Saturday, June 29, 2013

Culture Corner: Italy - Venice

I have visited a fair amount of truly unique cities in the world—Guanajuato, Lhasa, Suzhou, Varanasi, Luang Prabang, but none were as photogenic as Venice.  I knew it would be a nice city before arriving, but, being there makes all the difference.  Thus look upon the following photographs as inspiration if you haven’t already been to the city whose roads are made of water.  (But I would recommend going off-season; the sheer number of tourists can be stifling.)

Our approach by ferry one sunny morning…

Culture Corner: Italy - Rome & Umbria

After driving through the northern part of Italy, we arrived in Rome to perform our tourist duty.  And to the best of our ability we did, before moving on to another beautiful region of Italy, Umbria.

The Pantheon.  They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. 

Culture Corner: Italy - Lombardy & Tuscany

Typical and atypical, our Italian holiday covered the tourist spots you’re supposed to visit (Rome, Venice, and Tuscany), while our mode of camper dictated we also see the places between less known to the average tourist (Lombardy and Umbria).  An advantage rather than a disadvantage, the 4,000 km (2,500 miles) of our trip was memorable from day one.  This post (Lombardy & Tuscany) and two that will follow (Rome & Umbria and Venice) will feature photos from a most beautiful country.  Hope you enjoy.
After picking up my mother and sister in Berlin in our home on wheels, we drove through Germany and Austria, entering Italy from the north.  Winding our way through the Dolomites at dusk, we arrived in darkness in Lombardy—dead tired.  But there was a reward for a hard first day's drive: the next morning the beautiful Lago di Gardo lay outside our kitchen (and living room, and bedroom, and bathroom) windows.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Review of The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck is a name known to most Americans.  Required reading in high schools around the country, a Nobel Prize winner, and his works perennial reprinted, few know, however, that the writer was also greatly interested in science and travel.  Best friends with the marine biologist Ed Ricketts (inspiration for the character Doc in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday), in 1940 the two decided to organize a scientific expedition to Baja California to collect intertidal specimen samples.  Looking to recoup money from the excursion, Steinbeck combined his notes with Ricketts upon their return to the US and published The Log from the Sea of Cortez.  Well, not exactly, but you’ll see.

Vivid descriptions, personal reflection, and that subtle insight into people that makes Steinbeck one of the greats are present in Log.  Capturing every bit of jocularity with the crew, the joys of being at sea, and the dwindling colonialism of Mexico, Steinbeck brings his talents as a writer to full bear describing their six weeks aboard the 75 ft. refurbished sardine boat Western Flyer.  Captain Berry, the mechanic Tex, deckhands Sparky and Tiny, and even their bedeviled little motorboat, the Sea Cow, come to full, breathing (or in the Sea Cow’s case, wheezing) life under his pen.  The towns and villages along the coast of the Baja peninsula and Mexican mainland having little contact with the outside, Steinbeck et al, in addition to their main aim of collecting samples of intertidal marine life, were often ambassadors.  Receiving a variety of greetings and welcomes at the different ports they sail to, Steinbeck goes into loving detail every stop along the way, making the book a travelogue as much as a scientific recount. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

There are few works in literature, let alone science fiction, that can match the power of the statement Aldous Huxley makes about humanity and its future in his landmark Brave New World.  Required reading in schools across the US, Huxley plausibly creates a bright, wonderful future society, then destroys it in one massive proverbial blow.  Published in 1932, the book’s reaction to American economic and cultural practice has been largely justified by the ongoing homogenization of world culture, making it one of the most relevant works created to date on the subject of globalization, cultural evolution, and the future of technology’s role in society.

Brave New World, particularly the outset, is largely an exercise in world building.  Wholly a futuristic vision, society is organized along much different, though credible lines.  Childbirth now possible only for a chosen few, babies are grown in vats and intelligence decanted to Alpha, Beta, Cappa, Delta and Epsilon levels.  Epsilons performing the manual labor and Alphas the brain work, society is striated to the maximum.  Everyone, however, is able to enjoy sensuality (recreational sex and “feely” movies), socio-religious experiences, drug induced happiness (soma), and materialist consumption in keeping with the Word State’s Commerce Economy.  A utopia, Huxley's plot sets about dismantling the vision one ideological brick at a time.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review of The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Andrzej Sapkowski is a name well-known in Polish fantasy circles.  Seeking to capitalize on his local success, in 2007 Gollancz bought the rights to his Witcher series and began translating and publishing the works for the English speaking world.  The book they chose to release first is a collection of short stories called The Last Wish.  A test to determine whether the morally ambiguous Witcher is a character English readers can relate to, the collection presents a variety of facets to Sapkowski’s world and character, and sold well enough for Gollancz to go on and release the first two full novels in the series.  

Before reviewing the stories, a brief introduction to the Witcher is needed.  The main character is Geralt, a witcher (sorcerer/warrior) with special powers gained by imbibing strange brews and concoctions that aid him in locating and fighting all manner of monsters, demons, and spirits.  Not a super-hero (rather an itinerant bounty hunter), his moral decisions are rarely clear-cut as he adventures through the strangely haunted forests and Medieval cities of Sapkowski’s fantasy world.  Unfamiliar to most Western readers, Slavic mythology is most utilized toward detailing this world.  Some elements hint at Arthurian legend, Norse myth, etc., but by in large strigas, rusalkas, bruxas, kikimores, etc. are strictly of Eastern European origin, not to mention the Slavic mind which is the creative force behind the writing.  Taking this into consideration, the following is a brief rundown of the seven stories in the collection.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review of The Skinner by Neal Asher

Neil Asher’s 2002 The Skinner follows closely on the heels of Gridlinked’s success and is the first in a sub-series of the Polity called Spatterjay.  Part horror, fantasy, and science fiction, the main character of the book may be the water world Spatterjay itself, the exotic (and hungry) forms of indigenous life vividly imaginative.  Attempting to carve out his own niche in the genre(s), this, Asher’s second published novel, improves upon the first and gives lovers of sci-fi full of action and adventure hope that a new voice is emerging.

At its core, The Skinner is the tale of four characters, though a handful more round out the cast.  Erlin Tazer is a xenobiologist who is looking not only for an old lover, but some excitement in life.  Spatterjay exists beyond the line of polity, i.e. the tamed part of the universe, so she heads there, getting more adventure than she bargained for sailing the planet’s teeming waters.  Janer Cord is a man employed by a hornet hive mind to take their kind on an interplanetary tour so they may learn of the universe. Though seeming a difficult task to pull off, Asher describes hornet sentience plausibly enough, mixing the insects’ interests wholly into the plot.  Sable Keech, a 1,000 year old reified man kept alive by cybergenetics he must regularly flush and cycle from a suitcase he carries, is on a mission of vengeance resulting from the Prador war.  The last character, an elderly war drone named Sniper, is likewise on the planet and becomes involved with the war lusting Pradors in ways his tempered metal casing never wanted.  

Friday, June 21, 2013

Review of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Borrowing a concept to write a novel is a risky decision.  The outcome potentially derivative beyond face-in-public possibility, or conversely, a highly original spin on an old idea that makes successful waves of its own, everything depends on approach.  Neil Gaiman’s 2009 The Graveyard Book one such offering, time has yet to tell whether his choice of Kipling’s Jungle Books and Halloween have been mixed enough to offer a story entirely of his own. 
The Graveyard Book is the story of Bod Owens and his life in a graveyard after his parents are killed.  Escaping his crib while the assassin Jack murders his family, Bod crawls his way into the neighboring graveyard and is adopted by the ghosts, vampires, ghouls, werewolves, and other creatures of the night who call the quiet grounds home.  With The Jungle Books as inspiration, The Graveyard Book is structured such that each chapter is a story on its own, individual threads binding the whole together.  Like windows, these chapters relate various episodes of Bod’s upbringing.  From a trip with the hounds of hell to spending time with the girl Scarlett, mastering The Slide to encountering the mysterious Sleer beneath a grave, the book is full of imagination.  And like Kipling’s showdown with the limp tiger, the final chapters feature Jack still trying to find the child who went missing that night so long ago. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review of Freaksome Tales: Ten Hitherto Uncollected Stories of V.V. Swigferd Gloume by William Rosencrans

There is a popular expression: ‘In order to sing the blues, you need to live the blues.’  The same might perhaps be said of horror writing; in order to write it, you need to live it.  Given the mental condition of his parents, the less-than-standard aspects of his childhood development, and the altogether jaded, insular existence that resulted in him living as a grown man with two aged aunts, it is fair to say H.P. Lovecraft may qualify as one whose thoughts found dark, unintentional corners of the brain most others do not.   

One of the most famous writers of horror and weird, the manner in which his personal life leaked into his fiction would seem to have become source material of its own.  In his 2013 collection of short stories titled Freaksome Tales: Ten Hitherto Uncollected Stories of V.V. Swigferd Gloume, William Rosencrans does precisely this; examine the meta-text of Lovecraft in fictional form using classically styled tales from the genre itself.  The result a mix of entertaining stories with veiled commentary, fans of Lovecraft and horror of the early 20th century in general, should continue reading.  

Presented as a collection of stories uncovered years after the (fictional) writer V.V. Swigferd Gloume’s death, Freaksome Tales is at heart late-Victorian/Edwardian/early modern horror.  Underpinned by biographical entries, photographs, and supporting notes, the tales unearth differing aspects of early horror writing, most focusing on the idiosyncrasies of Lovecraft’s behavior and worldview through the fictional lens of Gloume.  From Anglocentrism to paranormal adventure, racism to one of a disembodied head’s revenge, the pieces included are classic yet often politicized.  

Back again...

A face full of sunshine, a belly round with great wine, cheese, and meats, and more than 4,000 kilometers of driving later (about 2,500 miles for the metric impaired), I have returned from a most excellent vacation.  Italy is even better than expected.  Photos will come sometime soon...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Going to Italy!

There will not be any new blog posts over the coming two weeks.  I will be spending the time in Italy with family on a road trip.  One old camper, a mother and sister, and a wife should be all the companionship needed to enjoy the vineyards, ruins, back roads and Italian life.  Write more when I return!

Review of Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance

I was going to post different review, but hearing of Jack Vance's passing this past week, I've decided to pay a small tribute to the master of the imaginative fantastic by posting a review of one of his novels, instead. Thanks for the stories, Jack.

By the mid ‘70s, Jack Vance had established himself as an important name in science fiction and fantasy.  Having gotten initial forays into pulp out of the way, he’d reached a strong mid-point in his career.  With the unique Blue World, well-developed Emphyrio, and, if anything else, highly imaginative and entertaining Tchai series under his belt, Vance’s books had found a singularity of voice that would later be taken to even greater heights in the Cugel saga, Lyonesse, and Cadwal Chronicles.  Perhaps the most mature of this transition period, the author’s 1976 Maske:Thaery deserves more attention than it receives.

Maske: Thaery is the story of Jubal Droad.  A second son, Jubal is left to seek gainful employment outside the home upon the death of his father and the ascendancy of his older brother to the Droad house seat.  The isolated peninsula where they live, Thaery, dominated by a traditional social structure, House Droad is viewed by the other Houses as haughty, forthright, and all too lacking in restraint—character traits Jubal unwittingly exhibits to a T.  A slight to his House’s honor occurring while Jubal is in the wilds one day, the remainder of the book is Jubal’s quest to effect reprisal, but the form it comes in is not what he inititally hopes.