Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gilgamesh The King - Robert Silverberg


   1984; 404 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Myths & Legends.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    I know what you’re thinking: just who the heck was Gilgamesh?

    Well, he's a legendary hero of an ancient (Akkadian) epic called The Epic of Gilgamesh, written on clay tablets and in cuneiform somewhere around 2100 BC.  That in turn was based on an earlier (Sumerian) account about presumably the same guy, although in that version he was called Bilgamesh.

    The Akkadian version is quite complete; the Sumerian version is fragmentary.  You can read about all this by looking up ‘Gilgamesh’ in Wikipedia.  

   Although the Gilgamesh in the ancient story is legendary in nature, there is evidence that there really was also a historical Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk, and that the clay tablet tales are just legends that cropped up about him as time went on.  The case can be made, therefore, that The Epic of Gilgamesh is in fact the earliest work of fiction that has ever been found.

    But using cuneiform to write a book on clay tablets is a PITA, and there is a practical limit to just how long such a tale of fiction can be.

    It almost screams for an enterprising modern-day writer to come along and flesh out Gilgamesh’s story.

What’s To Like...
    Make no mistake about it, Robert Silverberg is a revered and renowned Sci-Fi writer, but Gilgamesh The King has zero science fiction and zero fantasy.  It is 100% Historical Fiction, and Silverberg does a wonderful job of making you feel at home in the Mesopotamia of 4,000 years ago.  The details of the settings flow smoothly, without any hint of being an info-dump.  Some of them did seem like anachronisms to me – antimony, planets, steel, the phalanx, and beakers – but I’ll trust in the author’s research that such things really were around way back then, albeit probably viewed and spoken of in different terms than we do nowadays.  I do have some serious doubts about a vampire working its way into the story though, which does occur here.

    There’s a lot of holy sex going on, as well as a lot of not-so-holy sex; and a lot of nakedness to boot.  The chapters are short (41 of them to cover 404 pages), and the Introduction and Afterword, although similar are well worth your time to read.  The story is told in the first-person (Gilgamesh’s) POV.  I seem to be reading a lot of those lately.

    I’ve never read the historical version of this story, but in reading the Wikipedia entry for it, it is obvious that Robert Silverberg’s rendering of it sticks closely to the Akkadian version.  Still, I also enjoyed the ways in which the modern story goes its own way.  While Gilgamesh sees gods, goddesses and demons in just about everything, Silverberg carefully presents how natural events could just as easily explain everything.   I especially liked the alternate version of the Flood narrative, and of Ziusudra’s supposedly “eternal life”.

    The main themes that Gilgamesh seeks enlightenment about are : a.) what happens after you die?, b.) can you avoid death if you’re partly divine?, c.) the roles that gods seemingly play in the daily affairs of the world, and d.) are gods and demons real or not?  Those questions are still asked today.  Gilgamesh receives answers to some of these, but not all.

    The ending is good, and the epilogue is even better.  Gilgamesh The King is a standalone novel, a one-off effort by Robert Silverberg in a genre quite foreign to him, and AFAIK, he’s never contemplated a sequel to it.

Excerpts...
    “We are a free city!” I cried.  “Are we to surrender?”
    “There are wells to dig and canals to dredge,” said Ali-ellati.  “Let us pay what Agga demands, and go about our business in peace.  War is very expensive.”
    “And Kish is very mighty,” said Enlil-ennam.
    “I call for your pledges,” I said.  “I will defy Agga: give me your support.”
    “Peace,” they said.  “Tribute,” they said.  “There are wells to dig,” they said.  (loc. 1994)

   I sat upon my high throne, thinking, Enkidu has died and shuffles about now within that place of dust, cloaked like a bird in gloomy feathers, making his evening meal out of cold clay.  And soon enough I must go to that dark place too.  One day a king in a grand palace, the next a mournful creature flapping his wings in the dust – was that the fate that awaited me? (…)
    Flies, flies, buzzing flies: we are nothing more than that, I told myself.  What sense in being a king?  King of the flies?  (loc. 3700)

Kindle Details...
    Gilgamesh The King sells for $7.99 at Amazon.  Robert Silverberg has been a prolific writer of science-fiction since the 1950’s, and there are a slew of his novels available for the Kindle, ranging in price from $5.99 to $13.19. There are also a number of his short stories and novellas available for a lesser price.  If you are patient, though, a number of his works are periodically discounted at Amazon, which is how I snagged this book.

 (T)here are times when it is perilous to think.  (loc. 1811)
    I had some difficulties with Gilgamesh The King.  There were some significant slow spots, particularly in the early going, when Gilgamesh is telling us how wonderful he is at everything.  As a protagonist, I found him to be a royal a$$hole, but I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the good citizens of Uruk felt likewise.

    Also, as a storyteller, Gilgamesh leaves a lot to be desired.  Spoilers abound, and he tends to “telegraph” the plot twists that are coming down the pike.  I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve been better to tell the tale in the 3rd-person POV.  Then again, I also wonder if I would’ve appreciated the story more if I had read (a translation of) the Akkadian version, or at least the Wikipedia article first.

    But patience is a virtue, and things pick up around 50%, when Enkidu and Gilgamesh become buddies and set out upon their quest.  And the myth-busting portions of the second half of the book will give you pause when any theology wants you to practice “blind faith”.

    6 Stars.  Add 2 stars if you’ve read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and loved it.  You’ll find Gilgamesh The King to be a fascinating book.  For the record, I found Siddhartha to be boring from beginning to end.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Graveyard Game - Kage Baker


   2001; 298 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 4 (out of 9 or 11, depending what you include) of the “Company”.  Series. Genre : Dystopian Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Just how would you go about eliminating an immortal?  Is it even possible to do that?  Joseph and Lewis, two cyborgs who have been working as agents for Dr. Zeus Inc. (aka the “Company”) for thousands of years, are pondering those questions.

     Theoretically, it’s impossible.  Chop a cyborg’s head off, and the nanobots within him are programmed to make repairs and put everything back into tiptop working order.  It may take a while to do the job, but thanks to 24th-cetnury technology, it’s proven engineering.

    And yet…

    Lately, a number of Joseph and Lewis’s fellow cyborgs have disappeared.  Heck, the whole squadron of the “Enforcers”, used extensively by the Company back in prehistoric times, are now nowhere to be found.  The official line is that they’ve “retired”, but to where?  It seems funny that none of them has ever been seen again.

    It behooves Lewis and Joseph to find an answer to this enigma.  After all, they might be the next pair of agents that Dr. Zeus Inc. “retires”.  And for Lewis, it’s also a personal matter.  His fellow agent, Mendoza has gone missing and no one has seen her.

    And he’s in love with her.

What’s To Like...
    It’s always a treat to read an author who can write well  in addition to being able to tell a great story, and Kage Baker had a gift for this.  The Graveyard Game transitions the reader from the recent past (1996) through the present, and then several centuries into the future, ending at 2276 AD.  Overall, the series is closing in on its most critical point in time – 2355 AD, after which nothing more is known, even though time-travel technology is available.

    I loved the details of our future world.  Coffee, cream and chocolate are all illegal, although you can still get Toblerones on the black market, and you can get high on Theobroma, a cacao-like substance.  The Beast Liberation Party was a neat twist: they make PETA look like a bunch of wimps, and are pushing for the banning of silk, out of concern for the silkworms.  And the Yorkshire literary tour was a hoot.

    The Graveyard Game is a complex read, with a number of plotlines interweaving throughout the book.  Where’s Mendoza?  Why does her first love (who isn’t Lewis) seem to keep reincarnating?  What happens in 2355 AD?  Why does it seem like the Company is covering a lot of things up?  What’s become of the Enforcers?

Some threads remain unresolved at the end of the book.  The “little people” are a clear and present danger to the immortals, and while they don’t seem to be of the Company’s doing, all the same the agents are given no help in defending against this threat.  A mysterious “Site 317” is whispered about, but no one seems to know anything concrete of it.

    The Graveyard Game is heavy on the intrigue, with enough action to keep it from bogging down.  It is not a standalone novel; you really should read the books in this series in order.

Kewlest New Word...
Jitney (n.) : a bus or other vehicle carrying passengers for a low fare.

Excerpts...
    “You actually want to go see a necropolis tomorrow?”  (…)
    “It’s psychological,” Joseph said, pushing away from the coping and rotating slowly in his pool float.  “People are designed by nature to need a last resting place.  The idea of one, anyway.  We immortal guys never get graves.  The programming we’re given in school keeps the urge off for the first few millennia, but after a while you find yourself wondering what it would be like to just – lie down in a tomb and stop moving forever.  So it helps, see, to go and look at the reality.  Bones and dust.  Makes you glad to be alive.”  (pg. 131, and the explanation of the book’s title.)

    Religion isn’t illegal, but is increasingly being regarded with genteel horror by most people, except the Ephesians.  Faith is so … psychologically incorrect.
    Sex isn’t illegal, but there isn’t a lot of it going on these days.  There’s talk about how it’s a distasteful animal urge, how it victimizes women and robs men of their primal power.  It creates codependency.  It presents a terrible risk of catching a communicable disease.  Relationships of any kind, in fact, are probably a bad idea.  (pg. 217)

 “Really, Joseph, there weren’t any druids yet when Stonehenge was finished.  I was one, I should know.”  (pg. 17)
    It should be noted, and this is not really a spoiler, that the star of this series, Mendoza, doesn’t make an appearance in The Graveyard Game at all.  The story really revolves around Joseph and Lewis endeavoring to find out what has happened to her.

    On a larger scale, it felt like Kage Baker was using the book to fill in the non-Mendoza details of events that are leading up to whatever climax is coming in 2355 AD.  Since there are at least five more books to go in the series, I’m left wondering whether the timeline pace is about to slow down.

    It’s been five years since I’ve read the previous book in this series, Mendoza In Hollywood (reviewed here).  So I appreciated the short backstory given at the very beginning of this book, which is further fleshed out in the first couple chapters.  I was bummed  that Mendoza didn’t show up, but it was a pleasure getting to know Joseph and Lewis in greater detail.

    8 Stars.  Revolution is nigh!  I’m sure I’ll be reading the next book in the series, The Life of the World to Come, in the not-to-distant future.  I’m hooked on finding out what and where Site 317 is, and how the simpleminded but highly focused “little people” figure into all this.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris


   2011;3101 pages.  Book 1 (out of 13) of the “Sookie Stackhouse” series, aka “The Southern Vampire Mysteries”.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Vampires; Paranormal Mystery; Gothic Romance.  Laurels : Winner, Anthony Award for Best Paperback Mystery (2001).  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It was love at first fright for Sookie Stackhouse when Bill Compton came through the door at the restaurant/bar where she works as a waitress.  Not that Sookie’s an authority on the subject, since most guys tend to shy away from her because of her “disability”.

   For it seems Sookie has the ability to read the thoughts of people around her and most guys, when they’re trying to hit up on a girl, really don’t want her to be able to do that.  You could call Sookie a telepath, although sometimes all she can read are emotions and feelings, not words.  Strangely though, she can’t read her boss’s mind, a fellow named Sam Merlotte.

    Nor Bill's.  How her boss manages to mask his thoughts is a mystery, but that’s not so with Bill’s.  He’s a vampire.

    Which is pretty creepy, except he’s a handsome, dashing, well-built hunk of a vampire.  And if nothing else, hanging around Bill is going to give Sookie some much-needed peace and quiet.  Hearing other people’s thoughts all the time can get quite noisy.  And tiresome.

What’s To Like...
    I’m not a big reader of vampire novels, and I’m even less a fan of anything in the Romance genre, but I still enjoyed Dead Until Dark.  The writing is good and the mystery portion of the storyline was well-constructed.  I don’t recall any slow spots.  It’s easy to see why this became a hit series.

    The story is told in the first-person POV (Sookie’s).  The chapters are long – only 12 of them to cover 327 pages, but it’s a fast-read, and there are usually several places in a given chapter where a scene-shift allows you to break off reading.

    There are multiple storylines.  First off, there’s Sookie’s coming-of-age story, including a love triangle that she has to deal with.  But we also get to follow her as she tries to figure out who’s been killing a number of local women.  The victims all were strangled, but they also have bite marks on them, so any and all vampires quickly become suspects.

    The overall tone of the book is light as Sookie starts to fall in love with Bill.  Both the reader and Sookie find the answer to questions such as “Can vampires do ‘it’?”, “Are they good at ‘it’?”, etc.  But there is a more serious theme explored - bigotry, as the residents of Sookie’s hometown of Bon Temps, Louisiana get used to “others” coming to live in their neighborhood.

     There’s a lot of killing-off of characters, almost to a GRRM degree.  Most of the vampires, other than Bill, seemed only 'adequately' developed, but this of course could change as the series progresses.  Similarly, while there are lots of vampires, there’s only two other cases of “otherworldly” creatures.  I’m almost certain that list expands in the subsequent books.  I liked the coining of the word “fang-banger”, and chuckled at the choice of the main vampire’s name.  ‘Bill Compton’ is a revered figure in (my local) Phoenix music lore; as a DJ at the fledgling KDKB radio station, he made this city a national beacon for cutting-edge rock-&-roll music.

    Dead Until Dark is a standalone story, as well as the introduction to a (completed) 13-book series.  The e-book ends at 88%, with the remaining 12% consisting of a preview of Book Two.

Kewlest New Word…
Codicil (n.) : an addition or supplement that explains, modifies, or revokes a will or part of one.
Others : Stertorous (adj.)

Excerpts...
    I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.
    Ever since vampires came out of the coffin (as they laughingly put it) two years ago, I’d hoped one would come to Bon Temps.  We had all the other minorities in our little town – why not the newest, the legally recognized undead?  But rural northern Louisiana wasn’t too tempting to vampires, apparently; on the other hand, New Orleans was a real center for them – the whole Anne Rice thing, right?  (loc. 46, and the opening paragraphs to the book)

   I pulled a dress from the back of my closet, one I’d had little occasion to wear.  It was a Nice Date dress, if you wanted the personal interest of whoever was your escort.  It was cut square and low in the neck, and it was sleeveless.  It was tight and white.  The fabric was thinly scattered with bright red flowers with long green stems.  My tan glowed and my boobs showed.  I wore red enamel earrings and red high-heeled screw-me shoes.  (loc. 1512)

Kindle Details...
    A Dead Red Heart sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  The next book in the series, Living Dead in Dallas, sells for $5.99, the rest of the books all go for $7.99 apiece.  This is a completed series, the last book (#13) having been published in 2013.  Charlaine Harris has started several new series since then.

 “You won’t find a vampire in a Ford Fiesta.”  (loc. 3029)
    I’ve been meaning to get acquainted with the Sookie Stackhouse series since eight years ago, when I was in a collaborative group book blog, and one of the other participants gave it a "highly  recommended" review/rating.  For some reason I was under the impression it was a YA series.  It is not.

    There is some cussing and at least a discussion of child molesting.  Sex tapes also get mentioned, and there is a fair amount of sex itself.  So all in all, it is probably not something you want little Susie or Timmy reading at an early age.

    That being said, there is nothing lurid or smutty about the sex scenes.  Indeed Dead Until Dark reminded me of a Stephanie Plum novel, but with vampires thrown in.  I seem to be  unintentionally reading a lot of this niche genre lately.

    8½ Stars.  I concur with my former book blogmate and highly recommend Dead Until Dark.  I bought Book Three in the series, Club Dead, while it was discounted recently, and was happy to see my local library had 7 of its 10 copies of the first book available for the Kindle to borrow and download.  Maybe I’ll get lucky and find a copy of Book Two, Living Dead in Dallas, available as well.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Dead Red Heart - R.P. Dahlke


   2011;3101 pages.  Book 2 (out of 5) of the “Dead Red Mystery” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Crime Mystery; Women Sleuths.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Billy Wayne Dobson is getting to be quite a pest in Lalla Bains' life.  He’s been writing love notes on little white heart-shaped cut-outs, and leaving them all over her car.  It’s annoying as heck, and it’s time to do something.  And since Lalla’s a crop duster by trade, getting rid of pests is what she does.. 

   But when she confronts him, in an alleyway behind Mr. Kim’s  Vietnamese restaurant, he falls into her arms and whispers a sweet nothing.  That may sound romantic, but what he says is “The more there is, the less you see.”  And then he dies of a broken heart.  Weird, huh?

    You know, a pair of scissors poking out of your chest generally does that sort of thing.  And while Lalla is a suspect, at least for a little while, the reader knows she didn’t do it.  She’s the star of this series.

    But it begs the question.  Who would kill s homeless, ex-veteran street person without a dime to his name?  And why?

What’s To Like...
    A Dead Red Heart is a worthy sequel to the recently-read A Dead Red Cadillac, featuring the crop-dusting, ex-model, unlucky-at-love Lalla Bains and the trouble she seems to always get into in the otherwise unexciting city of Modesto, California.  The storyline moves at a crisp pace, and the structure is similar to the first book, and I mean that as a plus.  Lalla sleuths a bit in her spare time, mostly because nobody else seems to care who killed Billy Wayne, and the murderer of course takes steps to convey to Lalla that it’s not in her best interests of health to persevere in such meddling.

    The story is told in the first-person POV (Lalla’s), and the action starts right away, literally on the first page of the book.  There’s a heapload of characters for you to suspect of the dastardly deed, and a nice blend of new and recurring ones.  Lalla’s no longer torn between two boyfriends; one good, one bad.  Instead she’s ponders whether putting up with the pressure that her beau’s career (a sheriff) puts on their relationship is worth it.

   The Dead Red series seems to be in what I’d call the “quasi-cozy” genre.   Yes, there is some cussing, but it’s not done to excess.  And yes, Billy Wayne bleeds from the scissors insertion and dies onscreen, but I wouldn’t label it as “blood and gore”.  What is present in abundance is wit, sassiness, and humor.

    I was amused to see one of Lalla’s father’s medications, “Lasix”, mentioned by name.  I had to take this stuff during my stay in the hospital last year, and it is a brutal way to flush liquids out of one’s body.  And I was happy to see that Lalla’s cherry-red Cadillac, the centerpiece in the first book, is back in Book Two.

    A Dead Red Heart is a standalone story as well as part of a now 5-book series.  I happen to be reading these in order, mostly because I picked up the first three books in a “bundle” deal, but I think they can be read in any order and still be enjoyed.

Kewlest New Word…
Soporific (adj.) : tending to induce drowsiness or sleep.

Excerpts...
    From the sycamores overhead, birds sang, hopped from branch to branch, fussed at each other, and generally went about the business of making more birds.  In a nearby bush, a bird trilled, coughed, tried again, coughed, and finally gave up.  Del Potts knocked aside a couple of dusty branches and waved me over.
    I strolled to the bush and gave him a hand out.  “Everybody has been looking for you, Del.”
    “I know, I know, but I’ve got to stay incognito.”  (loc. 5826)

   With mixed feelings, I dressed and went downstairs and into the kitchen.  Juanita was whisking batter for pancakes and my dad was sipping a cup of coffee and mashing eggs into his toast.
    “Is that tofu on your toast, or are you off your low cholesterol diet?”
    “What’re you, the food police?  I get two eggs a week, miss nosy-butt.”
    I shrugged off the surly comment.  Another cup of coffee, and he’d go from surly to just crabby.  (loc. 6799)

Kindle Details...
    A Dead Red Heart sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  The first book in the series, A Dead Red Cadillac, sells for $0.99, the rest of the books all go for $3.99 each.  The first three books in the series are also available in a bundle, which is how I’m reading the series thus far.  R.P. Dahlke also has two books to offer in another trilogy, titled “Pilgrim’s Progress”.  Those books go for $2.99 each, or you can get them bundled with the first three books in the Dead Red series, all for only $7.99.

 “You have a cell phone with you?”  “Do bunnies live in trees?”  (loc. 6703)
    I had a couple quibbles, but nothing major.

    There are some French phrases scattered throughout, and that’s a language I love.  But here it's all butchered (“n’ce pas”, “s’il vou plat”, for two examples), and I couldn’t figure out if this was bad French on R.P. Dahlke’s part, a deliberate mangling by Modesto natives, or spellchecker running amok in the editing process. 

    Also, one of the main clues, which for spoiler reasons, I’ll relegate to the comments section, left me confused.  Was it a red herring, a MacGuffin, or did the author write herself into a corner and just leave it dangling, hoping that no one would notice the lack of resolution?

     But I pick at nits.  I found A Dead Red Heart to be a quick read, devoid of any slow spots, with wittiness aplenty, and just as entertaining as the first book.  Here’s hoping that the rest of the series is as much fun.

    8 Stars.  For the record, I did guess who the perpetrator was.  But that’s only because at various points along the storyline, I guessed it was any one of about a dozen suspects, and one of those 12 guesses turned out to be correct.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Essential Ginsberg - Allen Ginsberg


   2015; 451 pages.  New Author? : Yes.    Genre : Non-Fiction; Poetry; Memoirs; Reference.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    Allen Ginsberg, born 06/03/26, died 04/05/97, and arguably one of the three most recognizable names associated with the “Beat Generation” movement in the 1950’s.  If Timothy Leary was the spokesman for the movement (“turn on, tune in, drop out!”), and Baba Ram Dass was its spiritual guru (“be here now!”), then Ginsberg was its poet laureate (“whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”).

    Since I’m a child of the 60’s, the Beat Generation is slightly before my time.  And while I could probably tell you that Ginsberg’s most famous poem is titled “Howl”, I couldn’t quote a line from it.  Indeed, while I could cite quotes by Leary and Ram Dass, I had to google Allen Ginsberg quotes to find one to fit in the previous paragraph.

    Which is sad, since Ginsberg’s poetry was a guiding light back then for a young generation who no longer felt content to live the “Leave It To Beaver” lifestyle, where housewives wore dresses and pearl necklaces to cook supper, and Father Knows Best.

    So for me personally, it was time to get acquainted with the writings of Allen Ginsberg.  

What’s To Like...
    The Essential Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher, is much more than simply a collection of Ginsberg’s poems.  It is divided into the following sections:

Part 00 : Introduction (4%)
    A brief overview of Allen Ginsberg’s life by the editor.
Part 01 : Poems (5%)
    The biggest section of the book, and my favorite.  The timespan is 1947-1997.
Part 02 : Songs (39%)
    The shortest section, but my second-most favorite.
Part 03 : Essays (43%)
    Long-winded, yet insightful.  Ginsberg describes feeling “sent” to enlighten us about poetry.
Part 04 : Journals (59%)
    Less pretentious than ‘Essays’, and more revealing.
Part 05 : Interviews (66%)
    Only two interviews, and both dragged for me.
Part 06 : Letters (78%)
    Self-tales of Ginsberg’s travels and misadventures.
Part 07 : Photographs (97%)
    Mostly of his Beat Generation pals.  Tip : The photos are expandable in the Kindle!

    Allen Ginsberg’s overall writing style is basically to convey exactly what thoughts are going through his mind at the present time.  He engages in editing/revising only grudgingly, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a poem, a letter, an interview, or whatever.  This is both a positive and a negative: you get a very honest take on what it was like to be a stand-out member of the Beat Generation, but if you were aiming to do some hero-worship, you’re going to be sorely disillusioned by his candor.

    Unsurprisingly, for me, the best part of the book is the “Poems” section.  Howl is there, and lots of others., all arranged chronologically.  Most, but not all, of Ginsberg’s poems have no meter or rhyme scheme, but a few were, and it was nice to discover he really could write structured poems if he wanted to.   Similarly, the songs, though sparse in number, are inherently metered and rhyming which, frankly is how I prefer my prose 

    For the second time in my last couple of e-books, the footnotes are slickly done, so this may be an improvement done by Kindle.  OTOH, the font sizes varied greatly; that’s something Kindle needs to work on.  I also liked the photographs, they put “faces” on a bunch of the Beat Generation luminaries that heretofore were just names to me.

    I especially enjoyed Ginsberg’s poetic reflections on growing old; there’s a gentleness there that counterbalances the shock-jock effect of his earlier poems. And the poem “Wales Visitation” was apparently done under the influence of LSD, which made for an interesting read.  Also, it was fun to learn the origin of the phrase “Beat Generation”, and I also marveled how extensively he managed to travel, given that most of the time, he was truly a “starving artist”.

 Kewlest New Word ...
Prosody (n.) : the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry.
Others : Panegyric (n.).

Excerpts...
    Will that happen to me?
    Of course, it’ll happen to thee.
    Will my arms wither away?
    Yes yr arm hair will turn gray.
    Will my knees grow weak & collapse?
    Your knees will need crutches perhaps.
    Will my chest get thin?
    Your breasts will be hanging skin.
    Where will go – my teeth?
    You’ll keep the ones beneath.
    What’ll happen to my bones?
    They’ll get mixed up with stones.  (loc. 2588, from the poem ‘Don’t Grow Old’)

    At this point, Ken Kesey – a man whom you may have heard of as a major contemporary novelist – who lives near San Francisco and sympathized with both marchers and Angels, intervened.  We all had a party at the Hell’s Angels house.  Most everybody took some LSD, and we settled down to discussing the situation and listening to Joan Baez on the phonograph, and chanting Buddhist prayers.  (loc. 3866)

Kindle Details...
    The Essential Ginsberg sells for $10.99.  There are a number of other (non-poetry) books available that are authored or co-authored by Ginsberg – mostly letters, memoirs, or books about other members of the Beat Generation, and ranging in price from $9.00 to $15.99.  If you’re looking for books containing his poetry you can go “sparse” with a 47-page version of Howl and Other Poems ($2.99) or “comprehensive” with the 1000+page  Collected Poems 1947-1997 ($9.99).

 “It should be easier for a poet to understand a revolution than for a revolution to understand poetry.”  (loc. 3664)
    There were some quibbles.  As good as the Poems and Songs sections were , the Essays and Journals sections seemed at times pretentious and slow to me.  And while Ginsberg’s honesty is laudable, what I saw was a sometime jaundiced poet/writer who often just wanted to get high, get naked, go to orgies, and shove the adoring flower children out of his life.  In the end, his writings reinforced my opinion that all self-proclaimed spiritual leaders, regardless of denomination or particular religion, are a bunch of narcissistic charlatans.

    Allen Ginsberg was both a complex and troubled soul; a Jewish, homosexual, New Yorker who was into gurus, meditation, and all sorts of drugs.  He was anti-war, anti-nuclear energy, and loved to write explicitly about gay and hetero sex.  His poems will challenge you, shock you, and maybe even enlighten you.  It’s too bad the other sections didn’t do likewise for me.

    6 Stars.  I think I would’ve enjoyed The Essential Ginsberg more if it were laid out in strict chronological order, regardless of what kind of writing a piece was.  After the Poems & Songs were done (at 39% Kindle), the rest of the book was a slog until the photographs at the very end.  Still, I am happy I took the time to explore Allen Ginsberg’s writings; it was a worthwhile and enriching experience.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Seventh Plague - James Rollins


   2016; 425 pages.  Book #12 (out of 12, but #13 is due out in December) in the Sigma Force series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action-Thriller; Save-the-World (several times over).  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    After two years of being missing and presumed dead, Professor Harold McCabe, an archaeologist with an obsession with Moses and the ten plagues, has suddenly wandered out of the Sudanese desert and back into civilization.

    Well, “civilization” was in this case a small village on the edge of the desert, and Professor McCabe was at death’s door when the villagers found him.  They cared for him as best they could, but he died soon afterward.  His body was then shipped to Cairo and that’s when things turn strange.

    For starters, the cadaver is showing signs of partial mummification.  Even weirder is that the process appears to have been initiated by Professor McCabe himself.  Why in the world would he do such a thing?

    Then comes the final surprise.  The opening of the body is suspected of triggering some sort of outbreak of a lethal and unknown disease.  Everyone on the Egyptian forensics team who's been exposed to Professor McCabe's body is falling victim to some sort of virus, and a majority of them are dying from it.

     You could almost call it a plague.

What’s To Like...
    The Seventh Plague is your typical James Rollins “Sigma Force” tale. The action starts right away and really never lets up.  All your favorite Sigma Force peeps are here, plus some cameo appearances in one of the prologues by Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla, and Stanley, he of the famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume": quote.  The settings are great, and run a climatic gamut: cold and wet England, cold and dry northern Canada (Ellesmere Island, and when's the last time you read a book with that setting?), hot and dry Sahara desert, and hot and wet Rwandan jungle.

    I liked the clever blend of religion with science, even if it did strain the limits of my believability at times.  And FWIW, the titular “Seventh Plague” is not of any particularly greater importance than the other nine; James Rollins attempts to explain all ten of them via naturally-occurring phenomena.  Michael Crichton would be proud.

    There are a bunch of neat drawings in the book; those were an unexpected treat and help the reader with the puzzle-solving.  The self-mummification is a nice twist, and I enjoyed the “elephant painters”.  Overall, The Seventh Plague felt more “sciency” than usual for a Sigma Force novel, and that’s a plus for me.

    The baddies aren’t exactly “gray”, but neither are any of them pitch black.  All of the main ones have a redeeming quality or two, and some of them live to fight another day.

    Everything builds to an exciting, if somewhat un-twisty, two-location ending,  I liked the accompanying double (or even triple) epilogue(s) as well.  And the “Truth or Fiction” afterword by James Rollins is way-kewl.  This is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series

Excerpts...
    “If nothing else,” she said, “I could use a tall pint.  Maybe two.  To help settle the nerves.”
    She offered him a small smile, which he matched.
    “Since it’s for medicinal purposes,” he said, “the first round’s on me.  I am a doctor after all.”
    She looked askance at him.  “Of archaeology.”
    “Of bio-archaeology,” he reminded her.  “That’s almost as good as a medical doctor.”  (pg. 46)

    “Which path do we take? Esophagus or trachea?”
    Derek shifted his beam to the damaged left tonsil.  “It looks like there was more traffic in and out of the airway.”  He pointed out the evident trampling in the trachea compared to the esophagus.  “So I say we ignore Robert Frost and take the road most traveled.”
    Gray nodded.  “Let’s move out.”
    Only Kowalski seemed disgruntled by this decision.  ”Yeah, let’s go deeper into the belly of a demon-wrestling god.  How could that possibly go wrong?”  (pg. 201)

 “Elephants didn’t build this. … I don’t care how good they are at tool use.”  (pg. 341)
    There are a couple quibbles.  Once again, the puzzles to be solved are incredible abstruse, but our Mensa-minded heroes seem to easily cut through them.  I kept rolling my eyes each time they sussed out another conundrum, but it has to be said, it’s entertaining as all get out.

    Ditto for the ending.  It’s very exciting, yet somewhat predictable.  I mean, really now, what do you expect will happen when you have a herd of wild elephants standing around, at your beck and call?

    But I pick at nits.  James Rollins writes action-thrillers, not police procedurals.  The Seventh Plague delivers exactly what one expects from Rollins, and there's no indication that he’s getting tired of researching and writing these Sigma Force novels.  That means I’ll be on the look-out for the next one in the series, The Demon Crown, due out on December 5th.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract ½ Star if you’re the type of reader who just has to solve the puzzles in books like this before the heroes do.  You won’t.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Periodic Tales - Hugh Aldersey-Williams



   2012; 429 pages.  Full Title : Periodic Tales – A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Science, Chemistry; Reference.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Did you ever wonder what the “bis” in Pepto-Bismol is?  Or how about the “Bromo” in Bromo-Seltzer?  Or maybe you want to make your own charcoal from that old tree in the backyard.  Even better, let’s make a diamond from that charcoal.  They’re both just carbon, aren’t they?

    For that matter, why should gold be so valuable?  Yes, it’s pretty scarce, but copper is less plentiful than silver, and yet somehow, the latter is our runner-up to the gold.

    And who the heck came up with names for the elements like Yttrium Ytterbium, and the mind-boggling Gadolinium?  Who is the “Lawrence” that gave Lawrencium its name, and why didn’t he just go by “Larium”?

    If questions like these tickle your fancy, you might want to pick up Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams.  Prepare to be both enlightened and amused.

What’s To Like...
    Periodic Tales is divided into six parts.  Surprisingly, the author  goes neither in the order of Atomic Numbers, alphabetically, nor by columns in the Periodic Table.  The chapters are:

Part 1.  Power (5%).
    In which he focuses on elements associated with earthly power – gold, iron, etc.  I thought the subsection about Wollaston & Chevenix and their work with the Noble Metals was  fascinating.
Part 2.  Fire (23%).
    Elements that burn.  Elements that are corrosive.
Part 3.  Craft (43%).
    Elements that artisans can work with..  Tin, lead, silver, calcium, etc.
Part 4.  Beauty (60%).
   Elements used for their lustrous and inherent colors, either "as is" or in a compound.  Paints, etc.
Part 5.  Earth (73%).
    Elements that are mined.  Including the Rare Earth metals.
Part 6.  Epilogue (82%).
    Closing thoughts from the author.

    I didn’t do an exhaustive search, but it appears all of the elements get at least passing mention.  At times, Aldersey-Williams lumps a bunch of them together, such as the trans-uranium and rare-earth elements.  Even one of my pet elements, Lawrencium, gets a nod, albeit a brief one.

    Nevertheless, quite a few of the elements do get detailed attention.  Stylistically, the author uses any or all of the following to acquaint us with any given element:
    Production: how to synthesize a given element.  What you can make by reacting it with something.
    Historical: particularly if the element has been known for ages.
    Discovery:  who first isolated it, and/or correctly identified it as a new element, including mini-biographies of some of the foremost chemists and physicists of the day.
    Properties: density, color, reactivity, etc.
    Cultural: where do we find it is literature, paintings, books, etc.
    Political: the pros and cons of fluoridation, homeopathy, etc., and sparingly used by the author, which is a plus.

    As expected, the text abounds in trivia about each element, and I ate these bits of interest up.  Some examples of the tidbits discussed: the Willamette meteorite, how to make charcoal, how to extract Iodine from kelp, sulfur and its bad reputation, polysulfides (which I work abundantly with), phlogiston, Wilfred Owen, aqua regia, etc.  I could tell you amazing anecdotes about making my own aqua regia in high school chem lab, but perhaps it’s best to keep those misadventures to myself.

    I particularly enjoyed reading about some of the claimed-to-be elements, that were later disproved, such as occultum, coronium, and nebulium.  Just because you find something new, doesn't necessarily mean it's elemental.  I was also surprised by how many elements weren’t discovered until the 1800’s.

    There are a ton of pictures to go along with the commentary, and that was a plus, even if they were small in the e-book formatPeriodic Tales is written in English, not American, so you get words like grey, colour, aluminium, lustre, tonne, etc.  The book is a vocabularian’s delight; see the next section for just a few of the great unfamiliar words I encountered.  The footnotes were handled as smoothly as I’ve ever seen in an e-book.  And if you’re OCD like I am, keep in mind that the text ends at page 398 (84% Kindle).  The last 16% is the Index, Bibliography, etc.

Kewlest New Word ...
Synecdoche (n., and not pronounced even remotely like you'd expect.) : a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in “Cleveland won by six runs” (meaning ‘Cleveland’s baseball team’).
Others : ludic (adj.); palaver (n.);  caryatids (.n, pl.adj.); tetchy (adj.);orotundity (n.); BOGOF (acronym); Piranesian (adj.); quiddity (n.);  semiotics (n., pl.); menhir (n.); intaglio (n.); field-fares (n., pl.); hoicks (v.); auto-didact (n.);

Excerpts...
    Working with tellurium is always unpleasant – the compound that it forms with hydrogen is like hydrogen sulphide, with its infamous rotten-eggs smell, but far more offensive.  Later, Seaborg managed to delegate the tellurium chemistry to his own student, who had great trouble ridding himself of the stink.  Days afterwards, it was even possible to tell which library books he had been consulting from the revolting odour they exuded.  (loc. 1085)

    The first primitive electric telegraph line was built in the 1790s by Francisco Salva and was capable of transmitting sparks from Madrid to Aranjuez fifty kilometres away.  Salva proposed a separate wire for each letter of the alphabet with the arriving spark briefly illuminating letters in turn to spell out messages.  (He apparently also considered connecting a person to each wire and having them shout out the letter when they received an electric shock.)  (loc. 3323)

 Civilization, it is immediately apparent, is simply organized resistance to oxidation.    (loc. 2242)
    I don’t really have any criticisms or even quibbles with Periodic Tales.  It is well-written, and with a lot more details than I had expected, which made for a pleasant read.  I suppose I could've asked for all 118 elements (there were only 103 when I was in school) to have detailed attention paid to them, but I think that would’ve made for some slow spots.

    Full disclosure: I’m a chemist, so this was happy reading ground for me.  Using silver nitrate as an analytical test for the presence of chlorine is a test method I'm familiar with, and it was fun to see it in cited in this book.  Surely any scientist is going to enjoy Periodic Tales.

   However, if you are not a science-lover, or if you have recurring nightmares about being forced to take chem lab in high school or college, I can see where reading this book might get tedious. So perhaps the target audience for Periodic Tales is rather narrow.

    9½ Stars.  Science, History, Vocabulary, Culture, and Make-Your-Own Chemicals.  What more could a geeky nerd like me ask for?