Monday, March 30, 2020

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall

   2015; 371 pages.  Full Title: Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs – The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe.  New Author? : Yes.  Genres : Paleontology; Astrophysics; Quantum Physics; Science; Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Dinosaurs!  Everybody, be they child or adult, is fascinated by them.  They dominated the earth for an astounding 165 million years - from 231 million to 66 million years ago - meaning, as one meme has put it, that Tyrannosaurus Rex was closer in time to listening to Justin Bieber than in meeting up with a Stegosaurus.

    Everyone knows that around 66 million years ago, something happened in a flash (which in paleontological terms means a million years or so) and 75% of all life on Earth perished, including all dinosaurs that couldn’t fly or burrow into the ground.  This is called “The Fifth Extinction”.

    But what caused this immense dying-off?  Well, when I was a kid, the prevailing theory was that climate change was the culprit – the inland seas dried up, the Earth was subject to global warming, and the dinosaurs couldn’t cope with the new conditions.

    Then in the 1980s, that hypothesis gave way to the proposition that a giant meteoroid slammed into the Earth and wreaked cataclysmic destruction.  That theory gained traction when an appropriately sized and appropriately timed impact crater was found off the Yucatan coast in Mexico.

    Lisa Randall now adds a new twist to that scenario in the form of the inscrutable essence called “dark matter”.  It can’t be seen, touched, felt, or measured, yet it penetrates and permeates everything in the universe without have any effect, save for a faint gravitational influence.

    Well that’s all fine and dandy, but what sort of evidence can she produce to support such a wild and wacky theory?  Let’s read Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs and find out.

What’s To Like...
    The central hypothesis of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is given in its introduction: the Solar System periodically passes through the midpoint of the galactic plane, wherein lurks a dense disk of dark matter.  The gravitational pull from that disk is strong enough to dislodge a flurry of comets from something called the Oort cloud, sending them into random new orbits, one of which impacted the Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs, and allowing mammals, then eventually homo sapiens, to flourish and dominate.

   The book is divided into three parts.  Chapters 1-5 covers the birth of the Universe itself, from a microsecond after the Big Bang through the time when galaxies and individual stars are created.  Chapters 6-15 focuses on the emergence of our Solar System, with special attention on comets and asteroids.  Chapters 16-21 then shows how Dark Matter could affect all of this, plus how scientists might detect and confirm its influence.

    The book is a cosmological delight.  If you’re interested in, but have never understood the whole concept of Dark Matter (that's me!) , this book will bring you enlightenment.  Moreover, I was impressed by the attention paid to the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud, both parts of the Solar System that most people have never heard of.  And I was surprised to learn that the Universe, the Milky Way, and our own Solar System are all pretty much “flat”, and why this is so.

    I enjoyed meeting Fritz Zwicky, who first proposed the existence of Dark Matter, and Fred Whipple (not the guy who squeezes the Charmin), who first called comets “dirty snowballs”.  I also learned why meteor craters, both on the Earth and the Moon are almost perfectly round, when you’d think they’d be off-center since whatever caused them is coming in at an angle.

    I laughed at some of the acronyms in the book.  There are “Squids” (Superconducting Quantum Interfering Devices), “Machos” (Massive Compact Halo Objects), “Wimps” (Weakly Interfering Massive Particles), and the mind-boggling “Edelweiss” (Expérience Pour Détecter les Wimps en Site Souterrain).  It was kewl to see Arizona’s Meteor Crater get some ink, ditto for my alma mater Arizona State University, and weird to see Chelyabinsk mentioned, since this is the second book I’ve read this year that featured it.

Kewlest New Word ...
Putative (adj.) : generally considered or reputed to be true.
Others: Conflated (v.).

    The Milky Way galaxy is in a group of galaxies known as the Local Group, which is a gravitationally bound system of galaxies whose density is higher than average.  The Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, also known as M31, dominate the group’s mass, but dozens of smaller galaxies belong to the group too – mostly satellites of the two bigger ones.  The gravitational binding force of the Local Group prevents the Milky Way and Andromeda from receding from each other with the Hubble expansion.  Their paths are actually converging and in about four billion years they will collide and merge.  (loc. 1441)

    In the early 1950s, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago did a famous experiment in which they heated a flask of water that was enclosed by a container filled with methane, ammonia, and hydrogen.  Their goal was to mimic the primordial ocean in the early atmosphere.  An electrical discharge acting on the water vapor played the role of lightning in their artificially created “atmosphere”.  Miller and Urey successfully produced amino acids with their simple apparatus, demonstrating that the production of amino acids in solar and extra-solar environments is actually no so surprising.  (loc. 3720)

Kindle Details…
    Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is presently discounted at Amazon, going for the awesome price of only $1.99.  Lisa Randall has four other science e-books available, ranging in price from $7.49 to $9.99.

“All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” (Lord Rutherford)  (loc. 3927 )
    For me, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs was a fascinating book, but reading Lisa Randall’s technical justifications for her hypothesis can be brain-numbing, particularly the sections involving Quantum Physics.  Trying to comprehend the various “darks”: Dark Matter, Black Holes, Dark Energy, Anti-Dark Matter, Partially Interacting Dark Matter, Double-Disk Dark Matter, and Dark Disk Gravity, was also quite the challenge.  Many nights, after 15-30 minutes of reading this book, I was ready to switch to reading something more relaxing.

    I don’t think this is in any way a fault on the author's part.  Lisa Randall is proposing something radically new here, and her readers are going to range from a.) other astrophysicists, b.) other scientists (like me), and c.) people without a technical background.  If she solely caters to any one of those groups, the other two will be sorely disappointed.  Her astrophysicists colleagues will be particularly nitpicky when looking for holes in her analysis.  You can’t please everybody, but she does a good job in trying.

    Overall I found Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs to be a challenging, fascinating, and enlightening read.  In addition to learning a ton of stuff about Dark Matter, I was especially delighted by the attention given to the Oort cloud and the Kuiper Belt.  Yes, I got lost a lot in the quantum physics chapters.  But a little bit of mental calisthenics is good for the gray matter.

    9 Stars.  We’ll close with a brain teaser.  Suppose scientists detect a huge “Near Earth Object”, still weeks away, but headed for a crash landing on Earth.  What is our best strategy to deal with it:
    a.) try to blow it up,
    b.) try to deflect it by pushing it sideways, or
    c.) something else?
    Answer in the comments.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Monkey's Raincoat - Robert Crais

   1987; 201 pages.  Book 1 (out of 18) in the Elvis Cole Novels series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Crime Thriller; Hard-Boiled Mystery; Detective Fiction.  Laurels: 1988 Anthony Award - Best Paperback Original (winner); 1988 Mystery Readers International Macavity Award - Best First Novel (winner); 1988 Edgar Award – Best Paperback Original (nominee); 1988 Shamus Award – Best Original P.I. Paperback (nominee).  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    To Elvis Cole, the case seems like easy money.  Ellen Lang’s husband Mort and 9-year-old son Perry have gone missing, and she’ll pay Elvis handsomely to find them and bring them back.

    Of course the fact that both disappeared at the same time kinda points at a father who stole his kid as part of some ploy in a custody battle.  Ellen swears this isn’t the case, but her friend, Janet Simon, isn’t so sure.  In her eyes, Mort’s a royal bum.

    Of course the fact that Mort has a girlfriend bolsters Janet’s view of the matter.  Mort runs a talent agency in the Hollywood area, and one of his clients, an actress/bombshell by the name of Kimberly Marsh, is his extramarital love interest.  The most plausible explanation for Mort’s disappearance would be him deciding to shack up with Kimberly for a while.

   But then why grab Perry?

What’s To Like...
    The Monkey’s Raincoat is the initial novel in what is now an 18-book hard-boiled detective series featuring Elvis Cole and his partner Joe Pike.  Elvis takes care of the brainy matters and Joe takes care of the rough stuff.  I read Book 2 in this series, Stalking The Angel, a little while back; it is reviewed here.

    Both books have a similar tone – dark and gritty scenes that are nicely balanced by witty and at times heartwarming parts.  If you enjoyed the Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd TV series Moonlighting, you’ll love Elvis Cole books.

    The Monkey’s Raincoat is a short book, only 201 pages long, and a fast-&-easy read.  It takes a few pages to get going, but that’s to be expected in any Book One of a series, since the author has to introduce the setting (the greater Los Angeles area) and the recurring characters.  Once that’s taken care of here, the pacing picks up nicely.  There are 39 chapters to cover the 201 pages, which means you’ll have no trouble finding a convenient place to stop for the night.  The book is written in the first-person POV, Elvis’s.

    The storyline is straightforward: find Mort and Perry, and later on, find several additional people who go missing.  It should come as no surprise that the case rapidly gets more complicated, and that Elvis quickly finds himself in harm's way.  

    I liked that Robert Crais gives nods to other writers in related genres, including Stephen King, Tony Hillerman, and Elmore Leonard.  I’ve read books by the first two; but not the last one, so I may have to find some of Leonard's novels the next time I hit the used-book stores.  It was fun to relive life in 1987, the year the book was published.  Some of the now-defunct items in the book were: 7-Eleven stores, Minolta cameras, typewriters, Virginia Slims, landlines with long phone cords, lots of musical references to what are now "classic rock" bands, and a Washington NBA team that was still called "the Bullets".

    The ending is full of action with a couple of neat twists to keep things interesting.  It’s a bit predictable and over-the-top (Rambo would fit in nicely), but who cares?  The thrills and spills were nonstop, and that’s why we read this genre.  The last chapter serves as the book’s epilogue, and has a couple twists of its own.  Ellen is a changed woman by the story’s end, and I think that is the main motif beyond the action-thriller-mystery aspect.

Kewlest New Word ...
Soffit (n.) : the underside of an architectural structure such as an arch, a balcony, or overhanging eaves.

    I produced the PI license and the license to carry, and watched him read them.  “Elvis.  This is some kind of bullshit or what?”
    “After my mother.”
    He looked at me the way cops look at you when they’re thinking about trying you out, then gave me the benefit of the doubt.  “Guess you take some riding about that.”
    “My brother Edna had it worse.”  (pg. 26)

    The woman in the silver lamé housecoat came out into the street and stared at me with her hands on her hips, then pointed at a little sign planted in the ivy by her drive.  Every house on the street had one, a little red sign that said Bel Air Patrol – Armed Response.  I stuck my tongue out at her and crossed my eyes.  She gave me the finger and went back into her compound.  Another close brush with dangerous, affluent-class life-forms.  (pg. 133)

Winter downpour – even the monkey needs a raincoat (Basho)(pg. 0 )
    The quibble are minor.  There’s a bunch of cussing, along with sex and drugs and rock-&-roll.  If you only read cozy mysteries, you should probably give The Monkey’s Raincoat a pass.  A plot thread or two were left open at the end – such as what happened to the drugs, which surface (literally) near the end of the story – but I suppose it is reasonable to assume the dope ended up in police custody.

    Finally, and most “quibbly” – the book’s title has no discernible tie-in to the story, other than it’s raining when the action-packed climax occurs.  It’s the English translation of an excerpt of a piece of Japanese haiku by a poet named Matsuo Basho.  In fairness, the title of Book Two, Stalking The Angel, also has nothing to do with the story.  Maybe this is true of all eighteen titles in the series.

    8 Stars.  For your (and my) enlightenment, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is one of the most famous Japanese haiku composers of the “Edo Period” in Japan.  You can read the Wikipedia article about him here, which includes English translations of some of his memorable poems.  I’m not a big reader of haiku, but I liked these excerpts enough that it might motivate me to go find some books of Basho’s poetry.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Thief of Time - Terry Pratchett

   2001; 357 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 26 (out of 41) in the “Discworld” series.  Genre : Satire; Humorous Fantasy; Time Travel.  Laurels: 152nd in The Big Read (the top 200 books all-time in the UK); Locus Award nominee (2002).  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Time.  The fourth dimension, according to some; the eighteenth to others.  Like the other dimensions, it can be stretched, sped up, stopped, diced-&-sliced, and even rearranged.  Most humans don’t even notice this.  We say things like, “it seems like only yesterday” or “where does the time go” or “the meeting today went on forever” without realizing that those phenomena are really occurring.

    On Discworld a mystical brotherhood called the History Monks are charged with making sure Time runs smoothly.  A tweak here, a cut-&-paste there, and let's make sure that tomorrow happens according the great cosmic plan.  But actually the main task of the History Monks is to see that tomorrow happens at all.

    Jeremy Clockson is a clockmaker; hands down the best one around.  He’s just received the most lucrative order and greatest challenge of his career: to build a clock made entirely of glass.  It’s never been done before, because no one could figure out how to make one key part – the clock's spring – out of anything but metal.  But if there's anyone who can get around that obstacle, it’s Jeremy.

    According to legend, a clock made entirely out of glass would allow you to capture Time herself.  That would be a neat trick, but dangerous.  Because if you caged up Time in such a device, and then it broke, Time would stop.


What’s To Like...
    Thief of Time is Terry Pratchett’s playful examination of the dimension of Time.  Various characters can go tripping around in it, and the History Monks are adept at regulating it.  If you like Time Travel science fiction novels, you’ll love Thief of Time.

    As usual, there are multiple storylines smoothly blended together.  A shadowy group called “the Auditors” hire Jeremy to build a super-accurate clock, but their reasons are shrouded in secrecy.  Susan, the granddaughter of Death, is charged with stopping Jeremy’s project, although not really told why.  The neophyte Lobsang Ludd is going to learn the mystical “Way of Mrs. Cosmopilite”, but his guru is the monastery's lowly janitor.  Nobody’s sure who Lady LeJean is, let alone what she is.  And when Armageddon looms, it’s time for the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse to saddle up and ride, even if they’d just as soon not.

   There are several riddles and puzzles to figure out: What is the name of the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, what is “Rule #1”, and what the Lu-Tze’s “Fifth Surprise”?   The book is written in typical Terry Pratchett style: lots of wit, lots of magic, a fair amount of footnotes, and several semi-serious topics to muse upon, such as the end of the world, which is scheduled for next Wednesday, and not even Death himself can stop it.

    You’ll meet an enlightened yeti (which is kinda redundant, since all of them are enlightened), learn what to do when there’s a Time Leak, and become aware of the Zen-ness of the phrase “I was not born yesterday.”  You’ll also discover that Time is not just a dimension; she’s also a being who once had a son.  The title reference is given on page 351, and for the ladies, there’s even a hint of Romance between Lobsang and Susan. 

    The ending is satisfying: the world is saved (come on, that’s not a spoiler, there are fifteen books in the series after this one), the riddles are solved, all the plot threads are tied up, and most, but not all, of the characters live to see another day.  Thief of Time is a standalone novel, as well as part of the always fantastic Discworld series.

 Kewlest New Word ...
Played Hob With (v., phrase) : caused disruptions (for someone or something).
Others: Oleaginous (adj.).

    As a hobby, mountains appeal to those people who in normal circumstances are said to have a great deal of time on their hands.  Lu-Tze had no time at all.  Time was something that largely happened to other people; he viewed it in the same way that people on the shore viewed the sea.  It was big and it was out there, and sometimes it was an invigorating thing to dip a toe into, but you couldn’t live in it all the time.  Besides, it made his skin wrinkle.  (pg. 41)

    “The poet Hoha once dreamed he was a butterfly, and then he awoke and said, ‘Am I a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming he is a man?” said Lobsang, trying to join in.
    “Really?” said Susan briskly.  “And which was he?”
    “What?  Well … who knows?”
    “How did he write his poems?” said Susan.
    “With a brush, of course.”
    “He didn’t flap around making information-rich patterns in the air or laying eggs on cabbage leaves?”
    “No one ever mentioned it.”
    “Then he was probably a man,” said Susan.  (pg. 250)

“After everyone panics, there’s always got to be someone to tip the wee out of the shoe.”  (pg. 321 )
    It’s hard to nitpick about anything in Thief of Time.  There’s a smattering of cussing – a few damns and a couple hells – but that’s about average for any Discworld book.  There are no chapters, but there are lots of scene-shifts, so you can always find a convenient place to stop.  An Igor plays a fairly prominent role in the story, and they always talk with a lithp.  That can get old after a while, but hey, it’s not nice to thay thingth about the way other people thpeak.

    Thief of Time is a "one-off" book in this series in that its setting is unique, and most of the characters are new.  Sam Vimes and the Night Watch are completely absent, and the only witch is Nanny Ogg, whose part in the story is rather small.  Susan and Lu-Tze show up in one or two other Discworld tales, and Lobsang is unusual in that he makes a “jump” after this book to the Terry Pratchett/Stephen Baxter Long Earth collaborative series.

    9 StarsThief of Time was rated #152 in the BBC-sponsored poll “The Big Read”, taken in 2000 to determine what British readers felt were the best-loved novels of all time.  More than 750,000 votes were cast, and you can see the results hereFifteen of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are ranked in the top 200.   That is both incredible and well-deserved.  If you’ve never read a Discworld book, this is as good of a place to start as any.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Galileo's Dream - Kim Stanley Robinson

   2009; 534 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science Fiction; Historical Fiction; Biography, Time Travel.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    Galileo Galilei.  What a brilliant astronomer and physicist!  I read about him back in high school science class.  He was born in 1564, and died in 1633.  They called him “the first scientist” because he relied strictly on making detailed measurements concerning something, then developing conclusions and equations from his data.

    I remember that he studied the speed and acceleration of things as they rolled down an inclined plane.  He also climbed up in the Leaning Tower of Pisa and dropped objects from there to the ground, carefully measuring how long they took to fall.  His conclusion was that objects always fell at the exact same speed, regardless of their mass,

    He didn’t invent the telescope, but he greatly improved it, to the point of where he could see the moons of Jupiter, and eventually plot their courses.  He also studied sun spots and phases of our moon.  This eventually got him into trouble with the Church, since he concluded that Copernicus was correct – the Earth revolved around the Sun, not vice versa.  This contradicted scripture, and we all know God’s Word is infallible.

    He was brought to trial by the Roman Inquisition in 1633, and given a chance to recant his heretical views.  But Galileo was a proud soul, and was unrepentant.  He was burned at the stake in 1634.

    But wait!  I just read the Wikipedia article on him, and his biography reads differently there.  That’s impossible!  I’m sure I’m right.  Something’s changed!

   I wonder how that happened.

What’s To Like...
    Galileo’s Dream is Kim Stanley Robinson’s ambitious blending of science fiction into the biography of Galileo Galilei.  It starts at the point where he discovers (or “invents” as he asserts) the telescope, with some timely help from a mysterious stranger.  Galileo becomes passionate about observing the skies at night, which leads to some unexpected space traveling, followed by some head-butting with the Church.

    I liked the way Galileo is portrayed.  Yes, he is a brilliant polymath, but he is fully aware of this and full of himself.  He knows he’s smarter than anyone around him, and assumes that he can boss them around, win all debates with them, and subtly mock them without them being aware of it.  He’s right about those first two, but dangerously wrong about that last one.

    To a certain degree, this is “hard science fiction”; the mechanics of the time-traveling is done quite innovatively via the use of syncopes.  Yeah, I had to look that word up too.  The fact that the aliens are from 3020 AD means Kim Stanley Robinson can infuse quantum physics into the story.  So things like multiverses and the ten dimensions of time/space crop up.  The biographical parts are well-researched; I read Wikipedia’s page on Galileo after finishing the book and was surprised how many of the story's details were historically accurate.

    The storyline flip-flops between Galileo’s life on Earth and a crisis up on Jupiter into which he’s drawn.  The aliens may be far more technologically advanced than us, but they suffer from the same human foibles present in both our and Galileo’s time.

    The text is a wordsmith’s delight.  A couple of the more prominent fancy words are given below, but there were dozens more.  If you’re looking to expand your vocabulary, this book’s for you.  Learning the nuances of déjà vu, presque vu, and jamais vu was enlightening, as was attending a Jovian Carnivale with some Dionysians.

    I thought the ending was so-so, but that’s probably because I was already familiar with Galileo’s life.  The final chapter deals with events going on a century after his death, and I thought it was quite powerful.  The “Author’s Note” after that is well worth reading.

Kewlest New Word ...
Syncope (n.) : a temporary loss of consciousness by a drop in blood pressure.
Others: prolepsis (n.); analepsis (n.); anno mirabilis (n., phrase); ephemerides (n., plural).

    He had been so sure that the tides on Earth were the result of the ocean sloshing around in its basins of stone, shifting as the Earth both rotated and flew around the sun, creating differential speeds.  But here they said it was not true.  In that case, what causes tides?  The tug of celestial bodies – but that was astrology all over again.  And yet they seemed to be saying it was so.  Was astrology right, then, with its celestial influences and its action at a distance, action without any mechanical forces applied?  He hated such nonexplaining explanations.  (loc. 2851)

    “Galileo has always had a remarkably strong sense of proleptic intuition.  Indeed, when judged by that rubric, of anticipating future developments, I’ve read commentaries that rate him as the third smartest physicist of all time.”
    “Third,” Galileo scoffed.  “Who are these supposed other two?”
    “The second was a man named Einstein, the first a woman named Bao.”
    “A woman?” Galileo said.
    Hera shot him a look so full of contempt and pity, disgust and embarrassment that Galileo cringed.  (loc. 3055)

Kindle Details…
    Galileo’s Dream sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  Kim Stanley Robinson has a couple dozen other e-books for your reading pleasure, all of them in the science fiction genre, and ranging in price from $2.99 to $13.99.

“If I have seen less far than others … it is because I was standing on the shoulders of dwarfs.”  (loc. 2906 )
    There are some quibbles.  There’s a lot of cussing, and while I’m sure people in the 1600s swore just as much as we do today, I didn’t feel it added to the story in any way.

    The sci-fi-to-biography ratio is skewed heavily to the latter, so if you’re in the mood for some epic science fiction, you may be disappointed with Galileo's Dream.  There are a bunch of historically real Italian characters to meet and greet, and it was quite the challenge to remember who was doing what.  In fairness, I think Kim Stanley Robinson’s attention to historical accuracy at times constrained what he could do with the storyline.  A number of characters who really existed die at untimely times.

    Also, the history-tampering ploy seemed obvious to me.  It’s the same literary device as was used by Jasper Fforde in The Eyre Affair.  But to be fair, if I hadn’t read that Fforde novel, I’d be praising the way Galileo’s fate was handled here.

    Last, and most importantly, the Jovian crisis is never tied up.  We do get some hint at what's causing all the grief, but the conflict is still there by book's end.  Still, if you think that 2001 - A Space Odyssey had a great ending, you'll probably like this one as well.

    6½ Stars.  Add 1 star if you have no idea who Jasper Fforde is.  Don’t let my quibbles deter you from reading Galileo’s Dream.  This was my first Kim Stanley Robinson novel, and I have a couple others of his on my Kindle.  They look like they’re straight-up science-fiction, so I’m looking forward to reading them.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Wilderness - Volume 1 - The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison

      1988; 212 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Full Title: Wilderness – The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison – Volume 1.  Genres : American Poetry; Diaries and Journals; Rock Stars.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Jim Morrison.  Born December 08, 1943.  Died July 03, 1971, age 27.  Lead singer of The Doors, and a stellar member of the “27 Club" (see the review here).  But he saw himself first and foremost as a poet, and in a “self-interview” at the start of this book, he says:

    Listen, real poetry doesn’t say anything, it just ticks off the possibilities.  Opens all doors.  You can walk through any one that suits you.

    “…and that’s why poetry appeals to me so much – because it’s so eternal.  As long as there are people, they can remember words and combinations of words.  Nothing else can survive a holocaust but poetry and songs.  No one can remember an entire novel.  No one can describe a film, a piece of sculpture, a painting, but so long as there are human beings, songs and poetry can continue.

    “If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it’s to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel.”

    And that’s as good of a way to introduce Wilderness – Volume 1: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison as I can come up with.

What’s To Like...
    According to the publishers, Jim Morrison left more than 1,600 pages of poems, lyrics, stories, film scripts, etc. when he died, yet not one page was ever dated, numbered, or identified chronologically.  So there’s no order to the poems given in Wilderness – Volume 1, indeed, most of them don’t even have titles.  There is an “Index of First Lines” at the back of the book to help if you’re searching for a particular poem, and I thought that was a nice touch.

    The publishers divide the book into 10 sections of unequal length.  By far the longest part is simply called “Poems 1966-1971”, and comprises of 125 pages of the 212-page book.  The section “Ode to LA while thinking of Brian Jones, Deceased” is both ironic and haunting, since Brian Jones is also a member of the 27 Club.  “For Arden” is unique in that it has a few lines that have both meter and rhyming.  And “As I Look Back” is eerily retrospective, almost as if Jim Morrison knows he isn’t going to live much longer.

    As a longtime lover of The Doors, I enjoyed finding “early versions” of some of the lyrics that were later incorporated into the songs.  There are four “rough drafts” of L’America, a track off of L.A. Woman, and none of them are even close to resembling the final version.  The snippet of poetry in Peace Frog, from Morrison Hotel, makes two early appearances in this book.  There’s a poem titled Horse Latitudes, which is also a song title on the album Strange Days, and even a line from the titular L.A. Woman track started out a poem here.

    A half dozen or so photographs of Jim are interspersed throughout the book, along with some scans of a couple of the original pages from Jim Morrison's notebooks.  There are also a number of blank pages.  To say this book is a "fast read" is an understatement.  You can probably read the whole book in an hour or so, although personally, I find poetry easier to read in small “chunks”.

    I think the best thing about Wilderness – Volume 1 is that it gave me a glimpse of the “real” Jim Morrison.  Let’s face it, his antics and gyrations as the lead singer of The Doors are all an act.  But the scribbled prose in his notebooks give us keen insight into the strange thoughts that were swarming around in his head.

    Why do I drink?
    So that I can write poetry.
    Sometimes when it’s all spun out
    and all that is ugly recedes
    into a deep sleep
    There is an awakening
    and all that remains is true.
    As the body is ravaged
    the spirit grows stronger.
    Forgive me Father for I know
    what I do.
    I want to hear the last Poem
    of the last Poet.  (pg. 119)

    Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding
    Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind
    We scaled the wall
    We tripped thru the graveyard
    Ancient shapes were all around us
    No music but the wet grass
    felt fresh beside the fog
    Two made love in a silent spot
    one chased a rabbit into the dark
    A girl got drunk & made the dead
    And I gave empty sermons to my head  (pg. 180)

Which of my cellves will be remember’d?  Good-bye America.  I loved you.  (pg. 209 )
    There were a couple of nits to pick.  First, there are four or five instances of cussing in the book, but that’s a lot less than I would have expected.

    Second, many of the “poems” seem to be nothing more than bits of streams-of-consciousness that Jim Morrison jotted down for later polishing and rework.  There is some good stuff here; as the two excerpts given above demonstrate.  But the bulk of the material seems like mere jottings, just lumps of clay that Jim Morrison would later develop into literary works of art.  I have a feeling that if he was still alive today, he’d forbid these poems being published “as is”.

    Also, some of these poems are short, sometimes having as little as three lines.  That adds to the significant amounts of blank space in the book, since the publishers seem averse to combining more than one poem on a given page.

    I suppose this means the reader has lots of room to scribble in his own thoughts about the poems, or maybe even to take a stab at polishing some of these, but I think a few trees could have been saved by making more efficient use of half-filled pages, and either adding more entries from the thousand-plus pages of Morrison-penned poesy or else combining Volumes 1 and 2 in this series into a single book.

    5½ Stars.  If you’re a Doors fan, I think Wilderness – Volume 1 will be a worthwhile read, giving you an honest look at a brilliant, yet sadly troubled mind.  But if you have no idea who Jim Morrison, or The Doors are, you might want to skip this book and go listen a couple of their albums instead.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Last Train To Istanbul - Ayse Kulin

   2002 (in original Turkish), 2006 (English translation); 396 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Turkish Literature; Historical Fiction - Turkey; Historical Fiction – World War 2; Romance.  Laurels: European Council Jewish Community – Best Novel Award (winner, but I’m not sure what year).  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It was a tragic case of forbidden love.  Kinda like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Rafael is Jewish, Selva is Muslim, and they’re in love, much to the consternation of their parents.  Family ties run strong in their native Turkey in the 1930s, so they decide to emigrate to Paris until things cool down, since the French are more tolerant about things like religious differences.

    But things change in 1941.  World War 2 is underway and the Germans have overrun northern France and occupied Paris.  The Nazis do care about religious differences, especially if you are Jewish.  So once again Selva and Rafael are forced to pack up and move south, to Marseilles, which the Germans have allowed the French puppet government, “Vichy France”, to control, at least for now.

    The respite is short-lived though, and in 1943 when the Nazis take over all of France, they don’t hesitate to seek out any and all Jews in France, regardless of citizenship, and ship them off in cattle cars to concentration camps.  Selva and Rafael have run out of places to flee to, as have all other Jews in France, both Turkish and otherwise.  Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Turkey, who is still neutral in the war, is willing to take some risks to help its expatriates in France.

    It’s just a question of exactly what can be done.

What’s To Like...
    Last Train To Istanbul is written by Ayse Kulin, a tremendously popular Turkish novelist who often combines history and romance in her books.  Here, she presents several relationships (Selva/Rafael, Sabiha/Macit, Ferit/Evelyn, and others) while examining religious bigotry against the backdrop of the holocaust, and the efforts by Turkish diplomats to rescue Turkish citizens, Jewish and otherwise, living in wartime France.

   I found the World War 2 political situation very enlightening.  Turkey was neutral throughout the storyline, and it was illuminating to see the conflict from her point-of-view.  The Allies wanted Turkey on their side, mostly so that Germany would then attack her, thus opening a new front.  Britain promised her arms, but never delivered.  Germany wanted Turkey’s chrome for its war machine, which at the time she was selling to the Allies.  Russia wanted an excuse to sweep down and take over the Bosporus Strait, gaining direct access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.  I got the impression that everyone wanted to “use” Turkey, but no one really wanted to be her friend and I wondered how much-or-little this “attitude” has changed since then.

    The history of Turkey and the Jews was also new to me.  When Ferdinand, the King of Spain, expelled all Jews from there in 1492, it was Turkey who welcomed any and all of them, recognizing that a large percentage of them were skilled and highly educated.  Therefore, despite being a Muslim country, Turkey has had a sizable Jewish element in its population for the past 500 years.

    It was also a treat to be immersed in the day-to-day life in Turkey during the 1930s/40s.  We get to play bezique and bridge, sip raki, and drink Tekel beer.   Our wives get to wear silk dresses when going to tea parties, where they’ll drink from elegant and distinctive Turkish tea glasses.  Our daughters take ballet lessons, and we all like to smoke cigarettes and partake of hot chocolate with sugar added to it. Bon appetit!

    The book is set in 1933-1943,  and in various cities in Turkey and France, with one brief side trip to Cairo.  You’ll learn a bit of French, Turkish, and Spanish, and John W. Baker seems to have done a decent job of translating the story into English.  Being a chemist myself, I liked that Rafael was also one, but it turns out that a “chemist” in Europe is what we Yanks would call a “pharmacist”.

    The story builds to the titular “Last Train to Istanbul”, which encounters a suitable number of tension-filled incidents that threaten the success of the mission.  The ending may be predictable, but it left a lump in my throat.  I found the “Acknowledgements” section at the end of the book to be quite informative, as Ayse Kulin details the sources she used to write this story.  Last Train To Istanbul is a standalone story, and AFAIK, there is no sequel.

Kewlest New Word ...
Kavass (n.) : an armed constable or courier in Turkey.

    “How on earth do you speak all evening with someone you hardly know?” he asked Muhlis.
    “Come on now, what do you mean you hardly know her?  Haven’t we all been out together a few times?”
    “That was different, we weren’t alone.”
    “Tell her about your homeland.  Ask about her family.  Tell her how beautiful she is.  Don’t tread on her toes if you dance together and kiss her before dropping her off at home.”
    “Kiss her, my dear friend, kiss her.  Women like to be kissed.”
    “You mean on the lips?”
    “I suppose there’s no harm in being cautious; try kissing her on the cheek first, then you can take it from there.  I want to hear all about it when you get home.”
    “Never!”  (loc. 2428)

    “We’ll be providing them with passports.  But if something should happen en route, they’ll have to act as if they are Turkish.  They should at least be able to say a few words.  You teach Turkish.  Would you…?”
    “You want me to teach them Turkish, is that it?”
    “Would you?”
    “Happily.  As a matter of fact, I’ve been doing it in Marseilles for some time.  I can help them memorize a few sentences.  But I need to ask you a question – what do you mean, ‘act as if they are Turkish’?  I’m curious to know how one’s supposed to act Turkish.”  (loc. 3626)

Kindle Details…
    Last Train to Istanbul presently sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  Five other e-books by Ayse Kulin are available there, ranging in price from $0.99 to $10.99.  The Italian version of Last Train to Istanbul goes for $2.99; the German version goes for $4.99.

“There’s a saying in Turkish:  He who falls into the sea will cling even to a serpent.”  (loc. 4931 )
    There’s not much to quibble about in Last Train To Istanbul.  A number of secondary plot threads remained unresolved, mostly involving the various romantic relationships.  They could probably be worked up into a sequel, but I don’t think it’s necessary.  The book’s primary storyline – the extraction of a trainload of people suffering from the Nazi atrocities – was resolved quite effectively.

    There is a fair amount of cussing in the book, almost all of it in dialogues, but this is realistic in a wartime story.  There is one digression to Auschwitz, which didn’t seem to have much to do with the story, but Ayse Kulin explains in the Acknowledgements section why it was included, and I applaud her decision to do so.

    8½ Stars.  Overall I found Last Train To Istanbul to be both a fascinating and an informative book, and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to see World War 2 from a different viewpoint than the standard "us versus them" perspective.  One other Ayse Kulin book, Without A Country, resides on my Kindle and I'm eager to see if it's as good as this one.