Thursday, December 31, 2009
Blood Rites by Jim Butcher
"Hell's Bells" count: 19 
As far as I know, The Dresden Files is an open-ended series that Butcher will continue to write until he decides to end it, which is fine with me. He's set up a universe that has endless possibilities to it, from simple mysteries to humorous romps to soul-searing betrayal and heartache. Can't go wrong with all that, and if Butcher wants to just keep putting out Dresden books every eighteen months or so, I'll happily keep buying them.
One of the dangers of such a plan, however, is stagnation - you end up rehashing similar plot points, perhaps throwing in a few twists and turns, but never really advancing the plot because, well, you don't know where the plot is going. I can imagine Butcher would get to a point where he thinks, "Ummm... Okay, Harry Dresden fights vampire werewolves.... from the future!" At which point, the shark has been well and truly jumped. As I've said before, I would much rather see a series end well than see it go on beyond its useful life and leave me with sad, sad memories. I'm looking at you, X-Files.
While I don't know if Butcher knows exactly where the series will finally end (though he probably does), he does manage to avoid stagnation very nicely, mainly by putting Harry in mortal danger. Okay, that's nothing new, but this time it's Mortal Danger with bonus Crippling Injury! And a side order of Serious Disillusion to boot. This book really stirs things up for the world of Harry Dresden and lets the readers know that there is far, far more in store for us than we knew. So bravo to you, Jim.
In this volume, Dresden is asked by his kind-of-sort-of friend Thomas to do a favor for him. Despite being a vampire of the White Court and a soul-sucking incubus, Thomas is an okay kind of guy and has helped Harry out of a few tight spots in their time. He can't say he trusts Thomas, but he likes him. And therefore we like him as well. The job sounds simple: a movie producer has been having weird accidents happen to people linked with his movie, and two women have already died mysterious deaths. Harry's job would be to figure out who's putting the bad mojo on the movie studio and stop it.
The fact that it's an adult movie studio is not brought up until later.
In the process of trying to help out with an astoundingly powerful (and regular) Evil Eye curse, Harry runs afoul of the Black Court vampires in a side plot that really has nothing to do with the main one. This seems unusual, since most of the Dresden books that have featured multiple cases do so in the spirit of Raymond Chandler, where we find out that they were all part of the same case after all.
The B plot in this book is an attempt to put down Mavra, a truly terrifying member of the Black Court of vampires. The Black Court is the type of vampire we all think of when the word comes up - the Nosferatu, the Dracula, all black and dry and horrible. They're also the toughest, most resilient and most vicious of the vampire clans. What's more, Mavra is an accomplished sorceress, whose power makes even Harry Dresden think twice about crossing her. Which is why he has a Plan this time. And we all know about Harry and his Plans....
All of this, though is incidental to the things he learns in this book, both about himself and the people he trusts. Those are the things that truly shake up his world and which will shape the books that are to follow. This book is a turning point for Dresden, and not a good one. While the Black Court plot, for example, didn't have much to do with the main plot, it sets up very important elements and concepts that are deftly exploited in later books. And Harry's always-fragile relationship with the White Council endures what could be a crippling blow.
All this is setting up the next few books and laying the groundwork for the rest of the series. One of the things I've come to admire about Butcher's writing is that nothing is wasted. I once heard that the process of writing a story is like packing for someone else's hiking trip - you only want to put into the bag what you think that person will absolutely need. After all, if they get to the end of their hiking trip and they haven't used that ten-pound bag of rice you thought might come in handy, they're going to be very pissed off at you.
Butcher doesn't do that. You can be sure that the elements he lays out in his stories will be used, sooner or later., and you'll never be left wondering, "But what was that scene with the baseball player and the chicken farm about?" If Butcher puts a baseball player and a chicken farm into his book, there's a very good reason for it, and you'll find out eventually.
As with the other books in The Dresden Files series, this is great fun to read. Which makes it no surprise that the series had some measure of success outside its original format - a TV series and a comic, at last count. I look forward to following it as it goes on.
"No matter how screwed up things are, they can get a whole lot worse."
- Harry Dresden, Blood Rites
 One of these was the maxi-expletive "Hell's holy stars and freaking stones shit bells," which I must commit to memory
The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Blood Rites on Wikipedia
Blood Rites on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher's homepage
Thursday, December 24, 2009
The Stupidest Angel - A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore
It's an old saw, but a good one - Be Careful What You Wish For. It's the staple theme of many a cautionary tale, which I suppose we could say this book is. It's a warning I've always kept close to my heart, even though I know I have no rational reason to do so. For example, I might wake up one morning, tired from a poor night's sleep, and a thought will emerge from my brain - "I wish I could just stay in bed all the time." I have to squash that thought, because I know it'll inevitably lead to some mystical creature appearing in a puff of smoke, saying "IT IS DONE!" at which point I get hit by a bus and become a quadriplegic.
No thank you, sir.
I'm lucky - I learned this lesson from reading the right stories and watching the right movies. Little Josh Barker of Pine Cove, California didn't seem to have that advantage. To be fair, though, he was under a lot of stress. He had just seen Santa Claus get killed with a shovel to the throat, and that'll mess up any seven-year-old's day. So when an angel - an honest-to-God Angel shows up in town, looking for a child to grant a Christmas Wish to, what else is a boy to do but wish that Santa would come back?
If it had been any angel but Raziel, it might have worked. Another angel might have gotten more details from the child about where Dead Santa was, rather than just "Out behind the church." Another angel might have been more diligent in making sure the child got what he wanted, rather than what he asked for. Another angel might not have carelessly caused a zombie invasion of the weird little town of Pine Cove.
But this is Raziel, who has that most unfortunate of personality combinations - stupidity and confidence. Mix in a little laziness, and you have a recipe for the most horrible Christmas celebration ever.
This book is nice, entertaining, and very silly. Intentionally silly, really - try as I might, I couldn't find too many overarching themes or messages other than the one I've already mentioned - be careful what you wish for. Alongside the unmedicated movie queen, the Evil Developer, the doped-up constable, and the talking fruitbat (who chooses not to talk, of course) you'll find a diverse cast of bizarre characters that you're not sure you'd ever really want to hang out with. I mean, don't get me wrong but Pine Cove seems like that weird little town where they're just one bad day away from, well, a zombie apocalypse. And god help you if you are the one who decided to wear your red Star Trek shirt to the annual Christmas costume party.
So if you like zombies, dope paranoia, swords and some good laughs, check out this book. As Christmas stories go, I can guarantee you've never read anything quite like it. It's funny, not entirely scary, and written in Moore's very conversational style that makes you want to turn around to your friends and co-workers and read passages out loud, no matter that they've developed a Pavlovian twitch every time you open your mouth while staring at a page....
It's also a kind of Christopher Moore All-Star story, so if you're a fan of his other works, you may see some of your favorite characters show up in these pages. And that's always fun, although if he had added Biff and Maggie, I would have been a thousand times happier with it....
"It's Christmas! Ah, Christmas, the time when all good people go about not decapitating each other."
- Tucker Case, The Stupidest Angel
The Stupidest Angel on Wikipedia
Christopher Moore on Wikipedia
Christopher Moore's homepage
The Stupidest Angel on Amazon.com
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Comrade Loves of the Samurai by Ihara Saikaku
At last, the book you've been waiting for - a book of gay samurai love stories! Woo-hoo! Hot Bushido love! Awwwwww yeah.....
No, seriously, it's short stories of gay samurai love.
You see, here's the thing - prior to the modern era of Japan, the attitude towards gay love was similar to that of ancient Greece. Women were fine for having children and securing alliances and building property, but if you want real passion, real true love, you needed a bright-eyed young boy. This kind of relationship between an older man and an adolescent boy, generally known as pederasty (which is often wrongly confused with pedophilia), was considered a natural and healthy bond in those days, and assuming that both parties acted honorably and respectfully, it was mutually beneficial.
As in many other world cultures, this kind of bond was a common one, especially amongst the religious and ruling classes - people who were less interested in breeding large families and more interested in the aesthetic aspects of romance and eroticism. It wasn't necessarily a lifelong bond, but it could be, and some of these pairings have inspired love stories as passionate and heartbreaking as any other.
This being Japan, of course, most of the love stories in this book don't end well. About half tend to finish with seppuku, ending the lives of the lovers and, occasionally, other people who are unlucky enough to be in the area. The story All Comrade-Lovers Die by Hara-Kiri is a case in point - it's the story of Ukyo, Uneme and Samanousuke, three youths bound together by a deep, passionate love. When Ukyo murders a romantic rival in order to prevent the deaths of his friends, he is ordered to kill himself to pay for it. His beloved Uneme joins him in death, and Samanousuke, unable to live without either of the men he loves, takes his own life soon after.
Then there's Love Vowed to the Dead, in which young Muranousuke fulfills the dying wish of his best friend Gorokitji by giving himself to Gorokitji's lost lover. In He Died to Save his Lover, young Korin allows himself to be tortured and executed by one lover to save the life of another, and of course, He Followed his Friend into the Other World, After Torturing him to Death, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Let it be said, though, that Sasanousuke didn't mean for Hayemon to freeze to death, it just kind of happened that way.
In my favorite, The Tragic Love of Two Enemies, a man, Senpatji, falls in love with the young son of the samurai that he had been ordered to kill many years before. The boy, Shynousuke, is ordered by his mother to kill Senpatji, and thus avenge his father, but the boy cannot bring himself to murder the man he loves - especially since Senpatji had been acting under the orders of his lord. He convinces his mother to give them one more night together, which she does, because she's not completely heartless. She finds them dead the next morning, both impaled through their hearts on Shynousuke's sword.
Who says the Japanese aren't romantic?
There are happy(ish) tales, too. Tales of constant dedication, of loyalty and hidden desires in the courtly world of the ruling classes of Edo-period Japan. Men and boys endure great hardships and risk their lives to be together, and on occasion get to spend the rest of their lives together.
These stories were all written back in the 17th century and the author gained great notoriety writing these kinds of soft romances. One of his books was titled, Glorious Tales of Pederasty, which I would really love to see on a bookshelf at Borders someday. Just to see the reactions.... There's a whole lot of, "They lay together through the night" kind of language, and a general avoidance of sordid detail. Still, they're well-written, and well-translated, so you can get a very good sense, in these short, short stories, of the kinds of relationships that popped up among the samurai class way back before Western prudishness got its claws into people. In the preface to Glorious Tales, Ihara says:
Our eyes are soiled by the soft haunches and scarlet petticoats of women. These female beauties are good for nothing save to give pleasure to old men in lands where there is not a single good-looking boy. If a man is interested in women, he can never know the joys of pederasty.So that should give you an idea of the cultural divide you're working against when you pick up this book. It's tough for us modern folks, whose culture is dead set against cross-generational homosexual relationships, to really be comfortable reading stories like this. Usually when you hear stories about a grown man and a teenage boy, it's immediately classified as "abuse." Images of windowless panel vans, sweaty gym teachers, NAMBLA meetings rise up and.... Yeah.
Speaking from an American perspective, I can't think of any situation where a relationship such as the ones in this book would ever be considered acceptable, despite the purity of the feelings involved. The characters in these stories, it must be noted, are not leches. They're not Herbert from Family Guy. But no matter how pure my intentions might be, if I were to start hanging around the arcades, chatting up fifteen year-old boys, my life as a respectable citizen would be effectively over.
Even assuming that a relationship built on pederasty can be mutually beneficial - and it could be argued that it can - it's still a) illegal in most places and b) massively creepy. So that makes it an interesting challenge to get into these stories. Life was different back then, after all. The extended childhood that we take for granted in our teenage years pretty much didn't exist. As soon as someone reached the age of sexual maturity, they were basically proto-adults, rather than lingering children, and were therefore fair game. So as much as I hate to invoke cultural relativism (because I find it wishy-washy and noncommittal), I have to just say, "It was a different time." In times gone by, pederastic relationships worked, but our culture has moved to a point now where even if it were legalized, the emotional and experiential gulf between the older and younger party would probably make it impossible to go beyond a relationship built on physical eroticism.
Still, the feelings in these stories are just as valid and pure as "traditional" romances, the obstacles they overcome and risks they take are just as real and just as difficult. If you can set aside your more judgmental self, you can appreciate the depth of feeling that existed in these relationships, and recognize the universal themes of all great love stories - discovery, love, loss, betrayal, redemption.... They're all here. So get reading.
"The fairest plants and trees meet their death because of the marvel of their flowers. And it is the same with humanity: many men perish because they are too beautiful."
- Ihara Saikaku, Comrade Loves of the Samurai
Ihara Saikaku on Wikipedia
Comrade Loves of the Samurai on Amazon.com
Pederastic couples in Japan on Wikipedia
Thursday, December 10, 2009
The Green Futures of Tycho by William Sleator
It's always dangerous to revisit a book that you loved when you were a kid. Everyone knows that. Some books are really just geared towards a certain age, a certain time in your life where that book can step in and say, "Here - someone knows what you're thinking about." And those books are amazing. You read them and your life changes. Maybe only in small ways, maybe in ways you don't even realize until later, but it does.
Then you come back to it ten or twenty years later and think, "I remember this book. I loved this book. I think I'll read it again." So you do, and it's a disappointment. Not because the book isn't as good as you thought it was but rather because you aren't the person you were when you first read it. There's nothing wrong with that - it's just life.
When I ordered this off Amazon, I did so with a certain amount of trepidation. This book occupies a very special place in my heart. I read it over and over again when I was a kid. It instilled a love of time travel that I keep to this day. I even adopted the name Tycho as a pseudonym for various parts of my own mind all the way through high school and beyond. I knew that re-reading it would put that entire past at risk of becoming foolish or stupid or childish, and I wasn't sure my ever-vulnerable pride wanted to take that.
Fortunately, I discovered that the book was as good as I recalled it being. Shorter than I remember, of course, but still quite good.
The story is deceptively simple - Tycho Tithonus, the youngest of four siblings - the other three being very talented and thoroughly unpleasant - finds a small, silver, egg-like object while digging up a new vegetable garden. As innocuous as it seems, that object is about to change everything. It is, in fact, a time machine.
It's not very difficult - it has a series of dials on one end, which you turn to set the time you want to go to. Press the other end and it's done. And Tycho does what anyone would do when presented with such an amazing device: go back and re-work an unpleasant event in his past. And if by doing so he could maybe teach his nasty siblings to appreciate him more, well, so be it. Of course, the ramifications of this act don't become clear until it's much too late.
But the past doesn't really hold that much allure for young Tycho. It's over and done with, and was never very pleasant to begin with. So he decides to go to the future, to see what has become of himself and his family. A quick twenty-year jump to April 23,2001 shows him what's in store for himself. A desperate, unhappy, bitter man, fronting for a lunar entertainment industry and reduced to begging sponsors for money.
Disappointed and upset, Tycho comes back. Later, he visits the future again - same day - only to find it has changed completely. He's no longer a sad, shapeless man but a tough, ruthless one, a man who uses his ability to travel through time to make money and ruin his family. Terrified, Tycho returns to his own time. But his curiosity can't be stopped. He needs to see a future where everything works out right. Unfortunately, every time he goes there it's worse and worse. His future self becomes a monster and a murderer, a willing agent to bring beings of higher power onto this planet.
This is one of the things I've always liked about Sleator - his mind turns around corners. Everyone and his uncle can write about a time traveler going to the past and changing the present, but who writes about someone changing the future by messing about in the present? Not many, I'll tell you that. Each time Tycho comes back from the future, the knowledge he has gained causes him to say something or do something that alters the course of his future in a new and terrible way. And seeing how much worse it gets just forces him to make even more terrible decisions, until you have the final, terrible paradox of an old Tycho trying to chase down and kill his younger self over the course of millennia.
Which does bring up the problem of paradox, unavoidable in any time travel book, known in fiction as "massive, gaping plot holes."
For example - if Tycho time-travels twenty years into the future to see his older self, there shouldn't be any older self there for him to meet. It's impossible - as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Tycho vanished on April 23, 1981 and re-appeared twenty years later. Everyone else lived through that time, but he simply side-stepped it. Instead of finding a letter from his older self to his mother in their future house, he should have found perhaps a black-framed picture of 11 year-old Tycho with a note to the effect that they should have loved him more. The only way I can think of to resolve this problem is to assume that Tycho was absolutely and incontrovertibly determined to return to his own time after each future visit, thus ensuring that he would eventually live out those twenty years.
Fortunately, Sleator handles these paradoxes in a very simple and straightforward manner. During one of Tycho's experimental first trips into the future, he meets his teenage self, who shows him how the dials work on the egg:
"But," Tycho said. "But if you're me... I mean, if we're the same person, how can we both be here at the same time?"There you go. That bit there is the author saying, "Yes, I know there are paradoxes involved, but that's not the point of the book." That pretty much sweeps aside all those little picky details, like older Tycho trying to kill his younger self, or the fact that, by the end of the book, the entire story didn't, technically, happen. "Shut up and concentrate."
"No time to explain now," said the other Tycho, bending over him. "I've got to show you how to work this thing, fast, so you can get back to your own time."
"But that doesn't make sense," Tycho said, more confused than ever. "If you have to show me how it works, then who showed you how to -"
"Shut up and concentrate."
He handles the alterations resulting from time travel very neatly as well. Rather than beat us over the head with "Things have CHANGED!" he just inserts a simple descriptive line in there. If you're reading carefully, you'll notice that Ludwig's hair has gone from proto-emo long to a nice crew cut. Even Tycho doesn't notice, which is interesting. When presented with the results of a change in time, he has a moment of jamais vu - the feeling of something familiar as totally new - and then the story moves on. The effects multiply and resonate, and even Tycho isn't aware of how much he's changed.
Going back to the plot hole problem for a moment, there is the small issue of the egg's origin and purpose. We know it was planted on Earth by aliens, something like 150 million years ago. It seems they did so with the intention that it one day be found and used in order to prepare the way for their arrival and dominance of Earth - this is what can be gleaned by the ravings of older Tycho. But why would an alien race which has time travel sorted out need such a roundabout way of conquering the world? Why drop it into some Jurassic mud and leave it at the whims of plate tectonics? Why not just show up at Tycho's house one day and drop it on his bedside table? This is never adequately explained in the book, probably because it's not what the book's about. But it nagged me when I was a kid, and it still does now.
All plot holes and paradoxes aside, it's a really good book, and if you have a kid, I recommend it. It's the kind of story that you really can pick apart and look from many angles. In one sense, it's a story about destiny. Tycho and his siblings are all named after extraordinary famous people - Ludwig Beethoven,Tamara Karsavina, Leonardo DaVinci, and Tycho Brahe - in the hopes that they would grow up to emulate them. Tycho's siblings fall into line very easily, adopting the roles that they'd been given from birth. Tycho doesn't - he's interested in a little bit of everything, and isn't entire sure what he wants to do with his life. I knew that feeling when I was eleven years old. Hell, I know that feeling now.
And of course it's about the futility of letting your future control your life. The future isn't fixed. It's an organic, growing thing that you can't begin to control, and the tiniest change in the present could become a radical change in the future. Sure, it's good to have goals and plans, but to try and wield unbending control over who you're going to be is foolish at best.
And that brings me to the nagging question that occurred to me right around chapter 9, the first time Tycho sees his adult self and is terribly disappointed in him. Reading this again as an adult, I found myself wondering that if eleven year-old me suddenly appeared, what would he think? Would he be impressed at the path my life had taken? Would he be disappointed by my physical appearance? Would he be surprised at the relationship I have with my siblings? Would be be shocked that I have a boyfriend? What would his judgment be on his future?
Following right on the heels of that, of course, was the more important question of, "Who cares what eleven year-old me thinks of my life?" Not to disparage the eleven year-olds out there, but you don't know nearly as much as you think you do, and becoming a teenager isn't going to confer any more wisdom. Tycho doesn't know the twenty years of history and context that led to him becoming a miserable bastard. Perhaps if he had learned a little, he might have made better decisions when he returned to his own time. And if eleven year-old me gave me any lip about what I'd become, I'd send him back to his own time with a whole host of new neuroses to deal with.
Anyway, my point is this: The Green Futures of Tycho is a damn fine book. It's a good time travel adventure, and it's a good allegory for the existential angst we all go through when we consider the future. While such feelings might be new and raw to a child of Tycho's age, and old and familiar to us adults, it's still something that we need to deal with. And perhaps that best way to do it is to simply appreciate what we have now.
"After all, he wasn't doing anything dangerous, like interacting with the past, which might have unexpected effects on the present. What harm could a little peek at the future do? How could he change anything there?"
from The Green Futures of Tycho by William Sleator
The Green Futures of Tycho on Wikipedia
William Sleator on Wikipedia
The Green Futures of Tycho on Amazon.com
Green Futures fan site
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
I want an electric monk.
As Douglas Adams tells us in this book, every civilization creates mechanical devices designed to save us from our labor. We have dishwashers to wash our tedious dishes for us, VCRs to watch those tedious television programs so we don't have to, and finally the Electric Monk to believe in those things we can't be bothered to believe in.
Is that cool, or what?
As strange as it sounds, the Electric Monk is actually integral to the plot. But this plot is complex enough to deserve it. The main character, more or less, is Richard MacDuff, an up-and-coming young computer programmer who has several unique problems. The first problem is that of his couch - it's stuck in the stairwell and, by all logic as affirmed by the best computer modeling systems, should never have gotten where it was in the first place.
The second problem is that he's wanted for the murder of his boss. He didn't do it, of course, but that kind of thing doesn't really impress the police. And, of course, there's the problem with the woman he loves, Susan, who just so happens to be the sister of the boss whom Richard is accused of murdering.
Add into all that the titular Dirk Gently, if that is his real name. Dirk is a man who, since college, has unswayingly, constantly denied having any kind of psychic powers whatsoever - which caused him some problems during his university days when he managed to correctly predict, down the the comma, the contents of a major exam.
Now older and weirder, Dirk runs his Holistic Detective Agency. His work rests on one simple principle: the Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things. Based on a common misunderstanding of quantum theory, Dirk believes that all things are fundamentally connected to all other things, no matter how tenuous those connections might appear to the unaided eye. So during the course of, say, looking for a lost cat, it is entirely possible that he may have to go down to the beach in Bermuda. Because, fundamentally, all things are connected. And billable.
Then there's the matter of a time machine hidden in Cambridge and the temptation that can arise from having one. With what amounts to a TARDIS, one could go to any point in time and space. You could visit ancient lands, pet extinct animals or, if necessary, fix something that had gone terribly, terribly wrong. It's tricky, but it can be done. And if you're the ghost of an alien whose simple mistake – putting his trust in an Electric Monk, for example – consigned it to billions of years of insubstantial solitude, a time machine might be very tempting indeed.
There's really no good way to summarize this book. As Douglas Adams is fond of doing, there seem to be several plotlines and events which, at first, seem to have no relation to each other. But as you read, you find out that the Electric Monk isn't as funny as we thought he was, that putting a salt shaker into a piece of pottery can cause more problems than you think, and that you should always be afraid of people with nothing to lose.
As Dirk claims, all things in this book are fundamentally interconnected, even if it's not obvious at the moment.
Yes, even the couch.
“My mind is my center and everything that happens there is my responsibility. Other people may believe what it pleases them to believe, but I will do nothing without I know the reason why and know it clearly.”
- Dirk Gently, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency on Wikipedia
Douglas Adams on Wikipedia
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency at Amazon.com
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Death Masks by Jim Butcher
"Hell's Bells" count: 16 (plus two editing errors - "break" for "brake" on page 24 and "shield" spelled "shielf" on page 319)
It's the "Hell's bells" that started it. I don't usually make notes on spelling errors in books. I do notice them, of course - they practically jump out at me and dance around - but these are the only ones where I make a note of the page.
Anyway, on to the book. If you've been following the series this far, you know that Harry Dresden, Wizard for Hire, has really gotten himself into deep doo-doo. Aside from his usual problem of taking on cases in each book that end in his getting the everlovin' beat out of him, there's a larger story arc to take in - in this case, the war between the Vampires of the Red Court and the White Council of Wizards. Which, as much as he tried not to, Harry incited and, by all the ancient laws of not killing one's host at a party, he is definitely guilty of. To be fair, the host that he killed, Bianca, was trying to get him to do break the Rules of Hospitality so that she could kill him because he made her so angry way back in Storm Front that she drained one of her favorite servants dry.
It's a complicated world they live in.
So far the book-level arcs and the series-level arc have been pretty distinct, though I suspect that they will become more and more intertwined as the series goes on. Sooner or later they'll merge, and all hell will break loose. Literally, I have no doubt.
In this book, Harry has two major problems to deal with. The first is a duel - the Red Court really wants him dead, and they've sent one of their oldest and most powerful representatives - Don Paolo Ortega - to challenge him to a duel. To, of course, the death. Harry certainly doesn't want to die, but the consequences of not dying might be even worse. Should Harry try to duck out of the duel, hired mercenaries are spread throughout Chicago, ready to take out everyone who means anything to Harry.
If Harry should win, of course, the city will be declared Neutral Ground, and the Vampire-Wizard war will have to rage on elsewhere. Overseeing all this is The Archive, a seven year-old girl who has the entire history of humanity - every word written, every word spoken - in her head. She is a being of enormous power, and can be reduced to giggles by a cute kitty cat. She and her bodyguard/driver Jared Kincaid are there to see that the duel goes according to the rules, and are ready to exact very harsh and fatal punishment to he who violates them.
Again, the White Council, who by all rights should be standing by one of their own, is secretly hoping that Ortega will take Dresden down. The Wizards are losing the war to the vampires, and any excuse they can find to call a stop to the death and destruction is a welcome one. The trouble is, the Vampires may not want to stop....
In the other corner, Dresden has a paying job, one that is uniquely suited to him - find a certain relic for the Vatican. It's priceless, of course. A length of linen cloth with a variety of stains and discolorations that may or may not have the imprint of the resurrected Jesus Christ burned into it. Yes, it's the Shroud of Turin, or as Harry would call it, "The freaking Shroud of Turin." It is, of course, an immensely powerful artifact, regardless of whether or not it really is the burial shroud of Christ.
Magic, as Harry tells us, is greatly about emotion and belief. If you want to do a spell, you have to really believe in that spell. You have to know down to your bones that it's going to work, or it won't work at all. It takes great hatred to make a voodoo doll work, for example, above and beyond the usual magical accoutrements that one needs. Millions of people believe in the divine nature of the Shroud. That gives it power, which can be used for benevolent or, as is the case in this book, malevolent ends.
This is where we meet some of the more dangerous foes in Dresden's universe: the Denarians.
The Denarians (more formally The Order of the Blackened Denarius) are a group of fallen angels who are far, far nastier than the usual breed. There are thirty of them, each bound to a coin, an ancient Roman denarius, which may or may not have been the silver coins paid to Judas for a kiss. When a human touches the coin, the fallen angel is able to make contact and enlist that human as a mortal carrier. Some of the Denarians seduce their hosts, where others just use brute force to subjugate them. Either way, the Denarians are millennia old, nigh immortal, and evil down to their cores.
The leader of these creatures calls himself Nicodemus, and he wants the Shroud so that he can do terrible, terrible things to the world. Not end it, necessarily, but bring about the kind of chaos, panic and disorder that he and his kind thrive on.
Fortunately, Harry has the Knights of the Cross on his side - Michael (whom we have already met), Sanya and Shiro. The three of them are willing to fight the Denarians, but want Harry out of it. Why? Our old friend the half-understood, vaguely worded prophecy. Which, like so many other prophecies throughout history, should be regarded as highly suspect.
There are a lot of layers to this story. We get a fun new group of baddies to deal with, a better understanding of the war between the Vampires and the Wizards, and even another, more human look at John Marcone, the undisputed head of the Chicago underworld, who is also looking for the Shroud. For slightly less nefarious purposes, however.
Each book builds on the ones that came before it, yet each book lives on its own, which was a very good decision on Butcher's part. While you will certainly want to jump straight into the next book upon finishing this one, you don't actually need to. There's a certain amount of closure, with just enough loose ends to fuel your speculation for the next book. I shouldn't have to say this by now, but - go get 'em.
"The Council. Arrogant. As if nothing significant could happen unless a wizard did it."
- Shiro, Death Masks
The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Death Masks on Wikipedia
Death Masks on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher's homepage
Thursday, November 19, 2009
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
What is there to say about this book that hasn't already been said? I mean, it's one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the last fifty years, and is considered a classic of American literature. It's required reading in nearly every high school in America - and at the same time it's a regular guest on the American Library Association's "Most Banned Books" list.
A lot of minds, many better than mine, have turned their thoughts to this book, and have no doubt picked every last shred of meaning, metaphor and symbolism from it. So what's left for me to say about it? Sure, I can talk about how it's a classic coming-of-age tale, about how Scout Finch, a young girl living in a small, insular town in Alabama, saw her world shaped and changed by the goodness and integrity of her father, Atticus. We can look at the family dynamics of the story - a family without a mother, save for the surrogate matriarch roles played first by the maid, Calpurnia, and then by Aunt Alexandria, Atticus' sister. We can analyze how the power in that family structure changes and shifts, and ultimately rests in Atticus' capable hands.
Or we can look at the elements of symbolism in the book - the mad dog, foreshadowing the vicious Bob Ewell, whose hatred for Atticus costs him his life. Or the title, as we wonder throughout the book, "Who is the mockingbird?" Is it a person, even, or could it be something as intangible as Innocence? Of course we find out, in the end - it's the shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley, who must be protected as a mockingbird would be.
And who is Boo, anyway? What does he mean to the America of the 1930s, in which the book was set? Or the 1960s, in which it was published? Or the Aughts, in which I'm reading it? Is he a metaphor for America at that time, too consumed by its troubles to venture out, yet willing to protect those it holds dear, an intentional foreshadowing of the Great War that lays only six years in the future? Or is he the ghostly antithesis of Atticus Finch, a man who does the right thing only once in his life, rather than every day?
It's also a defense of the American legal system. The trial of Tom Robinson is hopelessly unwinnable, but Atticus knows that it is something to be marveled at that Tom even gets a chance. A thin chance, yes, but in so many other times and places, Tom would have just been killed right on the scene of his alleged crime, and no one would have done anything about it. But in America, the courts are the great levelers. Even a black man, who in that time and that place was a citizen only on sufferance, can still have his day in court. He had very little chance, but with a lawyer like Atticus, who believes wholeheartedly in the purity of Law, he had a better chance than most. "Our courts have their faults," he says, "as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal." Without this system, however, even a man of Atticus' talents and integrity wouldn't have been able to help Tom Robinson.
I guarantee - someone, somewhere has thought about all of these things, and has probably written more about them than I ever could. And with more passion and skill. So I'll just write about what the book made me think, and hope I can put that into words that sound good to all of you.
I want to be Atticus Finch when I grow up.
As much as the book may be narrated by Scout, and Boo Radley haunts it like an unquiet ghost, the story is about Atticus - a good man in a small town who tries to do everything he can to make his part of the world a better place.
The central event of this book, which echoes from first page to last, is a trial in which Atticus has to do an impossible thing - defend a black man from charges of raping a white woman. By taking this case, Atticus knowingly risks his reputation, his safety and his life, as well as those of his family. It's hard for us here, in an age when the United States has a black President, to truly understand just how racially broken the country used to be. Not that everything is hunky-dory now - anyone who claims that the election of President Obama somehow solved the problem of race in America has a lot of re-thinking to do. But it was so much worse back then.
Atticus Finch is a man with an unshakable moral compass, who knows the difference between right and wrong and how to make sure he does the right thing. He knows that he is a role model not only for his children, but for the people of his town - in several parts of the book, he's likened to a savior."We are so rarely called on to be Christians," says Miss Maudie, a rather progressive neighbor of the Finch's, "but when we are, we've got men like Atticus to go for us." He exhorts his children to spend time in another's skin, to really look at the world from their perspective, in order to understand why they do what they do. He values intellect and reason over emotion and fighting, but is not afraid to take action when it's absolutely necessary. He bears an immense responsibility on his shoulders, not only for the people of his town - black and white - but for his family, that he may raise his children to be good people as well.
Probably my favorite Atticus moment in the book comes in chapter eleven, with the redemption of Mrs. Dubose. A cantankerous old woman living down the street, Mrs. Dubose is a terror to Scout and her brother Jem. She eventually provokes Jem into a fury, whereupon he destroys her camellias, the punishment for which is that Jem must go to her home and read to her for a month. He does, as he's Atticus' son and therefore keeps his promises, but it's not a pleasant duty. She drifts off into nearly comatose states by the end of their reading sessions, which last longer and longer as what Jem believes must be further punishment for his crime.
It is only later, after Mrs. Dubose dies, that Atticus reveals the real reason Jem was sent to go read to her - so he could help her overcome a crippling morphine addiction before she died. She wanted to die free of her burden, and Atticus wanted his son to see what it means to truly be brave. It was important that Jem understand, before the trial got into full swing, that, "It's when you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." Mrs. Dubose won, thanks to Atticus, and his son learned what it means to be brave.
The only real criticism I can think of with regards to Atticus Finch is that he's too good. It's hard to find a flaw in the man, other than his nearly unbending insistence on doing the right thing, even if it should put his family in danger. He's kind of like Superman in that regard - his greatest flaw is his unwillingness to compromise on what is right, even if it hurts those close to him.
Of all the flaws one could have, though, that's not too bad.
I am reminded that one of the greatest questions of philosophy is "Why should we do good?" Atticus knows why. Because it's the only thing he can do and still live with himself. He doesn't need to justify what he does to anyone else. He doesn't need to convince anyone that he's doing what is right. He only needs to convince himself. As long has he can look his children in the eyes, he knows that what he's doing is right, and that's all he requires. And perhaps he is an idealist, yes. But he's an idealist who lives up to his ideals, who lives through those ideals every day. He knows that what he does won't necessarily change his little town, much less the world, but he does it anyway. Because that's what living a good and honest life means, and that's what I learned from Atticus Finch.
What surprises me, honestly, is that this is the only book Harper Lee's written. It's so rich, so gripping, just so damn good that it's hard to believe she never had another story she wanted to tell. Her entry in Wikipedia says that she's written some essays and started a few novels, but never finished them, which saddens me. But then, perhaps some writers have countless stories in them - some of them great, some of them not - and others just have one. And in Lee's case, it was a humdinger.
If you're going into high school and you're reading this - you will be required to read this book at some point. I know how irritating it is to be forced to read a book, and I know that anything an adult tells you is good must automatically suck. Nevertheless, I'm going to ask you to trust me on this one and give it a fair shake. There's a lot to learn from this book, and it'll stick with you for years.
If you haven't read this one since high school - read it again. It's far better than you remember.
"The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."
- Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikipedia
Harper Lee on Wikipedia
To Kill a Mockingbird on Amazon.com
To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikiquote
To Kill a Mockingbird at the Encyclopedia of Alabama
The Boo Radleys on Wikipedia
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Shutting out the Sun - How Japan Created its own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger
One of the things you learn about Japan when you get here - and you learn it pretty quickly - is that there can be a vast difference between the appearance of Japan and the reality of it. The faces that people show you, or even that the city shows you, is not necessarily their true face.
Take Kyoto as an example: it prides itself on being a city of traditional culture, the touchstone of all that is Truly Japanese. When you first see it, though, you think, "Really? Because it looks like a big ol' jumbled-up city to me." And it does - aside from the temples, which remain more or less relegated to the edges of the city, the vestiges of Old Japan have been swept away in favor of concrete and glass. Kyoto Station is a glimmering lump in the middle of the city, and Kyoto Tower, as many have said, is a stake through its heart. But ask anyone and we'll say, "Kyoto is a beautiful city." Because that's the way it's supposed to be.
This is how it is to live in Japan. There is a gulf between the true nature of things and the way we want them to be. For someone born and raised here, this kind of thinking is taught from birth, and without the ability to divide oneself in twain, life in Japanese society can be very difficult. These two states have names, too - tatemae is the face that you present to the world, the one that everyone expects of you. Honne is your "true self," the feelings and thoughts that you hold in reserve so as not to cause conflict with the greater society around you.
The origins of this dichotomy are unclear, although there are those who attribute it to a culture with roots in collective agriculture. If your life and the lives of everyone in your village depends on getting the rice crop in, you have to learn to hold back certain feelings or desires for the good of the group. You sublimate yourself into the group structure, because that's what has to be done. So, tatemae isn't a lie, or a deliberate performance designed to deceive people. It's a bargain between oneself and society - "This is what society needs me to be? Fine. I can be that." What remains is honne, the inner self that society cannot touch, but can never see.
So what happens when someone can't hold up their end of this social contract? What happens when the modern world makes demands of people that this ancient compact can't handle? Well, that's when things start to go wrong....
For many years, this bargain between the individual and society worked, mainly because society kept up its end of the deal. People were protected, employed, and given a place in the world, whether it was the feudal culture of the Edo era, the wartime mobilization of the 30s and 40s, or the indomitable Japan Inc. of the post-war years. As the world progressed, however, it soon became evident that the old ways weren't enough. Japan needed to change, or face stagnation and irrelevance.
In this book, Zielenziger tries to figure out how Japan got into the state it's in - a decade and a half of stagnation, with no end in sight, and the very real possibility of a slide into graying irrelevance by the middle of the century. To do so, he looks first on the human scale, at the people who have given up on Japan's social contract - the hikkikomori.
Like so many other things Japanese, the hikkikomori phenomenon is said to be unique to Japan. Not quite agoraphobics, not quite dropouts or depressives, the hikkikomori are people - usually men - who have given up on the world. They usually live in a single room, often in the homes of parents who enable their hermit lifestyle, and refuse to come out. They sit in there and read, or watch TV, or think. They see no place for themselves in the outside world, and so they give up on it. The men that Zielenziger interviewed suggested that the outside world was too much for them. In many cases they were bullied by others - a pattern of social control that is unfortunately ingrained here - or they simply looked at their parents and thought, "Is this what I will become?"
An American child, faced with the knowledge that he doesn't fit with the rest of the world, will probably see it as an opportunity to shape his own identity. A hikkikomori sees it as a personal failure. He knows how Japanese society works, and rather than blame the world for not accepting him, he blames himself for not being able to fit in. Thus, retiring from the world is seen as the only option available, other than suicide. Some hikkikomori spend years in their rooms, refusing to speak even with their parents, who - often out of a sense of shame or the nurturing love known as amae - support their boys' choice of lifestyle.
At the other end are the people who give their identity over to an outside source. In more dangerous cases, this outside source might be a cult, like the Aum Shinrinkyo group who carried out the deadly sarin attack against the Tokyo subway in 1995. A more benign manifestation, however, is brand mania. Zielenziger talks to women who identify themselves through the brands they buy. These people will spend money they don't have in order to get a bag from Louis Vuitton or Gucci or Chanel. They distinguish themselves with their brand identity, willingly giving up their own in the process. In a country where one can no longer trust the government to look after your best interests, or the media to tell you the truth, or business to give you a job, putting all your faith in Louis Vuitton - with its worldwide reputation for quality - seems to be a good idea.
It's a nation in crisis, according to Zielenziger. It's a country that's gone from feudalism to full modernity in only a century and a half, but the culture hasn't changed nearly as much as the country has. It's a bustling, 21st-century nation built on a foundation that was laid in the 17th century, and things are starting to fall apart. It's a country that puts society before the individual, but that premise is cracking under the weight of a world that values individuality. It's a place where responsibility is distributed and accountability doesn't exist, where mistakes go unexamined lest they bring shame upon those who made them, and where the past is a thing that can be easily ignored if it troubles you. Zielenziger believes that the underlying social structure of Japan is holding it back, leading the entire country to another withdrawal from the world. Much like the hikkikomori that no one likes to talk about, Japan may one day find itself alone and isolated, not knowing its place in the world and not knowing how it can get back to what it used to be.
The book is quite a read, going from small one-on-one interviews to historical and sociological analyses, but it is overwhelmingly negative in tone. Zielenziger isn't wrong, necessarily, but he is of the mind-set that Japan is irrevocably screwed and that only Western cultural intervention can save it.
He lays the hikkikomori problem - and the problem of parasite singles, NEETs, and all the other dysfunctional youth - at the foot of Japan's collectivist culture, as well as the intense bond of amae that exists between the parent and child. While he doesn't say it in so many words, he does imply that the traditional social structure of Japan is simply incapable of keeping Japan competitive in the modern era. He believes that Western values, especially those stemming from Christianity, are what Japan needs to survive.
The bit about Christianity seemed to come from left field, but he does make a case for it. Christianity, he believes, places the onus of salvation on the individual. It is a person's works (or faith) that ensure his place in the afterlife. This focus on one's personal responsibility, and ultimate judgment, fosters a Self that is harder to suppress. From that strong sense of individuality, a culture can foster more competition, thereby preventing stagnation.
There's a long, not entirely interesting chapter on Korea that he uses to illustrate this point. Unlike Japan, Korea - once called "The Hermit Kingdom" - found itself facing economic turmoil and got themselves out of it. Not because Korean ways were better, but because they knew that if they stuck to their traditions they'd be screwed. Korea is a nation strongly influenced by Christianity, and the individuality that Christianity fosters, suggests Zielenziger, is what gave Korea the courage to risk social turmoil for the betterment of their nation.
There may be something to this, but I doubt that adopting Christianity en masse will save Japan from Zielenziger's dire future. Honestly, it was tough to stay objective while reading this, mainly because of the gulf between what I see, having lived here for the better part of a decade, and how Zielenziger describes the place. If I didn't know better, I would have read this and thought that Japan was a zombie nation, populated either by hermits or soulless consumers. From what I've seen, I know that this is not the case.
Granted, I haven't completely immersed myself in the culture, mainly because that's an extremely difficult thing for a non-Japanese to do. Most of the people I talk to are my students, and people with the desire and the resources to study English are probably not an accurate cross-section of the country. So I don't claim to have any more insight into the Japanese mind than Mr. Zielenziger does, but from my experience it seems that all hope is not lost. Yes, the government is a faceless bureaucracy, the media is completely complacent and the corporate community that once offered jobs for life has vanished. But Japan has proved resilient in the past, adapting to great changes that were thrust upon it from the outside. And a quick look at Japanese history shows that, when the times need it, people emerge to challenge the established order.
That's what Japan needs now. Someone - or, more effectively, a group of someones - to stand up, stick out and risk themselves for the betterment of their country. It won't be easy - revolution never is - but it needs to be done. Perhaps one day, instead of shutting themselves in their rooms, there might be young men and women who take to the streets and show Japan that there is value in the individual. I hope I get to see it.
"To survive in Japan, you have to kill off your own original voice."
Kaz Ueyama, Shutting Out the Sun
Michael Zielenziger on Wikipedia
Michael Zielenziger's Homepage
Shutting Out the Sun on Amazon.com
Hikkikomori at Wikipedia
Amae at Wikipedia
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Underground - The Tokyo Gas Attack & the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami
On March 20, 1995, in the middle of the morning rush hour, the Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed a terrorist attack on the subways of Tokyo. Five men on five different trains unleashed sarin gas in the subway system, which shut down most of the city, injured at least 5,000 people, and left 12 dead. It was the single worst attack on Japan since the end of World War Two, and it gripped the nation.
I remember hearing about this, but I don't remember giving it too much attention - I mean, when was I ever going to have to know much about Japan, right? In the light of our own terrorist woes in the US, I wish I had.
Haruki Murakami is best known for being a fiction writer. I've read a few of his books, and they're all really interesting. He has a very strange mind, and he's a good enough writer that he can often successfully avoid giving his characters names, something that still surprises me. This time, however, he decided to turn his hand to non-fiction, chronicling the events of what was a shocking blow to his home country.
In his introduction to this book, he explains why he decided to write it. Like many people, he heard about the attacks while he was living abroad, and thought, "Oh, that's terrible." And then he tried to put it out of his mind. But it wouldn't stay there. A woman had written a letter to a magazine about her husband. He had been on the subway that morning, and had been injured by the sarin. His injuries had impaired him to the point where he had been forced to quit his job. Not only because of the physical effects of being gassed, but also because he had become an outcast at work. People would look at him and whisper about the "weirdo" who had been on the subway that day. He was, probably, a reminder of what people wanted to forget. He had, by no will of his own, become an outsider, and that pressure led him to quit his job - what Murakami calls a "double violence." First by the sarin, then by Japan.
From that point, Murakami took to wondering what really happened to people that morning. Not what the newspapers and TV said, but the stories of the people who had actually been on the trains.
So he began taking interviews. Of the hundreds he contacted, he got a total of 60 people to agree to talk to him. This is definitely a huge difference between Japanese and Americans. After September 11th, I'm sure people were falling all over themselves to tell their stories, or to talk about their dead friends and relatives.
In Japan, people were eager to forget. They didn't want this nosy journalist stirring things up again. It's easier to put things in the past, to say, "It can't be helped" and go on with one's life.
Fortunately for us, Murakami got some people to talk, and for that we have this book.
He divides the stories into subway lines and stations, and it's interesting to see how peoples' stories are slightly different at times, where one interviewee and another interacted. He gives the histories of people, and provides a narrative of what was happening to people on that morning - where they were going, what they were doing and thinking, and how they felt. Some people thought they were sick, others thought that some kind of cleaning fluid had splashed. A few guessed that it was an attack.
Some of the best stories come from the station personnel. So far, my experience with the guys in the uniforms who run the stations is that they all say "Arigatou gozaimas" whenever you put your ticket through the gate. These guys, though, had to take charge of a subway system that was under attack by an odorless, invisible weapon, without knowing who had done it or why. Unlike firemen or policemen, these guys had to deal with a situation for which they had likely never been trained.
The civilian stories are also fascinating, as they tell how they tried to help, and they vented their frustration with the lack of help. They talked about what they were thinking as the symptoms set in - dimming of vision, nausea, lack of coordination.... One interesting commonality is how many people kept trying to go to work. They put down their symptoms to any number of garden-variety maladies - anemia, lack of a proper breakfast, general stress. Half-blind, unable to walk straight, many of them still made it to their workplaces, not knowing the danger they were in until they heard about sarin on the news.
Sarin is a nerve gas, originally designed by Nazis, it is one of the most powerful gasses out there. Iraq used it to great effect against Iran in the 80s, and could well still have some floating around. According to the translator's notes, a drop of sarin the size of a pinhead is enough to kill a person.
The cult members who set this thing off had liters of the stuff. Fortunately, they cut it with another liquid (and even pure sarin doesn't evaporate well) which cut its lethality. Somewhat.
Perhaps the tiny number of fatalities - 12 - were due to the lower potency of the gas. It certainly wasn't because the Tokyo or Japanese governments were any good at dealing with disasters. Interviews with doctors at local hospitals talked about the utter confusion that ensued after the attacks. None of them were briefed on the situation, they didn't know what kind of gas had been used, and therefore couldn't treat it properly. Worse yet, in some cases, they didn't even know it was a gas. In some hospitals, sarin victims were admitted to the emergency rooms, where the sarin in their clothes began affecting the ER nurses and doctors.
They figured it was probably cyanide. One doctor, who had happened to have been at a seminar on a previous sarin attack in Japan, recognized the symptoms of sarin poisoning and faxed the information around the city's hospitals, apparently a very unusual act by a doctor in Japan. Like many organizations in Japan, hospitals are loathe to share information without going through the proper channels, even in an event such as this. But this fits into the Japanese mind-set as well: to take such initiative is to invite criticism. Should the decision be the wrong one, it would bring shame down on everyone involved. Thankfully there were some people whose minds were more concerned with saving lives than saving face. Not enough, though. The Tokyo Bureau of Health didn't chime in until 5:00 PM, nearly eight hours after the attack.
One doctor claims that the only reason so few people died was because of the efforts of individual doctors and paramedics. The official organizations were more or less useless, much like they were after the Kobe earthquake in 1992.
However it happened, the death toll was kept low, but the effects lingered on. Sarin has long-lasting physical effects, weakening the victim for years to come. Even more, there were the psychological effects that come with any event of mass terrorism.
I saw an article in an Australian magazine which interviewed some people who had been photographed during the burning and destruction of the World Trade Center. None of them were happy, none of them were leading good lives. Months later, the attack still lingered in their minds and their lives, effectively continued on. The same was, and probably is, true in Japan after the Tokyo subway attack.
After the publication of the first edition, Murkami decided that he had a few more interviews to do. It's one thing to know what happened to the victims, but one also has to wonder: Why would anyone do such a thing?
So he went to interview current and former members of the Aum cult, and find out why they joined, what attraction the cult held for them, and what they knew of the cult's plans. After the attacks, most of the Japanese media were treating Aum simply as "The Enemy," a faceless group whose members were, in the grand Japanese tradition, not individuals but simply facets of the whole.
Aum, under its leader, Asahara, worked like most cults do: They recruited people with doubts, misgivings and unreconciled views of the world. Many of the people Murakami interviewed were highly intelligent people who felt, from childhood, that the world they lived in made no sense to them. Others were lost, confused, who felt unhinged and disconnected. Such people are classic candidates for cults, and Aum took them in.
In Aum, they tell Murakami, there was no fear of responsibility, no worries about their choices for the future, because their future was preordained. If anything bad happened, it was just bad karma falling away. For some, Aum was just a new way to look at life, a new way to go through life that offered less uncertainty and pain than conventional life.
For others, though, it was a political movement. It was a group whose goals could be achieved by murder, both individual and mass. The interviews are interesting, because you can understand why the lifestyle of Aum might be attractive to people, if not very practical.
Murakami wanted to point out, by interviewing the Aum members, that this cult didn't appear out of nowhere. It arose in Japan, made up of Japanese men and women. It was a reaction to Japanese society, a signal of the illnesses that permeate it. It was not, and should never have been treated as, something separate.
There's not a lot of judgment in this book, as that was not Murakami's goal. He did what he set out to do - tell the stories of people who had been there, who had experienced the terrors of the sarin attack. It's always interesting to hear real stories, and always good.
One has to wonder, though.... Terrorism is not all bombs and airplanes and Arabs. These terrorists - and they do fit the bill - were people who looked like everyone else, men in suits, carrying briefcases and a newspaper-wrapped bundle each. No one would have given them a second thought.
Could this happen in America? Probably. We still haven't found whoever was mailing the anthrax around, at least not at the writing of this review. It would be very possible for a group of men to board the subways in New York at rush hour, gather their resolve, and unleash an attack at least as destructive as the World Trade Center attack was. And the answer isn't "More Security" - that's closing the barn doors after the horses have not only left, but they've started their own fertilizer reprocessing plant and planned to blow up the Kentucky Derby. The interviews in this book suggest that terrorism is a societal issue, not a security one. If we want to stop people from doing violence to us, we need to find out what drives them to do so. Remember: the majority of terrorist acts carried out in the United States were not done by al-Qaeda. They were done by Americans, just as the Tokyo attacks were done by Japanese.
No matter what our politicians and police tell us, we're never completely safe. Japan learned that in '95. We need to learn it as well.
"We need to realize that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they're not disadvantaged; they're not eccentrics. They are the people who live average lives (and maybe, from the outside, more than average lives) who live in my neighborhood. And in yours.
"Maybe they think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there's some pain they're carrying around inside. They're not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can't find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It might be you."
- Haruki Murakami, Underground
Haruki Murakami at Wikipedia
Underground at Wikipedia
Tokyo sarin gas attack on Wikipedia
Aum Shinrikyo on Wikipedia
Haruki Murakami's website
Underground at Amazon.com
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
"Hell's bells" count: 14
In the last book, Harry Dresden saved the day. He fought some of the strongest the Red Court of the Vampires had to offer and came out, well, more or less intact. To do so, he also managed to make himself the target of nearly everything in the Nevernever (the mystical other-world from which all the nasties and scaries ultimately come), lose his girlfriend to a bunch of bloodsucking fiends, and instigate an all-out, world-wide war between the White Council of the Wizards and the Red Court.
So yeah. Mixed blessings and all.
Now he's practically working himself to death to avoid actually being killed. After all, saving the day is nice, but it doesn't usually come with a check at the end of it, and there are bills to be paid. When we see Harry again, some months after the disastrous events at Bianca's nasty little costume party, he's working himself to the bone. He's become a recluse, hiding from as many people as he can. He does this for two reasons. First, he's spending a lot of time looking for an antidote to Susan's vampirism - or semi vampirism, anyway. She hasn't drunk from a person yet, you see, and until she does that she's not really a vampire. It's a hard job, though, which is why she not only turned down Harry's proposal of marriage but also left the country with instructions that he not try to follow her.
So the love of his life is incommunicado, and Harry doesn't know if she's alive or dead - or worse. What's more, he believes that it is his fault that she got this way, even if it really isn't. One of the criticisms that can be laid at the feet of Harry Dresden is his deep-seated male chauvinism. He doesn't believe that women are inferior or anything quite so barbaric as that. He believes that they're special, that they should be treated with an extra measure of care and respect. He hates the thought of harming a woman, and will go out of his way to see to it that the women he cares about are kept safe from anything that might hurt them.
Unfortunately for him, Harry tends to hang around with women who don't want to be taken care of, namely Susan Rodriguez and Karrin Murphy. Both of them are strong-willed women who want to be part of Harry's life, and neither one of them particularly appreciates being told to sit on the sidelines because they're girls. In fact, this attempt by Harry to protect them, more often than not, brings them more trouble than if he had trusted them to begin with.
I say this because it was good to see him make a little progress in this book. Following the events of Grave Peril, in which she was psychically tortured - though perhaps "raped" would be the better word - by the spells of a dead sorcerer, Murphy found herself broken. She couldn't sleep, she couldn't concentrate. She was afraid of everything, a shell of who she had been. So, in order to bring her back at least part of the way, Harry tells her everything - his dark past, the White Council, all the things he's not supposed to share. While it was by no means a magic recovery potion, it went a long way towards establishing their equality as fellow hunters of evil.
And all this really has little to do with the plot itself, which is a pretty straightforward murder mystery/supernatural power play. Queen Mab of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, needs Harry to find out who killed a servant of the Summer Court, the Summer Knight. Queen Titania of Summer thinks, and not without reason, that it was Mab who had the knight killed. Harry has to get to the truth, and he has to do it before Midsummer's Eve, lest the two courts go to war and take our world with them.
For the White Council, this is an excellent opportunity. If Dresden succeeds in helping Mab, she will give the Wizards safe passage through the Nevernever, which will in turn allow the Wizards to better prosecute their war against the vampires. If Dresden fails, the vampires will (in theory) be happy, and the war will end on its own. Either way, there's a very good chance that the White Council will finally rid itself of Harry Dresden, something they've been trying to do for quite some time.
So for a simple murder mystery, it's really not very simple at all. We get a good look at the expanded universe of Harry Dresden, and it's a scary place to be. This time he's going up against some truly heavy hitters, with some very serious stakes, not the least of which is his own life and his own free will. For the first time, we are privy to the workings of the White Council, how they work and how they don't work, and it's very easy to understand why they and Harry don't get along so well.
As with the other books, this gets my full recommendation. It's fast-paced and interesting, and there's some damn fine character work. A bit of very good banter between Murphy and Harry caught my eye that makes both of them much more interesting and believable (not that they weren't before). It's moments like that throughout the series that show Butcher's care for the characters and his desire that we see them as real as he does. Also, a very nice Indiana Jones reference, only involving unicorns.
So - and you're going to get tired of hearing me say this - go get this book. Go get all the Dresden books, and settle in for some good reading.
"As I pulled into the parking lot, I reflected that odds were that not a lot of clandestine meetings involving mystical assassination, theft of arcane power, and the between the realms of the supernatural had taken place in a Wal-Mart Super Center. But then again, maybe they had. Hell, for all I knew, the Mole Men used the changing rooms as a place to discuss plans for world domination with the Psychic Jellyfish from Planet X and the Disembodied Brains-in-a-Jar from the Klaatu Nebula. I know I wouldn't have looked for them there."
- Harry Dresden, Summer Knight
The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Summer Knight on Wikipedia
Summer Knight on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher's homepage
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Full disclosure: I have never read Pride and Prejudice. It's one of those novels that you're really supposed to read, and maybe I did read it back in high school English class, but if I did, my brain has scabbed it over. It's a book that, for reasons which I don't understand, is adored around the world.
The original book (according to Wikipedia and what I gleaned from reading this) is a tale of the Troubles of Rich People. It's a novel of manners, in which the conflict centers entirely around the personalities of the people involved. The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, is one of five daughters born to a house of moderate means. Since they're growing up in a patriarchal society, the only way for them to be at all successful in their lives is to get married - especially so that they might have some chance of inheriting part of their father's estate someday. Their father seems to resent that they were all born girls, and really wants nothing to do with the family at all. Their mother has but one wish, and that's to see her daughters all get married.
So when a handsome young man - Charles Bingley - moves into the neighborhood, the Bennet household is all a-flutter over the hopes that he might pick one of their girls to make into an honest woman. Unfortunately he brings his friend with him, Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is immediately unlikable, especially to headstrong and opinionated young Elizabeth.
I don't know if it was Austen who gave birth to this trope in fiction, but we all know what's going to happen when two characters are introduced that hate each other from the start.
The story goes on, propelled forward by the ever-evolving relationship between Darcy, whose brusque and unmannered exterior hides a deep and compassionate soul, and Elizabeth, whose independent and free-thinking nature is reined in by the discovery that what she assumes to be true very seldom is. It's a book about relationships and about passions, about manners and status and about 300 pages too long for me to deal with.
I like to think that I'm a cultured, intelligent person, but there's only so much I can take of this kind of thing. I find it really hard to care about people I have so little in common with - I have no property to protect, I don't really care about social class or about artificially inflated systems of manner. I don't come from a family that is concerned with marriage or status, and so I don't identify with the characters. In works of this nature the world is alien to me. I can't relate to the story and, more importantly, I don't want to relate to the story. I hope that I have better things to do with my life than worry about who has fallen in love with whom and who is hiding dark secrets from their past.
And so, the addition of zombies to the tale is just fine with me.
According to the co-author, Seth Grahame-Smith:
“You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there. It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence. From my perspective anyway."Smith saw a great opportunity, which I'm sure many other people will follow. Since Pride and Prejudice is a book in the public domain, anyone can do whatever they want to it without having to worry about copyright laws. If you want to make a movie or a play or a comic book or a porno movie out of it, you're free to do so. Smith saw a chance to create, for lack of a better term, a literary mash-up, bringing two types of story together into something completely new.
Now, the Bennet daughters are five of the fiercest fighters in England, devoted to holding back the zombie menace that has gripped the country for five and fifty years. Trained by the greatest Chinese masters in all the killing arts, the Bennet Sisters are famous for their merciless dealings with the unmentionables that roam the countryside, looking for fresh brains to sate their unnatural hunger. Elizabeth Bennet not only has an independent and free-thinking nature, but she's also not above killing ninjas, ripping out their hearts and eating them.
The combination of the two styles - the regency romance and the ultra-violent zombie mayhem - works rather well. Smith has done a fine job in not just shoehorning the zombies into Austen's tale, but making sure that the new version of the story is internally consistent. The zombies are a real and present force in this story, waylaying people on the road, occasionally delaying messages and causing very dramatic misunderstandings. And in this new and deadly environment, the dance of misunderstandings between Darcy and Elizabeth goes on, eventually - of course - ending up in the union of two of the greatest zombie hunters in England.
The best part, by the way, is the Readers' Discussion Guide in the back. In case you want to read this with your book club, the authors have included some ideas for discussion, such as "Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?" and "Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen's plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?" It's a very nice touch, I have to admit.
With some fantastically period illustrations of zombies, brain-eating and ninja-baiting (as well as a rather odd one of the Bennet sisters' favorite game, "Kiss Me Deer"), the book is kind of surreal, and I reckon it is one that will entertain a good number of readers, though certainly not all of them. For me, I found that the altered parts of the text - the zombies and the occasional ninja - were the most fun part. The characterization of the Bennet sisters as hardened warriors occasionally given over to fripperies was strange, but entertaining, especially since Graham-Smith made sure to keep the characters consistent. Elizabeth's thoughts and actions are primarily dictated by her Shaolin training, and many of her decisions are rooted in a deep sense of a warrior's honor, rather than a society girl's manners.
Furthermore, this strange new England was well made. It's a place where the zombies were a threat, but after fifty-five years, they've been downgraded to more of a dangerous annoyance. Kind of like FOX News. The zombies are a seasonal menace, less prevalent in the winter when the ground is hard, but like cicadas they burrow out of the ground in the spring to menace travelers and (unlike most cicadas) eat their brains.
The problem for me wasn't so much the zombies part of the book as it was the Pride and Prejudice part. As I said above, I don't really identify with what the characters care about, and once they got off the topic of the zombie menace, my eyes started to glaze over a little. Fortunately I knew that there would be another bit of mayhem on the way to perk me back up.
It made me think, though - there must be something that I'm missing. Not only has the book been around and popular for two centuries, but it's beloved enough that even a drastic modification of it would draw in readers. P&P&Z was a bestseller on the New York Times list and the mere announcement of its existence sent the blog world into an utter fangasm. The addition of zombies to an otherwise beloved tale was met with open arms, a sign that Pride and Prejudice held an honored place in the literary heart of the world. So if I don't get it, then there must be something wrong with me.... Ah, well. As I said of War and Peace, I'm not in this game to score points. So don't expect me to try and slog through the original just to see if it holds up to the zombified version.
The big question, of course, is What's Next? There are so many pieces of classic literature out there, all in the public domain and all just ripe for this kind of treatment. Tom Sawyer and the Wizards of the Mississippi? The Shape-Shifting Alien of Monte Cristo? Anne of Green Gables and the Robot Hordes from the Future? Mark my words, this book is only the beginning....
"No ninjas! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without any ninjas! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your safety."
- Lady Catherine, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Wikipedia
Seth Grahame-Smith at Wikipedia
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Amazon.com
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett
When you think of elves, what do you think of? The tall, fair-skinned beings of Tolkien's Middle Earth? The ebony warriors from Dungeons & Dragons? Delicious cookies?
Not on Discworld. On Discworld, the Elves are folk of legend, and dark legend at that. People there remember the elves, although not very well. They remember through old wives' tales, about leaving milk for the fairies and not going near the standing stones. Ask someone in the kingdom of Lancre, and they'll think of elves as you and I think of elves - pretty, wonderful, magical...
Ask Granny Weatherwax and she'll tell you the truth - that the Elves are not of this world, and don't belong here either. She'll tell you that when the barriers of the worlds grow thin, when the crop circles start to show up, the elves will be waiting, readying themselves to come back. For theirs is a parasite universe, a land of ice, and they desire ours for their... entertainment.
Such is the setup for Lords and Ladies, another one of Pratchett's darker Discworld books. There is still his customary humor, of course, which would be sorely missed were it absent. But it's also got a philosophical edge to it, as many of his books of this period do. It's about faith in stories, and knowing the difference between what is true and what you wish were true.
It's circle time again, where crop circles are appearing everywhere, and the parallel and parasite universes are coming into closer contact, and Granny Weatherwax knows that she is going to die.
Or is she? She can't be sure....
Esme Weatherwax is the consummate witch. Tall, thin and bony, she's the kind of woman who can wear the pointy black hat of a witch and dare you to think she's anything else. She's strong of mind, never afraid to speak the truth, the best witch in Lancre and not slow in admitting it. But many years ago, she was a headstrong young girl who was offered power by a mysterious woman in red who stood in the center of a stone circle. The woman promised power and freedom, but could not leave the circle. Rather than take the easy way to witchcraft, Granny worked, learned, and grew old. Which is always for the best.
As is the case with many Pratchett books, there are multiple plots that all center around the Elves and their newest attempt to gain the Discworld as their own world. Magrat Garlick, the third witch (because there must always be three) is going to marry Verence, the king of Lancre and a former Fool. Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, is attending the wedding and at the same time remembering his days in Lancre chasing after the headstrong young girl who grew up to become Esme Weatherwax. And Granny herself is remembering things that happened to all possible Esme Weatherwaxes, and for someone as sure of herself as she is, is having a serious identity problem.
Something needs to be said here about the three witches of Lancre, recurring characters as they are in all of the Witches books of the series. Normally this would be done chronologically, upon reviewing the first book in which they appeared, but I want to do it now. Besides, I haven't read Equal Rites in a long time, but it's on my list.
Granny is as I have said - the unofficial chief witch of the region, who has attained the status of being almost mythical in the village of Bad Ass. She is feared and revered, but only because she is always who she is.
Nanny (Gytha) Ogg is Esme's polar opposite. She has a face like an apple left in the sun too long, her youth is filled with enough tawdry encounters to make a fraternity lose its breath, and her fondness for bawdy tunes (such as the ever-immortal Hedgehog song) has made her a figure of legend. But like any witch, Gytha is not to be underestimated. She can think faster than most anyone, and do so around corners. She's the grounding influence for Esme when Esme gets too high on herself, and while being fearsome in her own right, she is one of the more approachable witches Lancre has to offer.
And then there is Magrat Garlick, the third witch. She is the soppy one, the romantic one, the one with the collection of occult jewelry and a library in her cottage. She's the youngest, the least experienced, but not without potential. And while the other two witches may treat her like an ignorant stripling, they only do so because that's how you become a witch - by learning things, not by being told things.
But now Magrat is going to be Queen, and there are only the two witches. And the elves are coming....
This is, as I have said, a darker book. We get an interesting look into Granny Weatherwax's psyche - who she is, what she fears - and it's a little chilling. The reader is used to the utterly unflappable Granny Weatherwax, so to see her, well, flapped is kind of disturbing. At the same time, though, it makes her more human than before, which she needs to be if she is to defeat the elves.
This book also offers a good look into the human need for fantasy. The elves anchor themselves to the Discworld by belief - if enough people want the elves to come, then they will. But the longer they stay away, the more time we get without them, the more they become what we think they are. Stories. Myths. Cute magical critters who are to be watched, but not necessarily feared.
We need our stories to get us through the "iron times." Yes, we need elves, to help us escape from our lives from time to time, just as we need witches and wizards and gods. But we don't need them here. Here, in the real world, we have only ourselves to count on, and we need to be strong enough to do that. Stories are good, in their place. But never mistake a story for the real thing.
'But all them things exist,' said Nanny Ogg.
'That's no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages 'em.'
- from Lords and Ladies
Lords and Ladies at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett's page at HarperCollins
Lords and Ladies at Amazon.com
Discworld at Wikipedia
Lords and Ladies annotations
Lords and Ladies at Wikiquote