Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year!!!


2014, you were a b*tch of a year.  The “Year of Neverending Change” at work.  The “Year of Surprise Repair Surprises” at home.  Read more books cover-to-cover in 12 months than I ever did before (an even 60).  Couldn’t lose the 20, 25 pounds of extra weight I carry despite a stretch of summer and December workouts.  The wife continued to move ever upward and ever onward in her career, God bless her for that – I managed to stay employed.  As far as my writing goes, well, did outline a novel and write the first 2,000 words.  Now only 88,000 to go, give or take a few dozen.  My two beautiful daughters continued to grow, to thrive, and to simply amaze me.



Now … for 2015 …

How ’bout –


Finish that book!

Drop that weight!


Two simple goals that would make me a very, very, very happy middle-aged man.


Happy New Year, everyone!


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Be Truly Counter-Cultural!



Practice a peaceful religion faithfully and rigorously!

Read from the canon of Western Civilization literature (i.e., the “Great Books”)!

Know the United States Constitution and the Federalist Papers by heart!

Be fearless and outspoken in your opinions!



What a great gift to yourself – and the world! – this New Years!

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014 Best-Ofs!

  
Best Book Read

Fiction:

Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg.  Reviewed here.

Runner-Up:

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque


Non-fiction:

Prime Obsession, by John Derbyshire, not reviewed, except for a “READ IT NOW!” if you even mildly are interested in this sort of thing.

Runner-Up:

A Stillness at Appomattox, by Bruce Catton, reviewed, sorta, here.


Worst Read

Red Tide, reviewed here.  Loved it as a kid, disillusioned on a 2001 re-read, hated it in 2014.


Best Movie

Around the World in Eighty Days, DVR’d.  All around excellence: humor, action, vision, music.


Worse Movie

Godzilla (2014), seen in the theaters, reviewed here.  Worse more in a “disappointing” sense than a “bad / terrible” sense.


Best Movie Bonding Experience with my Girls

They’ve recently gotten really into watching “Svengoolie,” the show with the portly and weirdly-dressed ghoul who hosts cheesy black-and-white movies on channel 19, Me-TV.  Specifically, the episode which aired The Mummy’s Ghost (a movie which has the most awesomely-named dog in movie history…)

Runner-up: (tie) Planet of the Apes (the original Heston version), Fantastic Voyage 


Best Phase

The nominees:


Lovecraft (January-March)

Maths again (February-April)

Tolkien Revisited (May-June, October-November)

The Iliad (July)

Silverberg and Majipoor (July-August)

Ancient Egypt (August-September)

Fr. Cedric (August-October)

World War I (November-December)


… and the winner is …

Gotta be the six weeks / five hundred-plus pages I spent with Robert Silverberg on Majipoor.


Best Experience

Great Wolf Lodge, February 2014.  What a great idea for a mini-vacation winter break!

Runner-Up: Discovering my long lost physics book from my childhood.


Worst Experience

Watching that episode of Walking Dead with the two little girls, March 2014.  Damn you, Walking Dead!


Song of the Year

Uh, dunno.  Not really a “musical” year for me.  Didn’t buy any CDs.  Didn’t listen to much classical, preferring classic rock stuff I listened to when much younger.  Listened to a lot of Grateful Dead in the fall, a lot of Jethro Tull last month or so.  Considered picking up a Doors compilation/remaster sometime over the summer but wallet was too tapped out.  Played mostly Led Zeppelin on the guitar all year long.  So, if I had to pick something to pick something, I’d pick:

Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead, only because I played it for the girls in the car one rainy Saturday.  Little One thought it an “incredibly sad song,” but neither one paid it as much attention as I did.



Best Blog Post at the Hopper

This one!   


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Times When Hopper Was Blown Away


by music.  1979 – 1998.  

Figuratively literally, or, quite possibly, literally figuratively:


Listening to ELO’s El Dorado album on my parent’s stereo with headphones, c. 1979

Listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, same scenario, c. 1980

Listening to “Dazed and Confused” on my brother’s Walkman, c. 1981

Listening to “Tom Sawyer”, again on my brother’s Walkman, c. 1982

Listening to the works of AC/DC, led by Bon Scott, on various cassettes lent to me by a friend, September 1984

Listening to the cassette tape of Black Sabbath’s Greatest Hits (particularly “Tomorrow’s Dream” and “War Pigs,”), in the car with my family driving to Wisconsin, c. winter 1984

Listening to AC/DC’s “Have a Drink on Me” on my Walkman, summer 1985

Listening to “The End” by the Doors, roommate’s stereo, freshman year of college

Listening to Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, particularly “1983 …”, winter 1987

Listening to “Starship Trooper” on the Yes album, the last vinyl album I ever bought, spring 1987 (and “And You and I”, on cassette, later that same year)

Listening, mouth agape, to “Prophet Song” by Queen, on cassette tape, later that summer

Listening to Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres by the mighty Rush, spring 1989

Listening to Warehouse by Husker Du on CD, and their song “Eiffel Tower High” on one of their other albums whose cassette version I had, summer 1989

Listening to Ritual de lo Habitual by Jane’s Addiction, winter 1990-spring 1991, especially “Three Days”

Listening to “Alive” by Pearl Jam, some NY radio station, while sitting in traffic, summer 1991

Listening to Alice in Chains first three CDs, summer 1991-summer 1992

Listening to “Cherub Rock” by Smashing Pumpkins and their follow up album, Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness, winter 1994-winter 1995

Listening to Screaming Trees and Presidents of the Unites States of America, various albums, winter 1996

Listening to “Scheherazade,” by Rimsky-Korsakov, spring 1998


Possible New Year’s Resolution:  Start listening to some more music again!


Communist Dreams


So I borrowed a few general-subject philosophy books from the library yesterday to help with a project I might be interested in penning.  One book was one of those philosopher per page reference guides.  As I’m skimming through the 19th century I come across Marx’s page, with, of course, a sidebar on The Communist Manifesto.  Now, the theory is thoroughly debunked by history to me, as well as common sense, and holds no real interest.  Except for that fact that I have never read it, and I note that it is only 44 pages in length. 

Oh well.

Then, for some reason, last night I had a plethora of dreams.  In one of them, I stood in a shabby 1860s-style German boardinghouse, with gaslight lamps (dunno if they existed then), drawn curtains stitched in numerous places for repair, populated with old King-Louis-the-whatever-style furniture.  Everything in the dream was black-and-white, or, more rather, gray.  Two unnamed men (Marx and Engles, in retrospect) were with me, and we were all dressed in typical 1860s-style garb.

Marx was extolling how this little handwritten pamphlet he was clutching was going to revolutionize the world.  Power to the working classes!  Stick it to the man!  That sort of tired stuff (it even sounded tired as it came from his mouth, presumably the first time such things were uttered). 

But how are we to spread the word?  I wondered aloud.

Marx and Engels exchanged glances.  Then the communistic Jerry Garcia said to me, “Engels here knows a printer.  We ordered a thousand copies, paid in advance, and we’ve hired a sales representative to go to all the local bookstores.  In six months we should see a return on investment of …”

I woke up then to go to the bathroom, the dream fresh in my head.  Overcome by a sense of irony so thick it felt like I was wearing my wife’s lush terry cloth bathrobe, I realized I had to remember it to write it up the following morning.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Wonder, Terror, Excitement


I have read that novelist / poet / critic Kingsley Amis (whose works I have not read) once described the “purpose” of science fiction to be “to arouse wonder, terror, and excitement.

Hmm. Interesting. My own definition would be

“Science Fiction exists to make the reader think by showing him what he’s never thought of before.  Of course, large amounts of whoa! should be added to that mix.”

But back to Amis’s definition … I like it.  It works for me.  In fact, I have experienced copious amounts of each quality in some recent reads (recent meaning over the past year):


WONDER: Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

TERROR: Any of the more science-based tales of H.P. Lovecraft

EXCITEMENT: Lord Valentine’s Castle and Majipoor Chronicles by Robert Silverberg


Now, some may pigeonhole Lovecraft solely into the Horror genre, and perhaps exile Silverberg’s Majipoor works to strict Fantasy.  Maybe I agree with that, maybe I don’t. 

But – what authentic SF works have I read that would heartily embody all three facets of Amis’s definition?

Hmmm.  A quick survey … how about:


Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson

“Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

“Who Can Replace a Man?” (short story anthology) by Brian Aldiss

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

“The Martian Chronicles” (short story anthology) by Ray Bradbury


Of these, the first, third, fourth, and seventh are true exemplars of the definition.


Möbius Madness


Question: Why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip?

Traditional answer: To get to the same side.

My answer: To illustrate by analogous demonstration the concept of a closed universe.

I like my answer better. But then, I’m biased towards myself.


Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Recap


Well, the crazy buildup for Spendmas has dissolved into the past, as had our most secular of holy days.  Did a lot, and though I’ve been feeling exhausted these past couple of weeks, I did get to relax a bit, and for that I am thankful.

A little over a week ago I did something to my right shoulder.  Rather, something to the muscles beneath and about it.  From the right side of my neck to the tip of my deltoid muscle, as well as underneath the clavicle, I’ve been experiencing a mildly annoying ache that seems to cycle back in forth in sort of a sine wave of pain, a couple of minutes out of every twenty minutes or so where it is quite bothersome.  Don’t know what it is, but I do know that Motrin doesn’t help but Tylenol does.  As I write this I’m an hour into high-strength Alleve, and it’s still bugging me.  Anyway, this was my Christmas visitor and it put me in a foul mood Christmas Eve.

Had to work until 3 pm on Christmas Eve.  No bonus, no overtime, but still a lot to do.  Got home just as my parents and my brother’s family were arriving.  The wife was abuzz all day getting the house and the girls in order, so in retrospect I’m kinda glad I had to work.  My folks brought filet mignon and lobster, and my stepfather cooked it on the grill.  Tasty, as always, this once-a-year feast. 

The loudness of it all and my shoulder both contributed to an intense headache.  Would’ve loved to have a drink, or a dozen, but with my heart and my general flabbiness I’m trying to avoid alcohol.  After the family left we put the girls down, finished wrapping presents, and put everything under the tree.  Little One was spying on us, and crept into our room later with questions.  No, Little One, there isn’t a Santa, at least in the jolly-red-man-in-a-suite variety.  I expounded on the real meaning of Christmas, felt it was falling on deaf ears, and did not push it.  ’Twas a most bittersweet moment.

Christmas Day, however, held no sadness.  The girls woke us while still dark out, 6:30-ish, and we unwrapped gifts with a passion they only save for birthday cakes and summer trips to the pool.  They all did very, very well: Tyler Swift tickets, a hamster (christened “Cinnamon”), tons of Frozen-themed toys and clothes, games, dolls, neat bracelets, beginner lip gloss, personalized cookies.  My gifts to them – a book on magic tricks for one, a diary for the other, posters for their rooms, a Grumpy Cat mug, a Magic 8-ball – seemed to go over well.  They were excited, spastic, in heaven.  It was a good time to be in the Hopper household.

As for me, I did as well as a middle-aged parent could expect.  Patch got me a wallet (which I desperately needed); Little One got me two finger-sized rubber chickens we can shoot at the TV screen when we watch bad horror movies (long story).  The wife got me a Seton Hall sweatshirt.  Oh, and one of our friends got me this:


Thanks Dee!

Little One and I both served at noon mass; thankfully, the least crowded mass at my Church on Christmas Day.  It felt good.  My shoulder made me sit rigid in the pew, but otherwise I felt okay.  The girls all left to visit friends in the afternoon while I laid in bed watching bad Syfy movies (for some reason Christmas Day was interpreted to mean Yeti Marathon for the suits over there).  Read a bit, dozed a bit, had a long, quiet, relaxing afternoon.  Had some raviolis for dinner.  The girls all watched Christmas in Connecticut; I went back to the upstairs bedroom and watched a couple of Mel Brooks’ movies.

All in all, not a bad Christmas for me.  Looking forward to the weekend, and the shortened week after. 


Feliz Navidad!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Song for Christmas


Glory to the Voice that became a Body,
and to the Word of the Most High, which became Flesh!
Hear Him alos, O ears, and see Him, O eyes,
and feel Him, O hands, and eat Him, O mouth!
You limbs and senses, give praise to Him,
Who came and gave life to the whole body!
Mary bore the silent baby,
while in Him were hidden all tongues!
Joseph bore Him, and in Him was hidden
a nature more ancient than anything old!
The Most High became like a little child,
and in Him was hidden a treasure
of wisdom sufficing for all!
Though He was Most High, he sucked milk from Mary,
and of His goodness all creatures suck!
He is the Breast of Life, and the Breath of Life;
the dead suck from His life and revive.
Without the breath of the air no man lives,
without the Might of the Son no man subsists.
On His living breath that gives life to all,
depend the spirits that are above
and all that are beneath.
When He sucked the milk of Mary,
He was suckling all with Life.
While He was lying upon His Mother’s breast,
in His bosom were all creatures lying.
He was silent as a baby, and yet He was making
His creatures carry out His every command.
For without the Firstborn no man can approach
unto the Essence, to which He is equal.

For thirty years He was on the earth,
who was ordering all creatures,
and receiving the offerings of praise
from those above and those below.
He was wholly in the depths and wholly in the highest!
He was wholly with all things and wholly with each.
While His body was forming within the womb,
His power was fashioning all members!
While conceived, the Son was fashioned in the womb,
Yet He Himself was fashioning babes in the womb.
Yet not as His body was weak in the womb
was His power weak in the womb!
And not has His body was feeble on the cross
was His might also feeble on the cross …
While on the cross He gave life to the dead,
so while a Babe He was fashioning babes.
While He was slain, He opened the graves;
while He was in the womb, He opened wombs.

Come hear, my brothers,
of the Son of the hidden One,
who was revealed in His body,
while His power was concealed! …
It was by power from Him that Mary was able
to bear in her bosom who bears all things up! …
She gave Him milk from Himself who prepared it,
she gave Him food from Himself who made it!
He gave milk to Mary as God,
and He sucked it from her, as the Son of Man …
He the Lord of all gives all to us.
He who pays riches to all asks interest from all.
He gives to all things as wanting nothing,
and yet requires interest of all as if needy.
He gave us herds and flocks as Creator,
yet asked of us sacrifices as though in need.
He was the water wine as Maker,
and yet he drank of it as a poor man.
Of His own He mingled wine in the marriage feast,
His wine He mingled and gave to drink when He was a guest …
Of His own all that give have made their vows;
of His own treasures they placed upon His table.

- St. Ephrem of Syria (died 373 A.D.)


Merry Christmas 2014!




Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Message from the Elf


On the Shelf, to my little ones:





[Saw this done elsewhere on the web and couldn’t resist!]


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Catholic Artwork, 50s-style




I have come to a decision that I really like 50s-style Catholic artwork such as this.  There’s something extremely respectful, extremely reverent about it. 

Much more so than contemporary Hippy Picasso Jesus stuff, still one of my top pet peeves …


Monday, December 22, 2014

De Mohrenschildt


Forgot to post this last month when I reviewed Stephen King’s 11/22/63

One of the better things in the novel is King’s envisioning of George De Mohrenschildt, an acquaintance of Lee Harvey Oswald’s during the summer of 1962.  An informal leader in  the ex-patriot Russian community, with a German accent to boot, with import-export ties in the third world, suspicion has long had it that De Mohrenschildt had CIA ties.  King doesn’t weigh in on this one way or the other, but focuses on the character of the strange, domineering man that most of the conspiracy books only hint at:

What interested me was the way de Mohrenschildt listened.  He did it as the world’s more charming and magnetic people do, always asking the right question at the right time, never fidgeting or taking his eyes from the speaker’s face, making the other guy feel like the most knowledgeable, brilliant, and intellectually savvy person on the planet.  This might have been the first time in his life that Lee had been listened to in such a way.  (page 494).

Or how about this scene, a few pages later:

“Be courageous, Lee!  When they come, stand forward!  Show them this!”  He grasped his shirt and tore it open.  Buttons popped off and clattered to the porch.  The jump-rope girls gasped, too shocked to giggle.  Unlike most American men of that time, de Mohrenschildt wore no undershirt.  His skin was the color of oiled mahogany.  Fatty breasts hung on old muscle.  He pounded his right fist above his left nipple.  “Tell them, ‘Here is my heart, and my heart is pure, and my heart belongs to my cause!’  Tell them ‘Even if Hoover rips my heart out of me, it will still beat, and a thousand other hearts will beat in time!  Then ten thousand!  Then a hundred thousand!  Then a million!” (page 498)

This occurs during a picnic with the wives and kiddies.

Every line of dialogue King put in this guys mouth rang true.  The character – previously a black-and-white photo in a couple of used JFK assassination books – came to life for me.  One of the better parts of the novel.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Friday, December 19, 2014

Seven Days in May


As far as the black-and-white movies go, Kirk Douglas is one of my favorite stars.  Like many of the Hollywood icons of the classic era, he embodied toughness, grit, humor, integrity, confidence – all the good qualities we expected to find in leading men back then.  Sure, he could be a bastard if the role called for it, but every time I see him on the screen I am hooked. 

I liked him in Kubrick’s World War I moralistic epic Paths of Glory.  I liked him as Doc Holiday in Gunfight at the OK Corral.  Superb as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life.  He was great in the relatively unknown Ace in the Hole.  And one on my favorite Kirk Douglas performance was in Seven Days in May, perhaps because of the “last boy scout” aspect to his Colonel Casey, perhaps because of the visceral power struggle with his nemesis and superior commanding officer, Burt Lancaster, himself no slouch on the big screen.

Seven Days in May deals with a secret coup d’etat against a flailing President of the United States (played by Fredric March), launched by the charismatic Air Force general (Lancaster) in charge of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  A mid-level Colonel at the Pentagon (Douglas) stumbles across a few odd occurrences one Sunday, such as the heads of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines sending in bets on the Preakness horse race in May and the possible existence of a heretofore unknown division of soldiers called ECOMCON (Emergency Communications Control) and a heretofore unknown military base.  Putting the pieces together in a spooky and ominous way, Colonel Casey’s conscience forces him to bring his uncertainties to the President.  Through some deduction and detective work, the coup is uncovered, set to take place during a full-scale military exercise six days later.  The question remains: how to stop this exercise in brutal military muscle-flexing while remaining firmly on the side of the Constitution and the American way of life.



Needless to say, it’s a great political thriller with some great confrontational scenes between March and Lancaster and Douglas and Lancaster.  One of the best closing exchanges ever in the history of movies, too.

I’ve seen it a handful of times.  Saw it with the wife and she seemed to enjoy it too.  Then I found the novel John Frankenheimer based his movie one at one of my used book stores a year or so ago, immediately bought it and finally got around to reading it. 

Which got me thinking.  Which was better – the book or the movie?

The movie generally follows the book in plot with a few major differences.  In the book, the President has a few more allies working with him; in the movie it’s just him, Casey, his chief of staff and a senator friend.  The book also worked in more of Lancaster’s compatriots, whereas in the movie they are faceless brass.  If I recall correctly, the movie presented March’s President, Lancaster’s General Scott, and Douglas’s Colonel Casey as a triumvirate with more-or-less equal screen time.  In the book it seemed that Casey had much less time; his time as the focal point was given instead to the President.  So in the movie if President/Casey/Scott was at 40/40/20, in the book it’d be 60/20/20.  But that’s just an unscientific spur of the moment survey of three-week-old memories echoing in my brain.

Anyway, the major difference between the book and the movie is, as far as I can tell, Ava Gardner.  A character in the book who inhabits exactly one chapter is written up for Ms. Gardner, and I can understand why.  And in the book, the President is confronted with the option of using a tax return the Gardner character has which has a deduction for “entertaining” General Scott, and it’s implied this will publicly humiliate the General.  In the movie it’s a stack of love letters from a failed extramarital romance.  Maybe the first is a euphemism for the second, but either way it’s a seedy, last-ditch fallback plan the distinguished President does not want to use.  Truth be told, in both media, it was the weakest part for me.



The best parts?  The no-nonsense confrontations.  Between President and potential Usurper.  Between potential Usurper and his unimpeachable underling.  Whether its March and Lancaster or Lancaster and Douglas verbally sparring, those scenes are the payoff.  Right vs. Wrong, Right vs. Might, the Constitution – those who would uphold it vs. those who would usurp it.  Great stuff, great dialogue.  And when it comes to the choice between reading those blistering, tension-laden exchanges between characters on the page or icons on the silver screen, the edge has to go with the movie every time.

And that classic question at the end: Do you know who Judas was?  The answer is worth the price of admission.

Grade: Movie – A+ / Book – A


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: Mythago Wood




© 1984 by Robert Holdstock

[minor spoilers]

This book has been on my radar for … hmm … how does thirteen years sound?

I first spotted Mythago Wood on one of the shelves in my honeymoon suite out in Napa Valley in 2001.  Strange choice of book.  Hardcover.  I flipped it open, ruffled the pages, greatly intrigued by the pencil sketches of various fantasy creatures within.  Couldn’t figure out what the book specifically was about, even after reading the back cover.  Maybe I even read a page or two, but I had other things on my mind that week.

Anyway, I spotted a paperback version of it on a dusty old bookshelf in a dusty old bookstore in a dusty old town in rural Pennsylvania.  Recalling my encounter with it from six years previous, I bought it, brought it home, stuck it on a shelf … where it remained for seven more ears.

Finally got around to reading it.

My verdict?  Well, it was an interesting read.  Didn’t like it but didn’t not like it, either.  If you were to graph my experience of the book with x-axis approximate to page number and the y-axis my degree of enjoyment, you’d have something resembling a bell curve.

The set-up’s clever, I’ll grant it that.  Imagine a magical woodland that somehow imagines our myths – into reality.  You walk through it and the flow of time and space is altered, lengthened beyond comprehension.  You come face to face with our racial memories enfleshed.  Robin Hood is mentioned in passing several times, but never makes a cameo.  Similarly King Arthur.  Instead, Mythago Wood pulls out deeper shared memories, dating back hundreds and even thousands of years.  This being England, Celtic legends come to life in all their glorious, Roman-fightin’ barbarity.

A family at each other’s throats lies at the heart of all the tension.  After all, what can go wrong when a trio of dysfunctional men traipse into Mythago Wood, creating living myths with every step they take?  Besides everything, that is.  Eventually the plot devolves to two brothers fighting to the death over the stunning mythago named Guiwenneth, with the specter of an evil father, reimaged as a boar-troll-man-bear-pig thing, stalking them both.  Ice Age tribes join the melee, and, man, do those Stone Age warriors know how to handle a blade compared to us “civilized” modern-day men.

The book is interesting to me in the fact that it presents a respectable alternative to Tolkien.  It has long been my contention, and I suppose the contention of many, many others, that Tolkien made the mold – trailblazer, standard-bearer, shining city on the hill.  Imitated by dozens, if not hundreds, of other fantasy writers, and whether those writers called their derivative works homages or just plain rip-offs, the bottom line is Tolkien set the bar high.  Holdstock came up with a way of dealing with agrarian fantasy without having elves battle dark lords.  For that, the book gets an A+.

However, I found it hard to get into, hard to lose myself within its pages.  Harking back to that bell curve image, the middle parts of the book were the best, where beautiful, ancient Guiwenneth and our dour young hero Steven discover each other and tentatively come to love one another.  It was both romantic, exciting, and dangerous (when you consider what else was happening in the novel at the time).  Good writing, authentic writing.  My heart, as was Steven’s, was all a-flutter.

The major problem surfaces a little past two-thirds of the way in, after Steven’s now-evil brother, Christian, abducts Guiwenneth.  Steven and his friend Harry Keeton must enter the Wood, overcome its mysteries and malignancies, and rescue the girl (who has more often than not rescued Steven time and again).  A sense of urgency devolves into the stumbling upon of new tribes from various eras in the past every five to ten pages or so.  Convoluted myths and legends are chanted, danced, sung, and ultimately explained to us, a piece is taken here or there, what’s of significance is told to the reader, and on to the next ancient tribe.  I got lost, found myself easily distracted, wondering only if Steven was going to kill his brother to get the girl.

Needless to say, if anthropology is your thing, you’ll love the book.

Again, it was not bad, not bad at all.  Tweaked I would have loved it.  Instead, I only mildly liked it.  I’m happy I traveled the pages of Mythago Wood, but I wouldn’t want to revisit it or its sequels. 

Unless …

Grade: C+


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review Roulette


Among the various books Ive read in the past month are these three:


All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

Seven Days in May, by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II

Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock


I will be posting a review of one of them tomorrow.

That is all.



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

New Horizons


I am so embarrassed!  How do I not know this?

It seems that while I’ve been spending the last decade or so in Fictionville, real life has passed me by.  Real life as in NASA Space Exploration, that is.

I just learned that a space probe called New Horizons has just been “awakened” on its approach to explore Pluto.  Launched on January 19, 2006, it spent the next eight years travelling the several billion miles that separates our planet from the ninth *, coming back to life on December 6 of this year as it gets set for its final approach.

Now, since nothing happens as fast as our attention-deficit species likes it, New Horizons won’t reach the dark icy world until July 15 (the date of its closest approach).  But in the meantime, leading up to that magical date and up to a month afterwards, the investigations will commence.  Look for plenty of pictures of the crazy pseudo-planetary system that is Pluto to be released over the next year.


Artist rendering of the surface of Pluto, with Charon on the left and the Sun on the right


For years Pluto has been Little One’s favorite planet (after Jupiter, for some reason).  However, being young and impressionable and all, she falls into the “Pluto is a dwarf planet” camp.  So there’s been that playful back-and-forth between us.  I brought up the New Horizons mission with her and she wants to be a part of it – which means I will update her whenever we – the public – get updates from NASA regarding the mission.  It’ll be fun.  Like exploring the world together.

But I felt I had to get up to speed on Pluto.  Last I was truly into the whole astronomy thing was about ten years ago when I got a telescope for Christmas and a buddy bought me a surprisingly nice night sky guidebook.  I read it cover to cover, took notes, looked at Mars and Venus through the scope.  But that was when Little One was very, very little.

So I read up a bit on Pluto.  Didn’t know it had five – FIVE! – satellites.  I last left off at one, Charon.  Didn’t know that Pluto-Charon is a binary planet.  Or maybe I did, but forgot.  But I studied up on its highly irregular orbit (it comes closer to the Sun than Neptune for 20 years out of a 284-year “year”, but will never collide with the eighth planet), the composition of its sometimes-gaseous-sometimes-sold atmosphere (nitrogen, methane, carbon dioxide), its crazy seasonal night and days (it revolves on its side like Uranus, which leads to all sorts of weird lengths of days and nights – plus its locked into synchronized orbit with Charon, so each body only shows the same face to the other.)

I think I’ll post anything of interest I find or anything of interest Little One says (the funniest lines come out of those little mouths!) here.  NASA pics, too, once they’re released.  A fun, six-month journey of bonding with Little One.  Or maybe not.  You know, she’ll be an official tween in less than a year, and she already has that practiced eyeroll down.  We’ll see.

* = Pluto is still a planet in this household!!!

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Burden of Power




( ... made me chuckle during a very stressful workday ... )

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Gift from Mars


“A fire-eating diplomat in the Austro-Hungarian foreign ministry called the Archduke’s murder ‘a gift from Mars’ – a wonderful excuse to solve all problems.”

- World War One: A Short History, by Norman Stone, page 25.


Superb and, to be quite honest, a haunting turn of phrase found in Stone’s tidy little summation of the Great War.  Since reading All Quiet on the Western Front a few weeks ago I’ve been moderately interested in learning more about this terrible and seemingly all-but-forgotten-except-by-historians-and-history-buffs war.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Book Review: Childhood's End




© 1953 by Arthur C. Clarke


… spoilers of various magnitude … don’t read if you plan on reading the book and want to be surprised …


Dunno what it is with me and Arthur C. Clarke.  I want to like him.  I really, really do.  He’s, like, one of the “Big Three” in the Golden Age of Science Fiction * , and I, being a science fiction dude, feel obligated to like him.  And I do.  I really do.  Well, some of his stuff.  Some parts of some of his stuff.

Let’s see if I can work this out on the page here, and maybe inspire you to check out (or not check out, whatever the case may be) some of his work.

Way back in the 70s, Little Me bought 2001: A Space Odyssey from the Bookmobile and the paperback subsequently became my steady companion for most of fourth grade.  I read it a couple times as a kid, before I even saw the movie it was based on.  I loved it.  I re-read it again sometime in the early 90s, and thought it was okay – not as good as I remembered it as a youngling, but not bad.

Then, I read Rendezvous with Rama and it’s sequel during one very hot month of July.  That story floored me, and in retrospect showed me the basic pattern for an Arthur C. Clarke novel.  This pattern repeated itself – er, hit me over the head with a literary two-by-four – when I read The Fountains of Paradise fifteen years later. 

The basic pattern: Big Idea, Little Story.

What does this mean?

Well, all his novels get to, eventually, the Big Idea.  Usually something to do with mankind’s place in the universe, in relation to the “Other”, be it advanced alien civilizations either long dead or co-existent with us, or something we can’t even grasp yet, like the OverMind in Childhood’s End.  That’s a pretty big idea.  And I like it.  That’s why I will continue to read Clarke’s oeuvre in my own meandering way.

The problem for me is that I can’t get into the story – the vehicle he chooses to develop these big ideas.  His characters don’t come to life for me.  The situations and plot twists and turns don’t grip me.  I find myself turning the pages to see how he’s going to work in a Big Thematic Element instead of desiring to find out if so-and-so survives the current life-or-death predicament.  And that makes for a disconnect I have a hard time reconciling.

Childhood’s End conforms completely to the preceding paragraph’s paradigm, as did 2001Rama and Fountains.  In this classic novel, flying saucers descend upon the major cities of Earth in a somewhat peaceful invasion and the “Overlords” usher in years of prosperity, law, order, and progressive reforms at the cost of mankind’s freedom for self-rule.  They only deal with the Secretary General of the United Nations, and he only really deals with one Overlord, Karellen.  (Trivia: there are four Overlords named in the novel, the other three being Rashaverak, Thanthalteresco, and Vindarten.)  The Overlords themselves resemble the medieval image of the devil – horns, wings, a tail, etc.  So Clarke uses a premise of a possible human-Overlord encounter in the distant past to explain away religion. **  Much is made of the attempt for the Secretary General to take a picture of Karellen, after which it is revealed that the omnipotent Overlords will reveal themselves in fifty years time. 

There is a kidnapping, a rescue, a cocktail party of intelligentsia, a stowaway, a tsunami, a … yawn. 

Then, something interesting happens.  All the children of the world become … autistic, I guess, without exception.  They are all placed in Australia and observed and began acting as one entity with one mind.  Thus, the Big Idea: the next step in human evolution is to join the mysteries OverMind, a step which will involve the death of humanity as we know it.  That sounds to me more demonic than any description of an Overlord.  Which are, by the way, merely servants of the OneMind.

I found myself rushing the last forty pages to see where this vision would take me, or us, or mankind, the Universe, whatever, and was only mildly interested in the fate of Jan Rodricks, the Last Man on Earth.

So I’m kinda schizophrenic regarding Arthur C. Clarke.  With this in mind, I have to provide two grades for the novel based on the basic pattern (Big Idea, Small Story):

A- / C-



* = the other two being Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.  Asimov I grew up on and is eminently readable.  As for Heinlein, I love his dozen or so “juvenile” SF books (which grown-ups can read just as enjoyably as padawans) but never got into his more mature adult-oriented works.


** = which is quite silly, as is his belittling of religious thought by calling it “superstition” and his somewhat arrogant viewpoint that “reason” sola “reason” is the only intelligent position one should have, sans faith.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hand of Fate


Nice little musical entry, from the climactic scene in one of my favorite fantasy movies, Signs ...




Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Today’s Peaceful Thought


Comes straight to you via Latin from the Book of Jeremiah:

Quia inebriavi animam lassam,
et omnem animam esurientem saturavi.

(Chapter 31, verse 25)

Look it up!


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Creeeepy


“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.  And when you gaze along into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you …”

- Friedrich Nietszche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), aphorism 146

For the past couple of months I’ve been toying with an idea of a new literary adventure – read through Nietzsche’s work in chronological order, a dozen or so books.  The appeal is, well, I find him immensely readable for a philosopher (as do many), and when I’m in a dark mood his philosophy suits me just fine.  But … this quote regarding the abyss … I can understand it only too well, and I am taking the synchronistic discovery of those fourteen words as a friendly warning from the beyond to stick with my original pre-Nietzschean plan.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Book Review: Billy Budd




c. 1888-91, by Herman Melville (published posthumously in 1924)

About a year and a half ago I DVR’d 1962’s Billy Budd to watch while the ladies were all vacationing down south for the week.  The black-and-white semi-classic was adapted from Melville’s story by Peter Ustinov and starred a very young and blond General Zod (Terence Stamp) as the simple-hearted sailor Billy and a grizzled Robert Ryan as Mr. Claggart, Billy’s antagonist.

I was very, very pleasantly surprised.  The movie was – great.

Though the plot is simple, the mental and moral conundra it brings about are complex.  Taking place on a British royal man o’ war sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century, military discipline is both strict as well as necessary in an era where the Crown is confronted by several mutinies.  In a scene rife with symbolism, Billy is sort of “eminent domain”-ed off a commercial vessel (named The Rights of Man) to fill a vacancy on Captain Vere’s Bellipotent.  Within a few weeks our young lad has won over the new crew and command (and even Vere himself) with his innocence, good humor, and sense of wonder.  All, except, for Master-at-Arms Claggart.  This antagonist brings up false charges of sedition against poor Billy, and both are hauled to Captain Vere’s cabin.  Nervous under the captain’s questioning, unable to defend himself rationally, Billy lashes out at the untrue accusations and strikes Claggart.

Who falls to the deck, dead.

Billy killed an officer.  That’s a hanging offense.  But the officer was lying.  Should never have brought false allegations to his superior.  The quandary: What to do with Billy …

The rest of the story teases out this ethical Gordian knot.

A week or so ago, I tried my hand at Melville’s novella.  And I finished it quicker than I thought – two days, I believe, to navigate nineteenth-century New English prose.  (Side note: Back in 1999, during a first summer vacation with my future wife, I brought Moby Dick with us to Cape Cod.  And struggled through the darn thing long after the vacation was over.  Think it took me two months.  Was expecting more of the same, and wasn’t disappointed.  Read on!)

Melville’s writing style to this modern ear is dense and meandering.  His arsenal includes words whose meanings themselves have meandered over the decades since first inked on to paper.  Poor Hopper found himself having to re-read sentences and paragraphs again and again as his mind meandered.  He – I mean, me, er, I – I would lose the main idea of any given sentence by the time I reached the conclusion of said sentence.  And this went on and on and on.

Fortunately, I had seen the movie.  So I knew what was going on.  And the movie was great.  Ergo, it is a good idea to see the movie before reading the book.  Got that, high school English students?

The movie fleshed out the conflict between Claggart and Billy with much more depth.  Subsequently, the consummation of Claggart’s report against Billy in front of Captain Vere was more shocking (though still effectively written in the novella).  As was Billy’s response.  The wrenching debate on Billy’s Fate between Vere and his lieutenants is dramatized quite effectively, and the movie spent a great deal more on it, if memory serves me correctly, than the novella does.  However, I felt the ending of the film a bit more cheesy, having a studio-execs-demands-Billy-get-avenged-via-the-death-of-Captain-Vere feel to it.  The novella was more satisfying, having a trio of codae, none of which gives definitive closure to the affair, but that sat all right with me.

A big mystery in the novella (not sure if it’s the mystery or just a mystery) is Claggart’s rationale.  If you’re the type of person who needs to have things explained, the movie may be a better fit for you.  For the novella leaves his motivations absolutely, puzzlingly, and antagonizingly hidden.

Grade: B.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Picard and the Bard


Sweet words from Patrick Stewart regarding the greatest writer of the English langauge:

“Having spent so much of my life with Shakespeare’s world, passions and ideas in my head and in my mouth, he feels like a friend – someone who just went out of the room to get another bottle of wine.”

Nice quote.

By the way, despite the tentative reading plan I’m formulating for 2015, I’m being tempted to resume my journey through Shakespeare.  I left off a little over three years ago after reading something like a dozen or so out of his 38-ish number of plays. 

I also, on a whim, picked up a strange book from one of the local libraries: Star Wars, written out as a Shakespearean play.  Will shoot through that one night this week, I expect.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

What Goes Through My Head


Pretty much every minute of every hour of every day when I am awake:




My Fears


Well, some of them.

In no particular order, Hopper suffers from:

  
  • Kakaorrhaphiophobia
  • Gelotophobia
  • Blennophobia
  • And, especially, Metathesiophobia

  
But, definitely not – Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliaphobia!


Friday, December 5, 2014

LBJ's Octopus


Found this while bopping about the Internet at lunch time today … a doodle done by Lyndon B. Johnson while a member of Congress.
  


My estimation of the man has just quadrupled …

How could it not?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Voltaire Strikes Back


“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” – Voltaire

Voltaire is not a man particular to my liking, but, by golly, the man spewed more timeless, pithy barbs than anyone other human being to walk the planet.

Memorize this quote; use it frequently.  Especially applicable in 2014 America.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Constricted


Yeah, things are a bit tight here time-wise (actually, come to think of it, freedom­-wise), so it’s been hard to just sit down peaceably and write.  The job’s been extremely stressful – think trying to juggle forty or so round objects ranging in size from a marble to a hand grenade to a bowling ball while walking a swaying tightrope over Mauna Loa.  The wife’s in the month-long process of interviewing for a position that would truly accelerate the attainment of her central career goal.  Little One’s basketball season is starting in earnest now, and the extracurriculars – her clarinet concert at B&N, girl scouts, sleepovers, birthday parties – keep coming at me like those household appliances flying at Ash at the end of the uber-classic Evil Dead 2

Me, I’m just trying to keep my head – and my family’s physical and financial house – above water.

After a nasty bout of insomnia yesterday, I finally began a workout program reboot (much needed, for whenever I glance in a mirror I see a young, still-mobile Jabba).  Did the exercise bike and threw around some free weights for a half-hour this a.m.  And reading, still my Number One Source of Stress Relief, has to take precedence, too.  For those keeping track at home I am on track to read more books cover-to-cover this year (around 55, I think) than I ever had in a past twelve-month period.


So I have a list of topics to write about.  Just gotta write ’em.  I keep a Word doc open on the PC at work and, when the traveling circus leaves me a moment’s peace I type a few lines here, a paragraph there, and hopefully will have a few interesting posts this week.  Have two book reviews to finish (er, and start).  Some thoughts on religion and some thoughts on politics.  Some personal observations on, uh, personal teleological musings.  My reading plan for 2015.  A list of movies I wanna see before the year’s out.  

Stuff like that.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

November Wrap-Up


Not an ungood month, by any stretch of the imagination. 

Began it by finishing up an Arthur C. Clarke anthology of fun SF short stories.  Revisited JFK via Stephen King (major nostalgia factors for both).  Polished off a trio of classics (Jekyll and Hyde, Billy Budd, All Quiet on the Western Front).  Did some pro-Church research on the Crusades by reading a book on the subject and skimming two others.

Family-wise, the girls finished their soccer seasons on high notes with strong finishes for final games.  Patch a future potential warrior on offense; Little One solidifying her status as a clutch goalie.  The latter also began basketball practices – and I mean, rigorous, hard-core practices – by being the least yelled-at by her coaches, and the town team began the season with a 1-2 record in the local county tournament, though they could very well have finished 2-1.

There was the whole to-do with the election, the Thanksgiving holiday, lots of politics in the news re: amnesty, the Ferguson verdict, blah blah blah.  Me and Little One served once at our parish, there was a beautiful ceremony for one of the priest’s fortieth anniversary.  There was also the death of Squeak, beloved hamster and family member since Christmas 2013.  And, of course, lots of snow between lots of leaf raking.

December looks to be shaping up pretty well for us.  We’ll see; I need to wait a week or so for a post explaining possible developments.  But I’m optimistic, which in itself is saying something, especially if you recall some of my posts from earlier in the month.

Anyway – see ya, November!


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Patch with Santa


At brunch this morning at the club my parents belong to:


... I want an Ever After High doll, a Geronimo Stilton book, some new dresses for school, a white fox ... 






Friday, November 28, 2014

Values? Values??


Why do we actively and energetically fight obesity but not promiscuity?

Why do we actively and energetically fight tobacco smoking but not marijuana smoking?

Why one and not the other?

Now, anyone can manipulate statistics to reach any desired number, but surely the costs are comparable?  (And in the smoking case, proportionally comparable.)  And not just economic costs, but costs such as premature deaths and more subjective costs such as lower quality of life.

So why do we fight against one and nod-nod wink-wink (or even actively promote) the other?

Oh.  It all comes down to our values.

More precisely, the values of the segments of the population that truly have power in our American society.

I.e., the “Man.”


[Note: This is not your 50s, 60s, and even 70s “Man” …]

Chance in the Cage


The front is a cage in which we must await fearfully whatever may happen.  We lie under the network of arching shells and live in a suspense of uncertainty.  Over us Chance hovers.  If a shot comes, we can duck, that is all; we neither know nor can determine where it will fall.

It is this Chance that makes us indifferent.  A few months ago I was sitting in a dug-out playing skat; after a while I stood up and went to visit some friends in another dug-out.  On my return nothing more was to be seen of the first one, it had been blown to pieces by a direct hit.  I went back to the second and arrived just in time to lend a hand digging it out.  In the interval it had been buried.

It is just as much a matter of chance that I am still alive as that I might have been hit.  In a bomb-proof dug-out I may be smashed to atoms and in the open may survive ten hours’ bombardment unscathed.  No soldier outlives a thousand chances.  But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck.

- All Quite on the Western Front (1928), by Erich Maria Remarque, chapter 6.

 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gratitude


Gratitude = Happiness x Wonder


Paraphrase of a quote by G. K. Chesterton

Happy Thanksgiving!


Well, after a hectic day of travelling through the nor’easter yesterday, we finally arrived at my parent’s house last night for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Two-and-a-half hours of white-knuckled driving through the slush and snow and sleet and wind got us the 75 miles into Pennsylvania to our destination.  Well, my knuckles where white (and a Rosary nearly squeezed apart) in the driver’s seat of the Honda Pilot.  The wife drove through like an expert and got us there, passing a half-dozen stranded off-road vehicles (including a broken down snow plow) and getting us to the Last Homely House in the West by seven o’clock last night.

Earlier in the day we lost power at my work after a truck slid off the road in front of the building and took down a power line pole.  Traffic was shut down on the highway that ran past us, and my heart sank as I realized I might be trapped at my place of business and I only half-kidded that I’d be spending Thanksgiving with the people I work with eight-plus hours a day five days a week.  I wanted to be outta there by 2:30 and thanks to the efficiency of the local police, who literally turned traffic around on the highway, we all were “evacuated” by 2:15.

After a warm meal of lasagna at the Pennsylvania house, I warmed my cold, weary, stressed out bones in a hot tub.  Read fifty pages of All Quiet on the Western Front, and started a project of which I will reveal in a week’s time as long as I can stick with it.  (Can you guess what it is?  Hint: I’m officially starting the day after Thanksgiving…).  Went to bed around 11 and slept the sleep of the dead – there is nary a sound at all in the woods where my parent’s house stands – for nine hours, until my human alarm clocks, my six- and ten-year-old, woke me listening to their heavy footfalls and cries of joy through the ceiling above me.

Today the wife is making pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce; my mom is making the turkey and all its accessories.  The girls are playing with their Frozen dolls somewhere in the house.  I am planning on reading half of All Quiet and relaxing without guilt.  Then we’ll all watch the Macy’s parade on the tube.  My brother and his family are due up around twelve or one, and we’ll have Thanksgiving “dinner” around three I guess.  Then the football games, laughing, more eating, general merriment.  I’ll sneak off at some point for some more reading.  In the evening we’ll watch something Christmas-y.  The girls are split – the youngest wants to watch Elf and the oldest White Christmas.  I have a feeling the latter will prevail (wife has the deciding vote).

Tomorrow I’ll be getting up around five, showering, dressing, and borrowing my parent’s Rav4 to drive down south to work Friday.  Have to stop at my house to feed the fish and set the DVR to tape some movies, as well as get myself a pair of sweatpants (forgot to pack ‘’em).  Then, back to the Last Homely House in the West for a weekend of fun and relaxation.

Happy Thanksgiving all!
 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Spectrum of Sanity


Or “Snaity,” as I originally mistyped it:

Who in the rainbow can show the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins?  Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but when exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other?  So with sanity and insanity. 

- “Billy Budd,” chapter 27, by Herman Melville


Note: This post is in no way meant to be construed as autobiographical.  Just a neat turn of phrase and image I found intriguing.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

5 – 17


Is the combined record of New York’s two professional football teams.  That’s a winning percentage just a bit short of 23 percent.  Ugh.

It’s also a bit short of my August predictions, too.  My admittedly nonprofessional crystal ball saw the Giants finishing at 7-9 and the Jets 5-11.  At their current caliber of performance one team will be 4-12 and the other 3-13.

Now I’m not a huge football fan.  I do enjoy watching the games on Sunday, from a ritualistic point of view.  The family gets back from Church, the house is stocked with snacks, the girls do their own thing, I get into my sweats, grab some books to thumb through, sit down in my favorite one-man couch, remote in hand, and watch six hours of the games in high-def.  I don’t live or die for the game or the teams (I’m a Giants fan, by the way), but I do demand a winning season from the G-men and at least competition from the Jets (my late father’s team).

Now watching football isn’t that much fun anymore. 

It’s a long way from a decade ago.  Back then I pal’d around with a huuuuge football fanatic, a guy whose perfect Sunday involved downing a few pitchers of cheap but effective beer, smoking a pack of cigarettes, watching a dozen TV screens and the tattooed bartendresses at his local sports bar.  Of course he dragged me there often, like every week, me kicking and screaming, because I hate all that.  [Insert smiley emoticon.]  Back then I was living down in Maryland and I drank gallons and smoked bales of tobacco watching Jim Fassell coach Kerry Collins to that Super Bowl blowout.  The traveling circus traveled north to New Jersey in the early 0-0s, but with the buying of the house and the birthing of the child, my sports bar days calmed down to middle-aged me plumped down in an easy chair with a book in hand.

Can the Giants finish the 2014 season 4-1?  Can the Jets go one game over five hundred by December 28?  If so, my predictions will be accurate.  If not, which seems more likely, it appears cynical me was just a tad bit optimistic reading that Inside Sports magazine three months ago.