Teak Bookends

I will read anything that is well written enough to waste precious life time on. I tend to prefer Science-Fiction/Fantasy, History (Asia, all of it), philosophy (by anyone intelligent enough to be considered a thinker), and anything that might help me further cultivate my mind and provide me with a good laugh.

Dated, Still Relevant

Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered - E.F. Schumacher

The last great finical debacle, the one in 2007, is still affecting people the world over, but the affect is still heavy in American. I was personally affected, my wife and I both lost jobs. We have yet to recover from that. There was a snow storm a few weeks back. It occurred when the Polar Vortex slipped it’s usual spot over the North Pole and paid North America a visit. The company I work for is dependent upon trucks from Chicago based warehouses to fulfill the retail stores needs. So, when the snow kept trucks from arriving here in Kansas City, we as a store were limited as to what we could offer our customers. This, like the economic crash, got me thinking about how well connected everything is. Wall Street was too big to fail so money was thrown at it, given to those who caused the problems in the first place. What if they had failed? Could America have survived? What if this snow storm had been worse? Would food have stopped coming in to Kansas City altogether? Just how fragile is our system of life, and should it really stay that way?

 

These thoughts are similar to ones I have often that are concerned with the amount of resources we use to make useless things we don’t need. The amount of waste we produce. Also, the consumer culture that drives us to make and purchase these cheap trinkets. What does living and working like this doing to us? From my view of history, we have never lived like this. The few times people of the past have gotten anywhere near we are now it was chaos, it was disaster. I can only think that disaster and chaos are all that is meant for our future, we have yet to see any of the dangers of living out of balance with the earth. 

 

Thinking such thoughts will lead a person to want to find some comfort. One of the ways to do that is find people who have been working on the problems at hand and see if they have some potential solutions drawn up. These types of people publish books to share their findings and thoughts. There are many books out there talking about our ills and sometimes a few seem to keep surfacing. This makes them tempting to read even if they are dated. One of these books is Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher. It was originally published at the beginning of the energy crisis in the early ’70’s. It was one of the early books that served as a warning against our insatiable appetite for earths resources and our over blown sense of self-importance. 

 

Schumacher makes an argument we current day folks are somewhat familiar with. The resources we take can’t be replaced fast enough to be sustainable. Nature can only take some much pollution before it becomes toxic for all life on earth. Handing out technology and first world ways of doing things to developing third world economies will solve nothing. It is these first world economies that have it wrong in the first place. He speaks on how the fast paced economics of the modern world dehumanizes us. He talks about compassion, being caretakers, rather than profit makers, and he waxes on about quaint ways of life. 

 

I won’t spend time here deconstructing his work to prove my intelligence or to sound preachy, complete with moral high ground from which to preach from. I will simple say, you should read this book. Now, mind that you don’t have to. This book has become such a staple for the environmental front and eco-warriors, and so many others. Schumacher’s thoughts have become foundational stones for such movements, therefore reading his 1973 book won’t provide you with some profound enlightenment that current literature has ignored. 

 

However, there are reasons to read this book. I was shocked to compare the data that Schumacher used with the current data we have now. Levels of pollution and economic inequality, for example. When he was writing this warning things weren’t as bad as they are now. All of this made his warnings all the more dire. There was also his idea of decentralizing our economies, our means of production. This was real interesting to me, for what he was talking about was small self-sustaining economies. So, in the case of the snow storm, well that wouldn’t have effected Kansas City if Kansas City was more responsible in creating it’s own food. If Kansas City had a self-sustaining economy than the 2007 crash wouldn’t have been a threat either. Think of populations of people acting somewhat like terrorist cells. If some type of natural disaster befell one part of the world, it wouldn’t effect another. A city without a crisis wouldn’t find itself in one because of a another city in crisis. This would create more sustainability the world over. 

 

Working in such a way would create village economies and these economies would have to operate on the idea of ‘enoughness’, or only using what you need. We don’t need to take and take until we have so much waste. We can have wealth and be content, thus making sure more people have wealth and future people have wealth. Schumacher called this thinking Buddhist Economics, in his words, "the aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well being with the minimum amount of consumption." By not living this way we over work ourselves just so we can consume, and all that makes us human is shoved away so we can sit in a cubicle or waste away at a type of manual labor that destroys our bodies. Instead, if we lived by Buddhist Economics, we would have more time and energy to be with people and spend more time producing that which makes us happy. Schumacher takes about the happiness that people get from creating things from their own hands, even if it is just a chair. Slow labor with an acquired skill is a path to happiness.

 

This notion of Buddhist Economics struck a cord with me, as before I ever read Schumacher’s work I had read Me and Mine: Selected Essays of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa. Bhikkhu Buddhadasa is one of Thailand’s most famous monks. At the time when the Thai government was hunting down the communist ‘threat’ in Thailand for American interests, because America paid them millions of dollars to do so, Buddhadasa was using Buddhist teachings to argue in favor of socialist economic models. He even talked directly about Buddhist Economics as well. He felt that any moral Buddhist person would favor an economic model that brought as much health and sustainability to as many as possible.

 

So, while I enjoyed reading this book, it is dated. If you are looking for current day thoughts on the current data we have concerning the state of the world, this is not a book to pick up and read. However, if you are interested in reading some of the early works on environmentalism and ethical economics, this would be a good place to start. Whether you choose to read it or not, works such as Schumacher’s are becoming more and more common. There are many educated people working on world crushing problems right now and they are taking their findings straight to the people. They do this because those with power, governments, corporations, aren’t listening. As a matter of fact, they are actively trying to silence research that could save us and our future on this planet. So, read Schumacher or not, but start somewhere.

Devil Dogs in Space

Semper Mars - Ian Douglas

I read a little awhile go a blog by an author of science-fiction that called for a return to hard science-fiction. They wanted more stories that took science into account. So, a little more realistic, and less Star Wars. I admit over the years I have found little science-fiction that understands the sciences, let alone the fictional science it creates. Sometimes this presents a problem, but since story is the focus, not the science, a decent story can limp along with bad physics. Sometimes I have found science in storytelling in the sub-genre of military science-fiction. The genre is just what you might think, science-fiction from a military view. Most of the time there is an adherence to hard science, but also a tendency to flout patriotism, and military virtues, like ‘might makes right’. Sometimes it is just Jarheads in space, lots of violence, very little depth.

One author who specializes in this genre is Ian Douglas, a pen name for William H. Keith, Jr. Douglas served in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War. Those experiences influence his writing to be sure. He knows his combat and his understands the mind of the service personal. He is a very prolific author who writes in his own universes but also others, like Babylon 5, BattleTech and Doctor Who. While I am still working through a large franchise of his I have finished with the first installment, The Heritage Trilogy. While I have minor critical points, overall is was an entertaining trilogy.

 

The premise of the novels is that alien life came to earth in humanity’s distant past. They enslaved and used humans, maybe even took them off the planet to other worlds, even tinkered with their genetics. Sounds like Stargate, right? Humans from our future (2040-2067) begin to learn about this when scientists uncover archeological evidence of intelligent life on Mars in the first book. The upheaval that occurs from this find becomes the basis of the story. This also become the over all theme of the series. Each book discloses a new find and new problems surrounding that find. One of the pieces of the puzzle concerning this solar system’s past is that whatever life form enslaved humanity was wiped out by a much more powerful and ruthless life form, the Hunters of the Dawn. However, the books don’t rush to meet this advanced and blood thirsty race. They are more concerned about conflicts in our neighborhood. 

The trilogy really covers the politics surrounding the finding and acquiring of alien technology. In the first book, Semper Mars. the United States wants possession of the site on Mars and the well unified, and ‘villainous’, European Union doesn’t think America is trustworthy enough to gain access to any alien tech found there. So, a war breaks out, on Mars. There is a small contingent of Marines on Mars that have to face down a more powerful EU deployment. They are out numbered and out gunned, yet are determined to win. The rest of the trilogy runs much the same, different discoveries being made, the politics between nations, the politics between government and service personnel, the effects on earth of the uncovered alien sites and the conflicts that the good old U.S. Marines begrudgingly take on and win. 

 

Douglas’s politics, as far as storytelling goes, leaves something to be desired. In the simplest fashion, America is the hero, though he is not so heavy handed as some authors. He keeps people in perspective, so most have motivations that make perfect sense, even if they are with the evil EU. The scientific community portrayed in Douglas’s novels are only interested in science and would rather keep governments and their militaries away from their discoveries. Almost all the politicians are liars and cheats, so are the corporations that pay them. The only real honest people are the Marines, and yet they end up being the most two-dimensional characters. They become the good old boys and girls that are knowingly used by politicians to perform the dirty work and left to find some way to find honor and meaning in doing so.

So, this story is not truly character driven. The whole trilogy makes use of individuals, following them through their perspective of the events they are involved in, but these events take place quickly. So, there is no real development, instead you focus on the action, which is the strongest point in these novels. The action is not Hollywood, meaning, there are no fire-based explosions in the vacuum of space. This is where the science kicks in. In one battle scene on the Lunar surface there are space suited Marines bouncing in a semi-controlled fashion across the landscape while firing weapons without sound. A silent ballet of death. Douglas handles the hard science well in much of the writing and uses it to make some pretty powerful images and intense situations. Also, the tech he creates for his novels is not far off form what we already have, and what isn’t is still believable. He provides limitations to build a good story on.

 

In all, this first trilogy was fun. Each novel starts off slow, but that is because Douglas carefully builds the conflict, so the stakes are made clear to the reader. Then he lets loose some climatic ending, where plot, scientific understanding, and military experience all come in to play. While the people might not be that in depth, the mystery surrounding the alien threat is intriguing. The Hunters of the Dawn are only talked about in this trilogy, and their legacy is treated like a murder mystery that some people are trying solve in between moments of human pettiness. While these novels are not paragons of science-fiction literature, they are solid, hard sci-fi stories that provide a bit of mystery and action. Also, being just the first trilogy in a group of such trilogies, the story promises to become a lot more complex than the simple feuds of earth based governments and good old Uncle Sam patriotism. If you want to read something sci-fi, with good action that isn’t light-sabers but has old fashion Marines with high tech gear, I can suggest these novels. 

Sagely Perspectives

Lives of Confucius: Civilization's Greatest Sage Through the Ages - Michael Nylan, Thomas Wilson

During my time at KU I took a class on Confucius (from here on, Kongzi). While it’s focus was the great sage’s teachings, it was through the lens of others, his followers in later times as well as some contemporaries. It was taught by a young man who the students called Scott, who was making his life’s academic work consist of Chinese Philosophy. The class was during a spring semester. This time a year became a perfect metaphor for how my mind opened up when studying these ancient texts. Going from a dormant cold remembrance of spring to a more visceral understanding of it’s joys. This class was not the first time I explored Kongzi’s teachings, but it had been years before. At this point, I was older, I had learned more about Chinese history and culture. I found my old copy of D.C. Lau’s translation of The Analects to be out dated. 

 

The class introduced me to the debates surrounding the Sage. I was unfamiliar with the finer points of the different positions of arguing intellectuals. Their arguments were based in their interpretations, not unlike many religious scholars. However, interpretation was everything when trying to gauge what kind of impact Kongzi had on China, for different interpretations held sway at different times in history. The class’s goal was just to cover the ancient Chinese texts concerned with Kongzi and introduced the fundamental paradigms surrounding this field of study. So, when I found the book Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages by Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson, that claimed to adequately discuss these warring paradigms of Kongzi, I was skeptical. Kongzi is no small topic of inquiry. Could one little book take on such a large topic as his legacy and still leave enough meat to digest? What I found in this work was a well structured introduction into the Sage’s legacy, much to my surprise.

 

The book is divided up well. It is chronologically organized by who first wrote about the master. So, the reader starts with the image that the famous historian Sima Qian created during the time of the Han Dynasty. As the chapters progress, the reader moves through time to modern day, while learning about the most dramatic changes in people’s view of Kongzi. Each chapter outlines the then current interpretations of the Sage’s wisdom and how it was practically applied. This works well as the last chapter is really asking questions about how Kongzi should be continued to be viewed. How his teachings might be a source of salvation for our out of control societies. 

Such a subject might be a bit dry for some and even those of us who enjoy it can find some author’s philosophical waxing too dull to bear. Nylan and Wilson, however, keep the discussion moving swiftly by not being overbearing with their knowledge. While the chapters are long and detailed the authors get to the point fairly fast without letting the reader get lost in all the different names and Dynasties and dates over four thousand years of history. They also don’t play favorites with view points, at least not until the end when more of their personnel views become apparent. They even included a recreation of one of Kongzi’s decedents offering a ritual sacrifice to Kongzi centuries after his death, which adds a nice little bit of narrative to enjoy.

 

What complaints I have about the book are few, but irksome even for an amateur academic as myself. They used endnotes instead if footnotes. A minor thing, I know, but bothersome nonetheless. At least they used notes. It is impossible to count the number of books on academic topics allowed to float around the market without any sense of accountability, a thought that distresses me greatly. The authors move back and forth between calling the Sage Confucius and Kongzi, I wish they would have picked one, preferably Kongzi. The last critical view I have is not a complaint, but a curiosity. As I read I couldn’t help but wonder who their intended audience was. The work swung between a beginner level, at which they would explain basics, which was just review for me. Yet, it shifted to a more expert level, in which they assumed the reader would understand certain aspects of Chinese culture and history. In the end, it seems a good text for undergrads taking higher level courses. However, for the general public, I would not recommend this to someone who has no idea who Kongzi is, or does not have any real academic exposure to Chinese history. There would simply be too much confusion. Yet, I feel that the authors explained themselves well enough that an intelligent person could wade through this work and come out with a nugget of wisdom. It is simply not a good starting point for people new to the topic.

 

In conclusion, this book would be a good place to go to after getting some general exposure to the topic. It would help broaden a person’s understanding of Kongzi’s place in Chinese culture and the effect his writing might still have on our future.  If you have read The Analects you could take a swing at this, but there is a healthy bit of history mixed in with the philosophy. A historical understanding is more important for this book rather than knowing what is in the centuries old text, for the authors do explain the meaning and their use of each part of The Analects. However, reading The Analects would be very helpful. I had an enjoyable time reading this book and will end up keeping it on my bookshelf. There is great list of suggested readings, plus some very nice ideas I would like to re-explore again in the future. For anyone who better wishes to understand this enduring, yet highly debatable, timeless Sage, Nylan and Wilson’s work should be of help. 

 Giant, realistic Kongzi by artist Zhang Huang

Giant, realistic Kongzi by artist Zhang Huang.

Funny is Hard on Paper

Bossypants - Tina Fey

A co-worker of mine was taking out things in his locker, preparing to go home for the day. He placed many of his things on the table close to where I was eating lunch. One of these things was a book. I am always interested in looking at a book, at the very least to determine what it’s subject matter is. I asked him if he thought it was a good book. He told me he loved it, it was hilarious, that he had just let another co-worker borrow it, and would be happy to let me borrow it. Provided I didn’t keep it for three months like she did. I decided what the hell, I was curious enough. And thus, I borrowed his copy of Tina Fey’s Bossypants

 

I don’t know that much about Tina Fey. What I do know I have learned from pop culture references from entertainment news, like when Huffpost says something about one of her performances. I also learned about her from internet memes. So, what little I do know I respect. However, I have never watched SNL since the early ’90’s and I have never seen one episode of 30 Rock. So, I am not a huge fan, or even a little desk fan perched near by saying, “Good job.” Nope, just curious. So, I borrowed the book that my co-worker said wouldn’t take me but a few days to read. Now, I am done and can say that there are two very different sets of skills involved in writing sketch comedy and humorous prose, and Tina Fey only has one of these sets. 

 

The book is pretty much an autobiography, not a true one, just chronologically speaking. She moves through her early life to her professional career, but without detail. She only tells stories that would loosely count as anecdotes. Taken as individual stories, they are fine. They are something she might share on Letterman’s couch, or shared in front of the Actor’s Studio audience. When all these little tales of Fey’s life are put together they make little sense, for there is on over all theme. For example, there is a whole chapter on her dad, which shows little. One would expect that this chapter would show clearly how Don Fey played a major role in the development of Tina Fey as a person, or some impact on her career. Unfortunately, you don’t get that. Don is cool, and a Goldwater Republican. Some of this surely influenced Mrs. Fey, but I am not sure how. Does this impact her politics, her sense of fashion?

 

The book was not completely devoid of humor. However, none of it was ‘laugh out loud’ funny. Most of the stories were cute. A tiny Tina in love with gay boys, like an ’80’s movie, a John Hughes film. A nerdy girl, whose real beauty is hidden behind the wrong clothes and a thick pair of glasses, who stumbles and laughs too much, but at the end is turned into some truly gorgeous creature. They are little tales of a good-geeky girls discovering that the world is a pretty weird and dirty place, like the chapter about pissing jars in offices of writers. There are also some behind the scenes bits from her years at SNL and 30 Rock, but nothing that interesting. The book is not a ‘tell-all’ after all. It does showcase her personality, and it is a pleasant one. I think it would be great to be friends with her.

 

In conclusion, because any review of this book should be short (it is a very short book) this is a book for fans. Only fans of Mrs. Fey would be truly able to appreciate these small windows into her life. Only true Feynatics would find it at all funny. Anyone outside these two groups is really wasting their time reading this book. I was curious about her after being exposed to all the love for her spread across the internet, but having read her book, I am not rushing about trying to watch 30 Rock. I did gain more respect for her as a person though. While I didn’t laugh much, I am very glad a woman like her is a celebrity and influencing young women and men. So, if you love Tina Fey, or you have some time to kill, and a friend you lets you borrow the book, well, hell, why not?

Action Fantasy ( A review for all four books)

The Briar King  - Greg Keyes

In today’s world of speculative fiction there are several different genres of fantasy. Though I can remember the days when there was only one and we described the novels we read with multiple adjectives rather than high jacking for nouns. Even though there many genres to explore, I lost count of them. I wish there was one called solid. That is one word I would use to describe Greg Keyes The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone. Perhaps these four novels would qualify as traditional. I have heard that some are taking to calling certain novels traditional, because they engage in the use of cliches, or just copy Tolkien. Though there are certain aspects of Keyes’s work that could be considered over used, it isn’t traditional, but is solid storytelling.


The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone is made up of four books, The Briar King, The Charnel Prince, The Blood Knight, and The Born Queen. The most traditional aspect of this story is that the world resembles a very western one, with knights and their medieval ethos. There are several characters that the novels follow, making the story wider in scope and more entertaining. There is Anne Dare a young princesses of Crotheny and her best friend and servant Austra. There is Aspar White, a holter protecting the king’s forest. Stephan Darige, a young monk and scholar. Neil MaqVren, a simple knight, but powerful and skilled who serves the queen loyally. There is also Cazio Pachiomadio da Chiovattio, a cunning and witty student of the sword and women. That is just to name a few.

 

Each of these characters end up going on a different quest that ends up being related to the other quests of the other characters. They all grow in power and change as the story progresses. Each of their quests also ends up a little different then what they expected. Most of the time they are all very confused. All the quests center around the Sedos Throne, a seat of magical power. It seems that the lost colony of Roanoke, ended up being transported to this world of Keyes’s creation by a race of demons who enslave humans. The first child born in the Roanoke colony, historically, was Virginia Dare. Well, it seems she becomes a person capable of using the Sedos Throne and uses that power to free the human slaves and set up their own civilization. Events occur that begin to change this world during Anne Dare’s time. Kings’s are murdered, some people become immune to death, religious leaders practice evil magic, war is started and ancient myths come to life. I don’t like spoilers so I won’t give too much information. I will just go over some good and bad points.

 

Many may know Keyes from his work on Star Wars novels. The Kingdoms of Throne and Bone reads very much like those novels. They are fast paced, for Keyes is an action author. He does not spend a lot of time with inner monologues or examining the characters emotions. He does well with fight scenes, especially when it comes to Neil, Cazio, and Aspar. While this keeps the story running smoothly, there is little to no character growth, as far as internalizing the events. You really don’t come to care about these people, you might like them, and cheer for some of them, but never really become emotionally invested in any of them. The pace that Keyes sets is much like an action film, and like an action film, there tends to be some holes in the fabric of the story. That whole thing about the Roanoke colony coming to this world, Keyes never really says that, nor explains it. There is a kingdom in the book called Virgenya, and the people call themselves Virgenyans, but they play little part in the story. Keyes doesn’t explore a lot of his own world. The Briar King is a mythically being in the book and while he gets a fairly detailed write up many of the myths and even the Sedos Throne are never really explained.

 

All this aside, the books are fun. The characters are likable and the action is exciting. You may not get to really know the characters but watching them play out their destiny is entertaining. The love interests are pretty tame, but filled with nice sentiment. Keyes does not handle romance well. The villains are fairly interesting as well, as some can’t die, some are demons, some mad men. However, Keyes does paint a world with shades of grey, there is not black and white, good and evil, which is always appreciated. For all the shades this world possesses this is not a complex place. This is a straight forward, fast, fun read. That is why I called it solid, but now that I think about it, perhaps Action Fantasy would be better. If you are interested in some fantasy novels that don’t tax you, an easy read, to fill in between two more serious novels, try The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone.

When I Was Young I Had a Tiger

Back in the 80’s, when I was a kid, I loved the Sunday comics. They were funnier then. I liked Garfield, he was funnier then too, and I liked Peanuts. I have always been partial to Linus. I got most of the jokes to, even Doonesbury, which surprised many. What I liked most though was Calvin and Hobbes. I got Calvin, because I was Calvin. I was one of those kids who asked troubling questions to adults. Who made up morbid fantasies in play around in during the afternoon, instead of homework. My best friends were stuffed animals that developed individual personalities that I could describe to anyone willing to listen. But most of all, I was that kid who sat in class and day dreamed. Like Calvin, I would go off into another world and become someone else,

like Spaceman Spiff. I would only become aware of my wandering mind when the teacher yelled at me, or the other kids laughed at me. For my imagination spilled out over the rim of my mind and on to my desk, on to blank pieces of paper that formed pictures. It spilled in to the movements my hands made trying to manifest the action in my head and in to the sound effects I made to accompany my story. This is why I was amazed when I read the comic of Calvin dreaming again, only to have his teacher interrupt him to ask him what state he lived in. His answer; denial. How I laughed and cried, because I got it. 

 

As big as a fan as I was, I was unaware that Bill Watterson was putting together collections of all his work. The first one was published in 1988 and was titled The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury. A classmate, Richard, brought it to school one day. I was so surprised to learn of it’s existence. Richard and I poured over the book as much as we could during class that day. We weren’t the best of friends but we got along. Everyone liked Richard. He was a handsome young man with thick black hair and a dusty complexion. He said he was a fan, but not huge, and this book was a gift he didn’t ask for, but no less enjoyed. He let me borrow it during reading time, except Mrs. Bergman, our fifth grade teacher, didn’t think it was appropriate reading material. We kept finding time to read it during the class anyway, until she took it away. Richard didn’t seem that upset, he knew he would get it back. I was devastated. There were comics in that collection I hadn’t read yet. 

 

I went home that day determined to get my own copy. I was not a child with a lot of money, and I was sure that I would be forced to ask for it as a birthday gift, which was months away, or a Christmas gift. That would also mean that I might not get it, maybe it would be too expensive. My mother would let me have it, but my father would think I am too young for it. How to get this collection of Calvin and Hobbes stayed on my mind the rest of the day. 

 

The next day at school went by as many others did. So, when it was time to leave I was moving slowly, getting my things together so that the other kids would leave before me. I was walking down the street to my Grandmother’s house, and I didn’t want anyone hanging around to pick on me, or find out where her house was, they might try to come by there and mess with me. I succeeded in being the last kid, and as I was walking out I saw on Mrs. Bergman’s desk Richard’s book. I quickly looked around. I was the only one there. The late autumn afternoon light was sneaking around the building into the classrooms’ eastern facing windows and flickering shadows from the trees outside were dancing cross the the cover of The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury. 

 

I wouldn’t be alone for long. The teachers would come back after seeing the kids out of the front doors. Mrs. Bergman would ask what I was doing here and wouldn’t just let me go with a simple answer. I had only seconds to decide if I was going to become a thief. Hell, who was I kidding, I had already stolen plenty by age 11. I took the book and slipped into my back pack. I zipped it up and walked out as if nothing happened. I walked to my grandmother’s house with excitement carrying my feet. I had the book! I could read them all now, all of the brilliant comics by Bill Watterson featuring this misfit kid I identified with. This kid and his tiger were like my own voice, saying things I had thought, but also telling me about things I hadn’t thought yet. Now, I could have them with me everyday. 

 

As the years went by I was able to acquire the other collections by ethical means, the Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes was given to me by my Grandfather as a Christmas gift. Not only did I identify with Calvin and Hobbes but others felt I did as well. My friend and mentor David Duncan took to calling me Hobbes. He was surprised to learn that I was a fan and had the collections, but thought it fitting I would. To this day he never calls me by my name, I am Hobbes to him. This comic captured for me my despair with how the world of people was, and my wonder at how much different we could be, as well as my cynical and morbid sense of humor. Calvin was a dreamer, like me. Hobbes was the voice that told me to enjoy what was beautiful about the world, for beneath all that despair, was something beautiful. Perhaps it was nothing more than a sunset, but that was enough. 

 

The other week on NPR I listened to story about a director, Joel Allen Schroeder, who has made a documentary about the boy and his tiger. It is called Dear, Mr. Watterson and is out in theaters and on demand right now. The film will look into the reoccurring themes through out the run of the strip. Show how the high minded philosophical references that Mr. Watterson weaved through his characters became something obtainable and understandable. It will also focus in Watterson himself, who refused to license his creation. We never saw Calvin and Hobbes toys, or animated movies, or coffee mugs. Watterson was an artist who wanted to speak to us and didn’t want commercialism to get in the way of that message. In the interview with NPR, Schroeder ( does anyone else find it amusing that a man with the name of a famous Peanuts character is a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes? ) said he thinks that this is why Calvin and Hobbes has remained so loved by their fans. They have not been cheapen by a companies desire to sell you useless crap.

 

I will look forward to seeing Dear. Mr. Watterson, but until then I will revisit my friends Calvin and Hobbes in their books that I have on my shelf. I will start with the first collection, The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury. Yes, it is the same one I stole off of Mrs. Bergman’s desk. Thank you Mr. Watterson for never selling your gift off, but giving it to us freely, as gifts are meant to given. Also, sorry Richard, and thanks, you have no idea how happy having this book has made me.

 

 

 

Use this link to listen to NPR’s interview with Joel Allen Schroeder.

A Species Divided Will Not Stand

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide - Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn

“Decades from now, people will look back and wonder how societies could have acquiesced in a sex slave trade in the twenty-first century that is... bigger than the transatlantic slave trade was in the nineteenth. They will be perplexed that we shrugged as a lack of investment in maternal health caused half a million women to perish in childbirth each year.” 

Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

 

 

A few years back when I was still in college I had to drive twenty-five miles to get there. I would listen to music of course but many times I would listen to NPR. One report I heard while driving across the winterized Kansas landscape was the number of women and children who are trafficked in the United States. One of the highest times of abuse for these first world slaves was during the Super Bowl. Women and children raped during America’s largest sporting event. I was not unaware of the nature of human trafficking, but it had been awhile since I had heard real numbers defining the scope of the abuse. Such things have always sickened and saddened me. It was made worse, for now I have daughters and my terrifying imagination could put them in such hellish situations. 

 

Ever since I was young I considered by myself a feminist. Of course, I didn’t always know that word and it’s definition to me changed over time. However, I always knew that I preferred the companionship, guidance, and influence of women over men. I also knew that women got the short end of the stick. The world was unequal in it’s treatment of gender, that was as clear as day to me, even as a child. So, it was natural that as I studied history I tried to look for the women, and their contribution, or at the very least moments when men understood the importance of women. Sometimes I found it and when I did I saw a very different world. 

 

Mao Zedong was famous for saying ‘Women hold up half the sky.” Women in the Chinese Communist Party were equal to the men, in all ways. It was one of the reasons that they were successful in driving out the Japanese as well as the Nationalist from mainland China. Whenever women were equal, economically and socially, allowed to participate in government, societies flourished. By flourished I mean became peaceful, and wealthy, and efficient. That is why in today’s world so many people are learning to champion women’s equality, because they will have better societies with greater rewards for their citizens. Unfortunately, because it is the right thing to do doesn’t always factor in. I say women’s equality because they are being denied their human rights, so I won’t call it women’s rights. Two journalists, Sheryl WuDunn and her husband Nicholas D. Kristof wrote a book to educate the first world on the problems surrounding women’s equality around the world. Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide was educational and uplifting. 

 

This journalistic couple has worked together before, with titles like; China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power and Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia. Both of these works I have read and enjoyed, I still own those books as well, so it wasn’t a tough decision to pick this book up. I was also intrigued by the vision of the book. I didn’t really want to read another book detailing the horrors of human trafficking and the abuse of women and children. I know how bad it is, I want to know what can be done to stop it. Fortunately, despair was not what this book promised it’s reader. It suggested that there was hopeful things to learn about, and learn I did.

The chapters of the book focus on specific problems in different areas of the world. Each chapter uses one or two women to tell the reader about the problems, how bad it can get and the troubles with trying to find a solution. There is a second part of the chapter that details a successful way that the issues are being handled. For example, the authors wrote about obstetric fistulas, which occur most commonly in countries where women give birth without medical help. Mid-wives might be used, but these mid-wives have no medical training. The fistula is a tearing of tissue that separates organs like the bladder and rectum. Therefore the unfortunate victim leaks urine and feces out of her vagina. Most families have no money to help the women afflicted, or chose not to, because, after all they are women. 

 

Wudunn and Kristof take this horror story a step further and introduce to the reader to a woman like Edan Adan, who got an education and found the means to open a hospital in her native Somali to help deal with the fistula problem. This is where the hope shines in on the dark subjects the authors tackle. They show how one program is working and how it might work else where. However, it is not just the program that the authors are praising or wanting to point out, though they do provide the reader with a complete listing of trust worthy and competent organizations working for woman. They want to shed light on the women behind these programs. For the main thrust of this book is to show what educated, free women do with their skills. Also, these aren’t just any women, these are local women. Local women being able to raise themselves up are having more of an impact in changing their cultures and societies for the better, than foreigners who come and go. 

 

The book has also gone further than just a something people should read. It has become a movement. The Half The Sky Movement has become a hub to connect people across the world to support a variety of issues all concerning Women’s Emancipation. There is now a film, a game to help teach children, celebrities have donated their time, money and image to promote the movement. The movement covers everything from ending human trafficking, to getting vaccinations, to keeping girls in school. Whatever helps women become fully equal and free to choose their own path. 

 

What Wudunn and Kristof want us to take away from this book, is that helping local women develop themselves, is the key to changing the inequality the world over. The empowerment of women is what will save so many from death, hunger, disease. The authors use the numbers to back their case, but also the voices of those who were victimized and those who overcame. I would recommend this book to anyone who needs to see hope in this very dark modern world of ours. I would also recommend this book to anyone who needs to understand that denying half of ourselves is damaging for the whole planet. I believe that the next step in human evolution is in gender equality. Lincoln said of the United States a house divided cannot stand, can that not be applied to us as a species? I believe it is time for women to finally became equal partners in the fate of the human race, for as Wudunn and Kristof argue, that fate will be a brighter and better one. 

 

 

Ishmael He is Not

The Story of B: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit - Daniel Quinn

When I read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael I was given a clear view of the importance of human beings reconnecting with the idea that they are apart of nature and need to find a balance with the world rather than trying to dominate it. It was a well written book with a easy to grasp message. One I happen to agree with. Because of my enjoyment in reading Ishmael I decided to read more of Quinn’s work. I went next to The Story of B: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. What I found in this book was along the same lines, but less clear and at times slightly ridiculous. 

 

This adventure of mind and spirit follows the main character Father Jared Osborne into Germany where he is assigned the task of meeting a man who might be the anti-Christ, B. Jared belongs to a group of Catholics known as the Laurentians and his superior is very concerned with finding the anti-Christ. Jared’s order believes that this public speaker, B, who is spreading his message in German pubs and basements is that anti-Christ. Jared is sent to determine if that is true. He meets B and through many conversations comes to see B’s point as well as why he might be viewed as an anti-Christ of sorts. I won’t give away what happens, I don’t like spoiling books, but Jared does go through quite a bit of a shift in his world view. 

 

I had problems with this work that I didn’t have with Ishmael. The Story of B is written in diary form, like Ishmael was, from the perspective of Jared. However, while Ishmael was a series of interesting conversations, this books ends up somewhat like lecture notes, with ridiculous plot twists in between entires. Jared writes about meeting with B and some of the conversations that they have, but he also talks about attending B’s lectures. Quinn does not have Jared write them down in the chapters though, they are to be found in the back of the book within a section called The Teachings of B. This means that the reader has to choose between interrupting the story to flip to the back of the book and read B’s lecture, or wait until the end of the book and read them together. This is a bad idea, as B maps out his point of view for Jared throughout the story, so reading the back section is redundant. 

 

The ridiculous plot twists I mention do not add to the story. Without giving too much away I can say that people want B dead over what he is saying in the basements of rundown German businesses and they make attempts to achieve that goal. When the reader begins to understand what B’s messages is, which is a little ridiculous itself, it is hard to believe someone would kill over this. B does accuse all of the world’s major religious as being moral corrupt. He says that they have all had a hand in helping to keep people in the dark about their true natural freedoms. This is what makes him the anti-Christ for Jared’s superior. The religious have killed over less, but it still seems a far stretch in this story. 

 

B’s messages, rather Quinn’s message, is not that understandable. Much of what he writes about is the Great Forgetting, which is explained as humans forgetting that they were once hunter-gathers. Ishmael is mentioned in the story as well, it seems B was his student. Take this into account and the message B is communicating is the same as Ishmael was, live in better balance with the planet, or die. However, Quinn talks about the agricultural revolution as being a mistake, as the moment when the Great Forgetting occurred and that led us into becoming a Taker society. Taker meaning, exploiter of the planet. Quinn writes, through B, about the virtues of hunter-gather society, but doesn’t explain clearly what he means for the reader to do with this information. For example, Quinn spends a great deal talking about how humans used to be able to read the land, seeing tracks in the dirt and understanding what had happened there. This can be interpreted as ancient humans having a deeper connection to nature than we do now, but it could also mean Quinn wants us to hunt. The glorifying of hunter-gather culture over agrarian society doesn’t communicate very well how modern people are supposed to live. We can’t go back to picking berries and running down wild pigs. 

 

I found it very hard to lose myself in this book. While Ishmael went by page after fast page, B dragged. Jared was not a very entertaining character and the people he interacted with seemed like new age spiritualists who took their nature worship too seriously.  One of the other characters, the second B if you will, is Shirin, a very angry woman who doesn’t like Jared. While some of her life is revealed and therefore her anger makes more sense, she still comes off as an angry Shirley Maclane, who pistol whips defilers of nature with her crystals of wisdom. Quinn’s message is lost in the mud of his characters personalities and the unbelievability of B’s threat to society. I am not sure if Quinn wants me to spend more time outside, sitting in a park, or more time outside hunting and gathering my dinner. Or just more time sitting in dark, filthy basements of German bars. While I still recommend Ishmael, I suggest skipping The Story of B, it is an adventure in futility. 

Diversity in Speculative Fiction: Is Required without Social Politics

Ever since my mother read The Hobbit to me as a bedtime story I thought about writing my own fantasy novel. As the years went by I increased my scope of reading to include science-fiction as well and quickly became a full on geek. I would try little stories here and there but was always disappointed in them. I felt I needed more experience and I needed to read more, to learn from published authors. As the years and books went by I noticed something, there were many recurring aspects in each genre. They all centered around western, anglo-saxon, heterosexual culture, and I craved more diversity. The books I loved the most were the ones that showcased an author’s imagination. That imagination had to break away from the norm and give me something I had not seen. I got bored with elves and dwarfs and farm boy heros. I also studied history, and not just western history, and began wondering, if history was such a driving force in writing speculative fiction, why was only western history utilized?

Diversity is something I have always wanted out of the world. Why eat the same things, why listen to the same thing, read the same things, watch the same things. There are so many perspectives to enjoy and that strengthens whatever subject matter you are enjoying. Which is why I was happy to read some articles recently on bringing more diversity into the Geekworld. People are saying we need authors from all walks of life and our stories must also reflect the different levels of society, that genres of science fiction and fantasy should be used, as I believe they were intended, to further social dialogue and open others minds to different views of our world. Also, this should be across the broad, novels, video games, comic books, movies, everything. I could not agree more, but I have concerns when people use social politics to define art, rather than allowing art to define social politics.

An example I shall use is music. I have always loved music and all different kinds. When I was young I got into rap, well that is what it was called in the ’80’s. Back then there were many artists and each had their own distinct style and content. There was politically motivated rap, like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. There were artists who used humor, like Slick Rick and Too Short. There was female rappers, like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah,and rappers who weren’t black, like 3rd Base and The Beastie Boys. Rap was crossing over into other genres of music when groups like Run D.M.C and Areosmith played together, or when Boo-Yaa Tribe mixed in metal with their music. Gangster Rap was one of many and there was so much to be enjoyed. Then the industry changed and only Gangster Rap was recorded and only intimidating black men could be Gangster Rappers. Rappers who didn’t fit this profile weren’t signed and many careers died while others never got started. Somewhere along the way, because of the industry or perhaps the because of public opinion, limitations based on race and gender were placed on the young art form of Hip-hop. It was during these dark times that the genre lacked diversity and I got bored with it and walked away.

Years went by before anything else got radio play, but then artists like Eminem, Common and others who didn’t play Gangster Rap and didn’t talk about the same things the Gangsters did, started came around. Now with the internet there are many acts out there making music, and I once again enjoy Hip-hop. I listen to artists from around the world, Thailand, Japan, England, Germany, as well as great artists from America. I especially like many from the Seattle area, like Macklemore, who is ok, and one of my all time favorites, Blue Scholars. Who, on a side note, are the perfect blend of intelligent, emotional, socio-political lyrics supported by solid, smooth flowing jazzy beats. Diversity is returning to rap, but some might not see that. 

I bring up Macklemore for a reason, as he was the source of a few comments and articles concerning themselves with his success at VMAs. It was being said that very few, if any black artists were being awarded any moon men in categories that have been traditional dominated by black artists for decades now. Instead, white people, performing ‘black’ music were winning those awards, like Macklemore. What was being hinted at was conspiratorial racism by the music industry which still favors white people. While I am one of the first people to say that America still has a horrible race problem and I believe it is becoming worse everyday, I found such beliefs to be somewhat racist themselves. 

Based on the logic being used here any ethic group engaging in an art form that their ethnic group is not the progenitor of can never be recognized as having skill or mastery over said art form. So, only black people can be awarded for being musicians of blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, hip-hop and can never be awarded for their work in symphonic or operatic pieces. Therefore, talents like Kathleen Battle and Jesse Norman would never be recognized as two of the worlds greatest operatic voices. A similar argument was made when Living Colour was winning awards for their album, Vivid, in 1989. People were saying that an all black rock band couldn’t be as good as an all white group. I begged to differ, for that album was awesome and I have been a fan of them ever since that release. Stupid, thoughtless logic if you ask me. I believe, however, that this is the result of calling for diversity and then trying to define who is allowed and who isn’t to engage in the creation of that diversity.

So, why am I talking about rap when I started talking about speculative fiction? Because, the Geekworld, just like Hip-hop, requires diversity. In fact, diversity is why such a world was born in the first place and for it to continue to thrive and create art for generations to enjoy, it needs diversity. So, it can’t be solely based out of a euro-centric ethnic view. It can’t be male dominated, and it can’t represent only one aspect of romantic relationships. It can’t be sexist, so no chain-mail bras and maidens in distress. It can’t be homophobic, Orson Scott Card, you have ruined your legacy. It can’t be racist, so if the main character isn’t a white farm boy, who is foretold to harness great power despite being a complete talentless twit, you should read it. That all being said, there are pitfalls I believe the Geekworld might fall into, due the simplicity and infantile nature of internet social portals such as the Twitterverse and fan websites which will have a hand in controlling the diversity dialogue. 

What I am worried about is that the same thinking which would deny someone an award based off their lack of connection to the progenitor group of the art form they excel in would creep into the Geekworld. People would say that someone like me, a white, heterosexual male, would know nothing about the experiences of a fictional black skinned, lesbian in a fantasy world that I created, simply because I can not fully empathize with the experience of African-American women. On a brief side note, I wish to state that regardless of how well I might intellectually understand the experiences of others, not having lived in their shoes I am limited in how much I can speak on the issues effecting their lives. Having said that, when creating pure fiction which has little connection to our real world, out of my own mind, I am the only one who can speak on it. Plus, I am a human being, as is everyone who would read my work. Meaning, that if a person has an ample understanding of the human condition and talent with a language and storytelling skills, why can’t they tell any story they wish? I also fear that race will drive too much of the issue. I believe that a great deal of diversity in science fiction and fantasy has more to do with ignorance and a lack of education. Consider American authors raised in a crumbling and endangered educational system and under the influence of a money driven entertainment industry that always produces the least common dominator for our undiscerning enjoyment. These authors would know little to nothing of the world outside of America and perhaps Europe. I will use the author David Wingrove as an example. 

Wingrove wrote a science fiction series called Chung Kuo, which suggests that the future will be ruled by a super powerful Chinese government which brings the old style imperial rule of ancient Chinese monarchies back to life. When it first came out people laughed at it, said it was too unbelievable and criticized how he portrayed aspects of Chinese culture. Now, his entire series, which was not fully published twenty years ago is finally being published. Why? Well, it is easier for people to see a China that is becoming more powerful and influential throughout the world. Also, more people have been exposed to aspects of Chinese culture and realize that Wingrove was not that far off about somethings in his fictional future. Now, if the social politics that were applied to the VMAs were to play apart in Wingrove’s artistic endeavor we would question if a white man has the right to write about Chinese people who live in a fictional future. Would this white, British, heterosexual man have the intellectual and emotional understanding to accurately portray Asian people in the future? This sounds silly. How different are people from other people? If Wingrove wrote a historical novel or a contemporary one there would be room to question it, as in the case of Memoirs of a Geisha author Arthur Golden. Golden had to prove somewhat that he knew what he was talking about and reveal his source for the story was a real Japanese woman. It makes sense to question Golden, but Wingrove, or anyone writing something like Wingrove? 

I believe at this time, we, who consider ourselves members of the Geekworld, are not in terrible danger of being so closed minded and taking up any extremes. So, I believe as more authors of varying backgrounds add their voices there will be little resistance to them. I should clarify that I speak about the big picture, the long term, over all conclusion of efforts to introduce diversity. Of course some will hedge and haw, but they will be silenced. For, I believe that we are hungry for such diversity and have grown tired of the same tales being told. I also believe that we aren’t that comfortable with letting the mass market entertainment industry telling us what we want. Which is why we take to the internet and condemn the sexism behind steel bikinis, or Star Fleet officer Dr. Carol Marcus being made to run around in her underwear on the Enterprise. So, this blog I am writing is just a warning, to make sure we judge artists by the quality of the work and the expanse of their imagination, and their empathy with the human condition, not their ethnic background. For we cannot keep telling each other that there is little to no differences between human beings and then draw lines saying one person can never understand another. I have always found refuge within the world of speculative fiction, within the Geekworld and I want everyone to find that same refuge. A refuge that embraces our diversity and shows us we are more alike in our humanity then in our superficial pigmentation.

I Never Played D&D

I have been a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory for awhile now and recently was working my way through the sixth season in preparation for the start of season seven. While engaging in the marathon of my favorite American sit-com I would be joined here and there by my family. My wife and daughters would occasional sit it on a few episodes with me. When we were watching The Bakersfield Expedition, where the friends dress up as Star Trek characters for the Bakersfield comic-con, my oldest daughter asked me what Howard was dressed as. I told her a Borg, and she asked what was that. I told her if she watched Star Trek with me she would know. I promptly asked her if she would like to watch Star Trek with me, to which she responded with a derisive snort and a short ‘no’ before leaving the room. Another episode from season six reminded me of a different part of my childhood. The Santa Simulation, which was the one were the guys play Dungeons and Dragons on a December, Saturday night and mix in a little holiday cheer with their orcs and magic. It reminded me of when I really wanted to play a tabletop RPG. 

I think I was somewhere around the age of ten when I was stealing coins out of my fathers two galleon glass coin jar to buy books. My parents didn’t have an allowance and I read too fast for anyone to want to buy me books. There were two series I was stealing money for at the time; one was the newly published Dragonlance Chornicles by Margret Wise and Tracy Hickman and the other was Lone Wolf by Joe Denver. Dragonlance expanded into tabletop games based on the world Wise and Hickman created in 1989 with the release of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons box set Time of the Dragon. Some of my misbegotten funds went to purchase this. I knew it was a game, something like a board game and that I needed other people to play. I didn’t have other people to play, but that did not discourage me. I tried to play it anyway. Of course I failed and soon gave up, just looking at the pictures and being inspired by someone else’s creativity. I kept it for years, in fact, I might still have it in a box somewhere. I was always hoping I would meet someone that I could play it with. I was glad I had the Lone Wolf books, for they were kinda like tabletop games, but they could be played by one person. They were like a cross between D&D and Choose Your Own Adventure books. How cool they were I will save for another time.

The Santa Simulation episode set my every ready, ADHD, squirrel brain running down two paths of my memories. One focused on all the times I found something I thought was the neatest thing and couldn’t share it with anyone. The other was all the fictional groups of companions I wished I could’ve joined. The two seemed to sync into one thought very quickly, though. For example, I remember a friend I only had during the summers, for that was when he visited his father. He normally lived in Phoenix, Arizona. It was him that introduced me to Magic: The Gathering. He told me about this really fun card game, and how I should get a deck so I could play with him. His parents made more money than my mother, so I could not begin purchasing this collectable card game. So, he made me a deck out of his excessive amount of cards. He tried to teach me to play, but always beat me. He let me keep the deck so I could build upon it and practice with other players. The problem was that there were no other players. I knew nobody at this time in my life I could ask to play. Also, Magic: The Gathering was still too new for mid-westerners to know about. I carried the deck with me for awhile hoping to encounter another player and make a friend but never found anyone. So, what was the point in building the deck up. I gave up on Magic. 

That same friend also got me into Final Fantasy when he had me play what was the second release in America, but the fourth release in Japan? I loved it! I had played the first one on the NES, but had no idea that they kept making them. I wanted to tell everyone about it, no one cared, and I got made fun of for it. Later when Playstation released Final Fantasy VII I was the only one I knew geeking out about it. I caught some flak for that as well. I kept finding cool things that no one else cared about. Of course now it’s a different story. It’s cool to be geeky.

The other train of thought had me thinking about the friends in Big Bang Theory and other groups of comrades I admired. Like, The Goonies, or the boys from Stand By Me, any close net group of differing people who formed bonds. I knew I was watching/reading fiction when I was younger, but I still knew these kinds of friends existed. People that stayed friends for years and tried to get together at least one weekend every month, even when they were married with kids. Send each other Christmas cards, or go to each others parties. I wanted that so bad. Just a handful of people I could call close friends. I thought I had it a couple of times, but that was in my adolescence, before any of us really grew up. Being naturally interested in multiple topics in life I could condition my conversations with people to fit in with the group, and while I always gained a certain amount respect, was never fully accepted. I would always be an after thought or a hanger-on. I eventually gave up and just did my own thing in my own way not really caring what people did around me. I would love what I loved, because I thought it was cool and I finally realized I didn’t need other people to agree with me. Though it would have been fun to have a D&D group.

After my daughter left the room my wife asked me, “Why do you want her to watch Star Trek with you? So boring.” My wife hates it all and doesn’t understand why I waste my time reading ‘those’ books and watching ‘those’ shows, or playing ‘those’ games. I thought that the reasons why I wanted to share with my two daughters my love of science fiction and fantasy was because I found it enlightening and fun. I found it opened my mind and got me thinking outside the box. Well, yes that is all part of it, but, the reality is I felt this might be my last chance to share with someone else a love for things creative and geeky. That perhaps my daughters could be my group of friends. However, it’s unfair for me to put that on them. I would not want to be one of those over domineering parents always shoving at them everything I think is good and never letting them explore their world and decide for themselves. I have enjoyed all these things alone for years and while I am happy to share it all with them if they gain an interest, I will not force anything on them. I didn’t say all this to my wife though. I answered my wife with a smile, and said “Because, it’s cool.”

 

 

Fantasy Noir

I like dark fantasy and I can not lie. You other readers out there might deny the lure of a good dark fantasy but for many the dark fantasy is closer to reality. I know, that seems like an oxymoron. The downside of my love of dark fantasy is that I end up reading some pretty terrible novels, just because they are ‘darker’. A recent experience with another trilogy left me somewhat unwilling to try to read Alexey Pehov’s Shadow Prowler, but I got over that. I was too interested to see what a dark fantasy told in first person would be like. It is not often any fantasy is told in first person, let alone one that is dark. Also, I was curious to see what the Russian idea of a dark fantasy was. Alexey Pehov, if it isn’t obvious, is Russian. He books have done very well and have been translated into english now. I have had pretty good experiences reading European fantasy, like Markus Heitz, for example. As far as Shadow Prowler is concerned, well, I wasn’t astounded, but I had fun.

I would describe this novel as fantasy noir, like some forties crime noir novel, the likes of Captain Picard would get into. Or, a Mickey Spillane novel. The story is told through Master Thief Harold, I know, pretty lame name for a master thief. I feel that is part of the charm though. Harold lives in the ever gloomy, twisted city, Avendoom. Yes, doom is in the name, and it is not surprising considering a whole quarter of the city is cursed with ghosts and closed off to the living. Avendoom is like a medieval D.C., with just as much corruption and secrets, but without shutdowns. Not to mention a slight infestation of demons that seem to be growing in number, thanks to the return of the Nameless One, who of course is a prophesied evil. There are also goat people who very aren’t bright, but very strong and are very displeased with Harold. Avendoom is dangerous for anyone, but for Harold it is even more so, but he calls it home.

What is Harold’s place in all this? Well, he seems to be a part of the prophecy as well. No surprise there, right? After being tricked into a job that is really a setup, Harold is forced by the King to accept a job that will have him stealing a magical artifact for the salvation of Avendoom, or punishment for said job. Of course, the location of the artifact is hard to get to and is old and spooky, and is filled with deadly things that just keep getting deadlier as one goes further in. So, of course, Harold takes the job and off the adventure gets going, well, sort of. Shadow Prowler is the first book of the trilogy, Chronicles of Siala, and therefore is not a stand alone novel. Pehov also paces he story somewhat awkwardly. So, Harold’s big adventure is no where near being concluded at the end of the novel. In truth, he barely seems to get anywhere. 

While the novel moves fairly fast it does so through disjointed starts and stops. Harold is informed early on what is happening, I am trying to not give anything away here, but spends some time performing other tasks other than leave the city to find this magical artifact. While all the actions taken are in preparation for this, it does seem a little bogged down. In the end I thought this was a good thing, because the charm of this book is Harold, and the cast of characters he gets to deal with. Harold has a master, who is something of a religious man and a drinker, because of course thievery, religion and alcohol have a special relationship. There is the group of hard men Harold gets put in with by the King’s orders to help him make it to the artifact. They are all blase about killing and all very efficient at it and all with a sense of humor concerning their trade. Not to mention a couple elf like people who include a cold woman that Harold seems to have a thing for. Of course, I cannot forget to mention Goblin, the comic relief. Goblin is a jester that wraps wit and wisdom up with silly pranks and general buffoonery. He insists on following Harold on his perilous journey and not being of much help. His favorite thing to do is annoy those around him, most of all Harold, but often some help is hiding within his actions.

As I said before, I was not impressed, but I had a lot of fun. Pehov, perhaps because of writing in first person, captures a similar feeling to other dark fantasy authors, while not copying them outright. This novel ‘felt’ like older R.A. Salvatore novels, or Glenn Cook’s The Black Company. Pehov is frequently compared to Michael Moorcock, who wrote the Elric books. I wouldn’t go that far, however, Moorcock was pretty surreal, and Pehov’s writing is very grounded in a dirty, dangerous world. While the pace of the novel is offbeat, it still moves well, with plenty of breaks in the tension, thanks to characters like Goblin. While not trying to give anything away, there is one very well written battle scene that a surrealist like Moorcock couldn’t have pulled off. That is why I think the comparison of Pehov to Cook is more reasonable. 

This novel is not for everyone. If you are not a fan of dark fantasy, pass this up. If you are a fan of dark fantasy, please read it, but remember not to get your expectations up to high. While is might have an over abundance of cliches, this is a pretty fun novel read. It is an easy read, something to burn through quickly without much thought and just enjoy. It is the equivalent of a popcorn crunching summer movie, not too much depth, but enough to entertain. It is a solid novel that is not that original in conception, but innovative in it’s delivery. I had enough fun that I will be reading the second novel, Shadow Chaser, and watching Mr. Pehov’s career develop. 

When Standing Alone Matters

I have lived my life always being an outsider. I don’t mean that I am hated, or unaccepted by people, but never quite fitting in with a particular group of people. With each camp of persons I have always agreed enough to be tolerated but never enough to be allowed in as a member. Whether it was politics or religion, fashion and trends, or musical tastes, never had I had a place. I have found over the years individuals in history much like me, never fitting in with societies they were apart of, but they are always claimed by someone after their deaths. Until I came across this account of the work of George Orwell written by Christopher Hitchens I assumed I would never witnessed an unclaimed historical figure. Long have I been a fan of the formidable Hitchens as well as Orwell, and long has Hitch made reference to Orwell, that I felt I must read the book he wrote about the famous 1984 author. What was it that Hitchens loved so about him? 

 

I was pleased that to find that this book was not a biography. I have never really had much of a stomach for biographies. They are long winded and pointless and mostly just there to praise or condemn the subject. I have much preferred the historical approach of looking at events and the players involved in them and making an argument of some kind, about why, how, or the impact of said events. Why Orwell Matters is not a history book, it does not deal with one event, or turning point in history. It deals with Orwell’s works, and not just 1984 and Animal Farm, but his lesser known works of fiction and non-fiction, even his letters and the impact that they have had.

Hitchens breaks down his study of Orwell into very clear parts which center around the conflicts in his life and writing. Such as, Orwell’s issues with the British Empire, his disagreements with the political right as well as the political left, his problems with being english and his touch and go relations with the United States. In all of these chapters Orwell seems to be at odds with each group of people, earning a certain amount of respect, but also a fair amount of hatred as well. The conservatives found him to be too far left. Orwell had after all entered into the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Marxists. He criticizes much of English culture through his stories of totalitarian dystopias which angered those on the right, but funnily enough angered those on the left as well. He earned the liberals ire because he criticized communists, mostly Stalinists and the same anti-fascist themes in his work could also be considered anti-Stalinist as well, which is how many took it . One must remember this was mostly before WWII, Stalin was still viewed by many outside the Soviet Union as a hero of sorts. During the war years few criticized Stalin.  

 

The picture that Hitchens paints for us of Orwell is a man who stood by his convictions, but was stilled flawed myself and may have understood that. Hitchens does not let Orwell off the hook for his homophobia or his anti-feminist leanings. However, Hitchens does point out that much of the thinking we possess today about the Cold War years and authoritative governments comes from this one author. In fact, Cold War was a term Orwell coined when he predicted what kind of world was going to come about when WWII ended. Orwell claimed that the threat of fascism or totalitarian regimes was not going to go away just because the allies won the war. In fact, he claimed that they would be more of a threat than ever. 1984 was published in 1949, four years after the war ended. Orwell was not writing a fiction based on the events that the world had just experienced, but trying to foreshadow what he believed was yet to come. 

 

What I took away from Hitchens on Orwell was that the author was not given enough credit for being an individual who refused to agree with a single group and play along in the parades of tragedy of the Second World War. He is not given enough credit for being the author that warned us that WWII was a failure of multiple governments. A failure that was only the first in a long line of reasons states would have to demand their citizens do what they are ordered to do, for their own protection, or course. We have now, movies, novels, video games that carry on this tradition of warning against dystopian futures. The fact that so many of us simply won’t trust our governments and question what they do is because of people like Orwell. 

 

Orwell was after the truth, and tried to be as objective as he could. Because of these traits he would call out liars when he saw them, he would never follow a group that said they had the answer. If there was a problem to point out it should be pointed out, so Orwell believed. This is why he made so many enemies on both sides of the political spectrum. This is why even today no one has claimed him as their own and many still drag his name through the mud, or he is played out in others view as a tragic figure. Hitchens shows us through Orwell’s life and works that there is nothing tragic about standing alone. While unclaimed by the masses, such individuals will always be claimed be those that do the same.

There is a Reason

Ever since I was young I was curious about what made people do what they did. I wanted to know why people thought the way they thought, believed what they believed. Not just because I frequently found myself at odds with these thoughts and beliefs but they would always devote so much time and energy to these things, sometimes unknowingly. Sometimes we perform tasks a certain way that makes it more work for us, but since we believe it is the best way to perform said task, we carry on. Somewhere in our brains lies the answer, or so I have always believed.

I suspected that there was always more than personal choice, or freewill at work here, as I accused so many around me of ‘unthinking’ behavior. At my current job for example, I notice that the store will be filled with people, but no one will be at the registers checking out. After a few moments people come up, but all them. Why did everyone choose to stop shopping at that moment? Did they really choose to stop, or did something influence them? The behavior of others perhaps? Also, they will take a product from the same place. There could be five rows of this product, yet everyone will take from the same row. Now, while I am speaking of very small matters I can tie these into larger matters, such as the political or religious beliefs of people and ask the same questions. Which is why Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain: From Ghost and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Our Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths was of interest to me.

 

Michael Shermer is an adjunct professor of psychology and founding publisher of  Skeptic magazine. He is well known to those that debate religion and is sometimes connected to other figures such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Mr. Shermer is very much interested in truth, and most of his writing, lecturing and debating is geared towards that. From my own experience in watching or reading him I would say that his main cause is championing the scientific method in a much boarder application in society. He believes that all human behavior is understandable through deeper research in to the physical brian, more than the ethereal mind.

 

There is a growing understanding among scientists that suggests our physical being, biochemicals and neurology, play a much bigger part in who we are and what we believe, then previously thought. That doesn’t mean that there is a gene that makes you a Christian or an Atheist, just biological parameters that make it more likely you will become either. Once this is coupled with human evolution, which experts say show us the benefits for early man to have religion and an inherit political organization, plus a persons own life time experiences you can then understand why someone ‘chooses’ to believe or not to. Or to hold to one political view over another. There is simply more hardwiring involved in our choices than we are aware of.

 

In The Believing Brain, Shermer addresses this while adding his own research to explain it. He maintains throughout the book that for many of our beliefs, we believe first and then find facts to support it. It hardly goes the other way around. There are two main terms he uses to explain belief, ‘patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data’ and ‘agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency’. In other words, events occur, we witness something, determine it to be something, thus forming a belief and then set out to prove we are right, when we are really operating from false or misunderstood data. 

I am sure many will believe that this book is a direct attack upon religious believers, or believers of any sort, but I would say not. While Shermer identifies myself as a skeptic and something of an Atheist, having once been a practicing Christian, he does not judge believers of any kind. Merely he seeks to explain why he thinks they are prone to believing what they do and why it might be difficult to see the other side a controversial debate, due to feelings of belief. He does this equally with both sides of several examples. There is religion vs. atheism, and conservative vs. liberal, as well as those who hold to popular conspiracy theories, such as alien abductions and those who believed that the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers were carried out by the American government. Why people will claim any of these beliefs their own are due to the same evolutionary and biochemical nature of humanity, more so then us making a real informed choice. Though, this doesn’t rule out such choices.

 

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds, which I feel is the main point behind the whole book. Through the use of the scientific method we can determine if our beliefs hold any water and choose to make a decision based on the results, ignoring our feelings, or the patternicity and agenticity that we fall into. Shermer is making an argument that we are evolving, leaving behind the past useful, but no longer beneficial evolutionary developments that helped shape our view of the world, into a era where we can start shaping our own minds. He does not suggest at any time that there are humans incapable of such a feat, nor does he suggest that there are humans that don’t follow these belief patterns, but he does suggest that taking a scientific approach to what we choose to do will help determine it’s validity rather than basing decisions off gut feelings. 

The Fur Covered Sage

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit - Daniel Quinn

Are you the kind person that wonders if you could change the world? Do you wonder if there is some smart idea that humanity has just not thought of yet that will make things better for all? Do you feel it might be right in front of us, so obvious that it is unnoticed? Would you answer a newspaper ad that demanded a person who wants to save the world should only apply? The protagonist of Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael is that type of person, a disillusioned do-gooder, and he answers an add that reads,‘TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.’ What he finds when he does answer the ad is a very empty office space with a very large gorilla, chewing on some leafy goodness. Only a window of glass separates him and his massive cousin. But, before he can walk out the door the gorilla speaks to him telepathically.

 

The protagonist, for Quinn never names him, and the gorilla, Ishmael, begin a conversation which will lead the man to a deeper understanding of the world he lives on.  Their exchange is Socratic in form, in other words, Quinn writes mostly dialogue between the two. Their conversation takes place over many days with the man and gorilla revisiting points made earlier. It is sometimes a lecture, given by this Confucian ape, for he speaks then asks questions and forces the man to think and answer for himself through the gauze of his preconceived notions. 

 

What is it they are talking about? Ishmael is trying to teach the man that his worldview is inherently destructive. He teaches him how the human cultures have always been split in two, with Takers and Leavers. These Takers are as bad as they sound, taking all around them for their own benefit. The Takers have constructed various, but all similar, cultures that explain away their greed, that justify their manifest destinies. While the leavers have suffered in their wake, being pushed to extinction and drowned under the sounds of progress. If you are at all an empathic person you will want to identify with the Leavers, even think yourself one. Rest assured, if you are reading this, you are a Taker.

 

I will not risk saying any more about their discussion, for it unfolds eloquently under Quinn’s care and my blundering attempts to explain it would destroy the joy of being a fly on Ishmael’s wall. I will say it is a must read for anyone who feels their worldview is a cheaply made, hallowed out puzzle, doled out to them in pieces as they come to each predetermined stage of modern nuclear life. I will recommend this to anyone who believes that true change starts when the mind is changed, for that is Ishmael’s most important point. We have been viewing our planet and the life on it in the wrong way, in a destructive way, in an ultimately doomed way. We will not be able to pull out of this downward spiral of decay until we shift our major paradigms. Not until we change our minds. I would recommend this book to anyone who asks, with life destroyed for profit, what hope is there for us. 

 

Jobs To Do When You Are Dead

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach

I walked into the room the whole time never taking my eyes off the cadaver on the table. I was not afraid nor sickened. I was fascinated. It was the corpse of an old man and it had been eviscerated. A cut opened up it’s chest exposing the organs that were still attached. Another cut had spilt it’s head down to the base of the neck. It looked like old leather, it simply didn’t look real. The smell was part chemical and part death, sweet, thick and industrial. The class gathered around the table, some far away, some close, while the professor began to point out major anatomical parts that had been covered in class. I had not been expecting a class that would allow me to view a cadaver lab, much less be apart of one. However, Cleveland Chiropractic College insisted that you had to have one to graduate. This was not that class, this was a viewing of what we would be doing and giving us an opportunity to see the real thing, not just pictures in a book. 

 

Years later I would be engaged in a Facebook conversation in which everyone was recommending books. Two people, whose opinions I value as intelligent and well read, suggested an author named Mary Roach. I had never heard of her before and asked for more information. A few days later at work one of those people handed me a Mary Roach book called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I first thought of my experience back at Cleveland. I, like Mary Roach, had wondered where this man came from. Who was he in life? What had he been like? I had been fascinated, not by a torn up corpse, but by the transformation from living, breathing, thinking, life-form to yellow old leather on a metal table. I was promised that Mrs.Roach’s book would not only be enlightening, but entertaining as well. I don’t recall ever reading a book on the dead that was more educational, touching and humorous as this one.

 

Mrs.Roach, a journalist and therefore a naturally curious person, was motivated by the same questions I had when standing in the cadaver lab. She went forth to find out the life of dead people and came up with twelve captivating chapters of examples of the jobs they perform. She starts her book with the experience of every medical student, practicing on the dead. She also covers the history of human dissection, which is pretty gory and very questionable. She visits the famous University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility, which studies human decay for the purposes of forensic science. They do this by leaving bodies out to rot on the ground in a semi-secluded area of the campus. She visits human crash test dummies who take a beating to make cars safer, and learns how the remains of passengers in a plane crash can help determine the cause of the crash when the black box can’t be recovered. She informs us how cadavers help the military develop more lethal weapons and takes a detour into the forensic science of the crucifixion. There is a chapter about how the medical community came to define death. After that one there are the two strangest chapters, one on historical attempts to reanimate and transplant severed human heads, and then one on medicinal cannibalism. That whole chapter was new information for me. She closes her book with a look at the new and environmental sound methods of disposing our dead.

 

I realized after that list of topics it might seem hard to picture yourself having a good time reading such morbid material. However, Mrs.Roach is a skilled story teller. She always weaves a sense of humor into these seemingly dark tales. As she walks through the grounds of the University of Tennessee observing all the different people decaying in the sun, she comments on an assistant to the professor she is with who has stopped eating certain foods as they remind him to much of his subjects. She paints an absurd but enjoyable picture of the human crash test dummy UM006, who refuses to sit up right in his seat to complete the test and has great comedic timing. Duck tape and canvas straps finally hold him in place. 

 

Not all of the book is funny though, Mrs.Roach goes out of her way to show the feelings and opinions of those who work with the dead. The respect with which they carry out their duties and the importance that they feel society gains from what they do. Indeed, one of the main themes of this books is how the dead have played a major role in improving the over all quality of life for humanity. She praises those who would hand over their bodies to science for as she makes all to clear, their contribution has saved lives. 

 

This was the other aspect of the book that I loved, the very human side of death. The dead don’t care, death is nothing for them, it is how we, the living handle it. Some of the more touching aspects of this book are the thoughts of those that deal with the after math, like Dennis Shanahan whose job it is to shift through the wreckage of plane crashes and through the damage done to the dead, determine what happened. He admits that he would rather deal with bits and pieces of people rather than whole bodies, as they are too much like the living. Mrs. Roach expresses this, ‘Gore you get used to. Shattered lives you don’t’. 

 

I really had a hard time putting the book down. I would find myself entranced by the knowledge I was receiving at one point, laughing at a another and just plain cringing at others. There is plenty in this book to turn a stomach, so I recommend not eating and reading it at the same time, like I did. There were times I had to decide to stop eating, stop reading, or just suck it up. 

 

One question you will have after reading Mrs. Roach’s book is what you will want done to your body when you die. What last job will you perform to better society? How will you want your body disposed of? Burn it, bury it, or chemically melt it down. Perhaps you will use it as compost to help grow a greener earth, leaving a tree as your memorial, as shown in the last chapter. In the end it is probably best to let your loved ones decide what should be done. The funeral will be for them anyway, you won’t care either way. You can still contribute to humanity before that however, and based off what I have learned from Mrs. Roaches book, I plan to do the same.

The Art of the Subtle Epic

The Flames of Shadam Khoreh (The Lays of Anuskaya) - Bradley Beaulieu

I get bored with a story that becomes predictable, as I am sure most readers do. Also, like most readers, I enjoy twists and turns, a little of the unexpected. When I started reading The Flames of Shadam Khoreh I was not to sure what to expect. Mr. Beaulieu has a talent for not giving away his story, he avoids predictability in the most subtlest of fashions. So, I spent my time reading the last book of his trilogy, The Lays of Anuskaya, never sure what was going to happen, but sure of the fact that I was going to enjoy it.

 

The novel picks up right where the second book, The Straits of Galahesh, left off. Nikandr, Atiana, and Nasim are all racing to save the world from widening rifts between the world of the physical and the world of spirits, but once again along their separate paths. Most fantasy enjoys the classic fellowship paradigm, a group of multi-talented individuals coming together for common cause and all that. Beaulieu throws this right out the window. While his heros work together for a common cause they do so alone. They will be able to stand on their own or not at all. They become successful in their isolation more out of their intellectual abilities then their physical abilities, another aspect I enjoyed over the whole of the trilogy. 

 

The individual struggles of each character are truly engrossing. Nikandr struggles  in his relations with his own people, for many still view him as a traitor and bent on completing an unimportant and crazy task. He is concerned over his difficulties in communing with the air spirits, or havahezhan, he had a previous connection to, and of course stopping the end of the world. Atiana’s struggles revolve around her talents in taking the dark, which she finds she can do multiple and disturbing ways. She also has her direct battle of wills with the villainess Sariya which is characterized by mind tricks and the gathering of Matri, the women of the Islands who can take the dark. Nasim, the person the story spins around most, has to cope with the reality of the world, meaning the truth of the original sundering which created the rifts. This truth about the rifts help him realize Sariya’s true intentions a head of the others. He also understands the sacrifice that must be made to stop her. 

 

There is also a great list of supporting cast that brings the story to life. Styophan, for example, and his time spent among the Hael, a people who have been at war with the Empire of Yrstania for centuries. He goes to them at the orders of Nikandr’s brother to make them allies of Anuskaya in their war against the Empire only to find the Empire is already there wooing them. His story becomes a unpredictable blood soaked trek through the back door of the Empire itself. To the reader, and to Styophan myself, it seems that his journey is a side quest that runs along the main one under taken by Nikandr and company. However, Styophan is something a linchpin to the overall success of the heros. Just one of many twists. 

 

This last installment I could sum up as a subtle epic tale. What I mean by this is that, while there is tension, and conflict, it is not dealt with by sheer force, by the heros or the author. The means by which the heros meet their challenges is by guile and intelligence, compassion and forethought. Mr. Beaulieu keeps the vulnerability of his characters established in the previous novels intact, as if to remind the readers that regardless of what happens to a person to make them more capable and formidable, they are still human and subject to all human faults. Indeed, the biggest twist to the whole story is set in their inability to discern the truth in a timely manner.

 

Mr. Beaulieu, as an author, applies the same attributes to his story crafting. Never is the reader spoken down to, or bludgeoned with details. The tale winds around the land and it’s people in a believable but unfamiliar way. I have used the word subtle throughout this review and for good reason. Plot events and character development takes place almost quietly, and many times unexpected. Whether it is Nikandr, Atiana, Nasim, or Styophan, I was always surprised by how they handled a situation. I was always caught off guard by Mr. Beaulieu. As I stated in my review of The Straits of Galahesh, no character is granted protection from danger. So, I would be reading, getting wrapped up into the tale, fully expecting one thing to happen and then, quite out of nowhere, catastrophe. Subtle, like a assassin, before you know they are there.

 

I wanted to write a much longer review, but I feel that I could damage the experience of others if I did. I can say that I have come to respect Mr. Beaulieu’s work. He was able to leave me guessing as to the truth of the tale. His characters, while quiet and thoughtful, were real and multifaceted. Just before you think you have them figured out they surprise you. The story itself was the same, a surprise at every turn. What I thought was to be a important development in the story wasn’t, it was nothing but a distraction so that I wouldn’t notice the twist coming up in the next chapter. All in all I loved this rich world and wished only that there was more. I hope Mr. Beaulieu will revisit the Islands of Anuskaya in a future work, for there is much more to learn of his world and Mr. Beaulieu’s skills as a fantasy author.