, others do think about these things. The residents of the city tend to take for granted the residents of the country. The country folk depend upon the city for their living, and while some of them do not have the means to move to the city, I daresay most of them choose not to. I would also venture to say that in Discworld the majority of the people who live and die and work and pay taxes and vote* don’t live in Ankh-Morpork or in any of Discworld’s large cities.

I’ve truly enjoyed the four list books in this series and look forward to reading the book Terry Pratchett co-authored with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. I see the fascination with names continues. Agnes is a Nutter!

*I’m speaking figuratively, of course, since Ankh-Morporkians do not have the right to vote.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Count of Monte Cristo - The Movie

I watched the 2002 version and it was - okay. It's difficult to adapt such a long book into a movie, and even though it was somewhat expected I was still disappointed that they added sex and much more buckling of swashes than in the book. The guy who played Villefort was Forney in Where The Heart Is, so that was kinda cool. Bit of a juxtaposition, like seeing the guy who played Edmond in Mansfield Park playing Mr. Elton in Emma.

I know I should have seen the movie before reading the book, but reading the book gave me the interest to see the movie.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Book Twenty-Three - Guards! Guards! - Part Two

I understand how people get hooked on the Discworld series. The Colour Of Magic is #1 in the series and it includes a pub called The Broken Drum. Guards! Guards! is #8 and the pub is called the Mended Drum. Discworld is part of a multiverse, not a universe. The school for wizards is the UU, Unseen University. It’s a descriptive title only; the school is quite visible.
The hero of this book, Carrot, is like Buddy the Elf. I should say that Buddy the Elf is like Carrot since Guards! Guards! was published in 1989. I’ve heard that it is impossible to take a picture that hasn’t already been taken; it is possible only to find an interesting composition. There are only so many notes, but the arrangements are different. And I suppose there are only so many characters,  but the story surrounding them can be composed in a new way.  Carrot is very literal…. instead of “Bob’s your uncle,” Carrot says, “Bjorn Stronginthearm’s your uncle.” There are numerous instances like this which made me literally laugh out loud, and the story is action-packed, too. Pratchett left some cliffhangers in this one so I suppose one day I’ll need to read #9 and #10!

Quotage ---
 If you let your mind dwell on rooms like this, you could end up being oddly sad and full of a strange, diffuse compassion which would lead you to believe that it might be a good idea to wipe out the whole human race and start again with amoebas.
Quite poignant, I think.

… is a metaphor, which I am learning about, it is like Lying but more decorative.
One of Carrot’s lessons about being literal.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Twenty-Three - Guards! Guards! - Part One

Fell in love with this book immediately. First, it promises to feature a dragon and I've loved dragons since I was a child and read Sir Kevin of Devon.* Plus, the dedication is the best I've ever seen --
They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they wanted to.
It also mentions Schrödinger's Paperback!

The beginning includes lots of people like Nick Bottom / Larry, his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl.

Larry, Darryl and Darryl

*Fortunately, my parents did not try to steer me toward only the "girl" books. They were totally ahead of their time. I still have that book as well as The Five Little Peppers And How They Grew.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Top Ten Book Characters I'd Want As Family Members

Tuesday meme from The Broke and the Bookish. I've modified it to Characters I'd Invite To The Family Christmas Dinner.

1. Violet Baudelaire – she’s so McGuyver that if someone dropped a turkey leg she’d fashion a retrieval device from her napkin and a dinner roll and proceed to scoop up the turkey before the dog could get to it

2. Captain Corelli to play the mandolin in the background

3. Sherlock Holmes could figure out who took the last piece of pie after everyone denied it

4. Mrs Norris - any large family group needs a common enemy

5. Forrest Gump to bring the chocolates

6. James Bond because it might be nice to see someone in a tux at the dinner table. Plus he probably has a cuff link that doubles as a carving knife.

7. Medea to give 007 a run for his money

8. Luna Lovegood – someone has to watch out for nargles

9. Maid Marian to make the coffee

10. Bertie Wooster because “What ho” sounds kinda Christmassy

Monday, March 14, 2011

Book Twenty-Two - Mort

I didn't love this one like I loved The Colour Of Magic. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with Mort. I never really got a chance to love Mort. He's sorta wishy-washy. And Death - well, I don't usually have a problem with Death as a character. I liked Death in The Book Thief. In this one, too, the personification of Death takes on (or tries to) some human characteristics. Death, in fact, is also a bit wishy-washy. In Death's defense, it must be difficult to be so assiduously avoided by man even though we all know that we will meet Death some day.

There were hilarious bits, and I like Pratchett's somewhat rambling style. Guards! Guards! is next, and I hope I love it like I loved The Colour Of Magic.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Book Twenty-One - The Colour Of Magic

Terry Pratchett

All I knew about this book is that the series is called Discworld, so I expected to be in another world. (Logical, eh?) I didn’t know whether it would be more science fiction than fantasy or the other way around, and I hoped it wouldn’t be yet another dystopian society. I was not prepared for what happened when I read the first few pages. This book is HILARIOUS! I’m so glad there are four other Terry Pratchett books on this list. I love our heroes Rincewind and Twoflower and even the luggage! Well, it would be difficult not to love the luggage. 

Pratchett does so many things in this book! (I know I am exclaiming a great deal, but sometimes it is necessary!) In addition to the colour of magic we learn of the nature of magic, the limitations of wizards, the limitations of Death in connection with wizards, unknown dimensions of time and space, the power of imagination in relation to the proximity of magic, and the way a hero really feels when called upon to perform heroic actions. So many things for a nerd to love. Oh, there are also things like insurance but Pratchett makes those things fun, too! I’m anxious to begin the next Discworld book!

Did I hear someone ask for samples? I aim to please. Rincewind plays interpreter, trying a variety of languages with a visitor. They finally discover that both speak Trob.

“At last!” he said. “My good sir! This is remarkable!” (Although in Trob the last word in fact became “a thing which may happen but once in the usable lifetime of a canoe hollowed diligently by ax and fire from the tallest diamondwood tree that grows in the noted diamondwood forests on the lower slopes of Mount Awayawa, home of the firegods or so it is said.”)
It was upon reading the above paragraph that I realized I love Terry Pratchett. It's on page 16, so it didn't take long.
“Well,” said the voice. “You see, one of the advantages of being dead is that one is released as it were from the bonds of time and therefore I can see everything that has happened or will happen, all at the same time except that of course I now know that Time does not, for all practical purposes, exist.”
There is also a very useful barbarian (it stands to reason that in difficult times a barbarian could come in handy) with, as it turns out, a heart of gold. He stole the gold, but still.
“Kill them” she said.
“I kill in my own time,” he said. “In any case, killing unconscious people isn’t right…”
“I am surprised that you are so merciful…”
“A man in my position, he can’t afford to be anything else, he’s got to consider his image.”
How can you dislike a barbarian concerned about such things? I mean, I don’t believe I’ve ever been fond of a barbarian before but I definitely like this one. There tend not to be many sympathetic barbarians in literature, at least in my experience.

At one point Rincewind and Twoflower are offered a fermented drink from the next year’s harvest. The drink is called “Ghlen Livid.” As my friend Lily is a connoisseur, I happen to know Glenlivit is a brand of Scotch. (I took a sip of Scotch once and that was enough. They say it is an acquired taste but I’ve never been able to figure out why I would work to acquire a taste for something I dislike. Same goes for brie cheese. But I digress.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book Twenty - The Count of Monte Cristo - Part Six

From Victor Hugo Central

This book was an adventure for me, not just because of the secrets, perils and voyages, but also because of the emotional journey. Monte Cristo seems to be about intrigue but also illustrates profound truths. One of these is that all actions have consequences. Seems like such a simple statement, doesn’t it? Of course actions have consequences. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I learned this not from Newton but from Garfield the lasagna-loving cat. (You can see the cartoon here.)

It is easy “know” but difficult to comprehend how much our actions affect others. To show the power of consequences, Dumas goes to great lengths to illustrate suffering. I continued to love Edmond throughout the book even when I did not understand him. I suffered with him and traveled with him and learned with him and wept with him. I haven’t walked in Edmond’s shoes, but I’ve certainly been betrayed and hurt in my life. And I daresay I’ve hurt others. I wish I had not, but if I’m honest I must admit that I have. Are those people lying in wait somewhere? I hope not.

I was not satisfied with the motivation Dumas gave for Edmond’s course of action. In fact, Edmond began to doubt his own motivation as time passed. As the puppet-master, he plays to the individual nature of his victims, knowing what will work with each (sorta like Ben manipulating people on LOST). What Edmond does not take into account is the incidental damage he inflicts upon the innocent. He does not understand the consequences of his own actions! Ah, the irony! The selfish acts of others caused a domino effect which mowed down Edmond, yet the skeletons Edmond causes to pour forth from locked closets are like dominoes going backward in time.

Another message in The Count of Monte Cristo is that we reap what we sow. While Edmond intended to force people to do this, his enemies were already doing so by the way they lived; their own choices dictated their lives. One character, for example, in losing his family –

... darted to his bedroom to see once more all he had loved in the world; but the hackney-coach drove on and the head of neither [his wife] nor her son appeared at the window to take a last look at the house or the deserted father and husband.
But that wasn’t all this particular man loved – he loved money. Money, power and prestige had ruled his life for many years. I do wonder about people who seek fame and fortune as fame and fortune tend not to treat people well.

Dumas is a master of detail and quite clever. Many times I found myself turning back a few pages to make sure I remembered what I thought I remembered - he's devious, Mr. Dumas. He also makes some quite funny observations. I particularly enjoyed the ladies who, upon receiving dreadful news, prepared to faint. Other examples --

As for his wife, he bowed to her, as some husbands do to their wives, but in a way that bachelors will never comprehend, until a very extensive code is published on conjugal life.

... were struck with the worthy appearance, the gentlemanly bearing, and the knowledge of the world displayed by the old patrician, who certainly played the nobleman very well, so long as he said nothing, and made no arithmetical calculations.

It was evident that Madame Danglars was suffering from that nervous irritability which women frequently cannot account for even to themselves; or that, as Debray had guessed, she had experienced some secret agitation that she would not acknowledge to any one. Being a man who knew that the former of these symptoms was one of the inherent penalties of womanhood, he did not then press his inquiries...
Debray: Though I am intrigued by the situation, I shall postpone my questions until you are well, Madame.

Madame Danglars: I’m well! Who says I’m not well???

Debray: I am sorry, I meant only that I do not wish to antagonize you when your hormones are out of whack.

Madame Danglars: Monsieur, speak to me of hormones when your own are in check.