Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Swords against Wizardry / Fritz Leiber

Demons and evil gods inhabit the untenable peak of the mountain called Stardock. They guard a magnificent trove of treasure that lies at the heart of the dangerous peak, and the brave warriors known as Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser have decided that they will fight to make the riches their own!

As their quest leads them from adventure to adventure, the two heroes find themselves at the threshold of the magical and mysterious kingdom of Quarmall. As they attempt to breach the defenses of ancient and evil sorceries, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser must learn that where treasure lies, treachery often follows.

Another great read from Fritz Leiber!  I do love his command of the English language and use of words which I didn't know existed, but that I can understand immediately from their use in the text.  For example, the "caprid stench" of a group of mountain goats.

Also loved the huge, warm-blooded, furry snakes that the two heroes face half-way up their mountain climbing expedition.  The climb is very well realized--I have a bit of a thing about heights and I had to keep taking little breaks from reading, to let my breathing & heart rate subside a bit.  I was especially happy that there was no need for them to climb down, as that might have done me in.

I can't help but love Fafhrd, the large Viking-like rogue and I certainly see many parallels between him and Howard's Conan.  Both authors, Leiber and Howard, wrote beautifully and told tales of honourable, but incorrigible "barbarians."  I also appreciate that Fafhrd and the Mouser occasionally need to breaks from each other's company, while remaining loyal to their bond.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Outlander / Diana Gabaldon

The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon--when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach--an "outlander"--in a Scotland torn by war and raiding Highland clans in the year of Our Lord...1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into intrigues and dangers that may threaten her life...and shatter her heart. For here she meets James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, and becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire...and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

Let me say, right up front, that Diana Gabaldon is a good writer.  I can see why so many women swoon over this series of novels, featuring Claire Randall, a twentieth-century woman transported back to sixteenth-century Scotland.  I can also see very clearly why few men are attracted to the series.

To my way of thinking, this book is a romance novel, wrapped up in Time Travel paper with a Historical Fantasy ribbon.  Yes, there is time travel and yes, there it is historical fantasy, but the meat of the thing is a romance novel.

It seems amazing to me that something published in 1990 is already dated.  Several of the tropes used (and perfectly acceptable in 1990) are now rejected and reviled.  [See some other reviews if you need/want details].  Socially-acceptable tropes have [maybe] moved along and Gabaldon might write things differently if she was just getting started in 2014.

Now, I must confess that I am not much of a romance reader.  I read a few while I was in high school (way back in the days when the couple maybe kissed passionately at the end of the book), but pretty much abandoned that genre when I went to university and had so many other things to read.  I didn’t see life around me playing out the way romance novels did and I was more interested in fiction that revolved around other parts of life and explored other ideas.  Please note, I am not disparaging the romance genre!  I consider it a perfectly legitimate form.  It’s just not my major interest.

So, you think, why did I read this novel?  Well, two reasons.  Number 1, Diana Gabaldon will be a guest at a readers & writers conference that I will be attending in August and I wanted to have a clear idea about her writing before I participate.  I’ll probably try to read at least the second book in the series before August.  Number 2, I’m still working my way through the NPR list of great science fiction and fantasy literature, this being my 130th title in that endeavour.  I’ve abandoned exactly two titles along the way in this quest and, unless something is really distasteful or boring, I’m reading it to the end & reviewing it.  Outlander was quite entertaining and there was certainly no question but that I would finish it.

In fact, it reminded me a bit of the Perils of Pauline, with Claire being bumped from one scrape to another.  When not being rescued by Jaime (though she does get to rescue him by book’s end), there are long stretches of descriptive boudoir scenes that bring the narrative to a halt.  The entire plot alternates between bumping quickly along through emergencies and frequently stopping dead for a sex scene.

 One other note—I know that the English language is never static.  Claire is transported two centuries into the past.  Shakespeare is only two centuries earlier than that.  When you consider how difficult many modern people feel Shakespearean English is to understand, I can’t see that it would be as effortless as it is written for Claire to communicate with those around her.  Gabaldon does have Claire use some modern expressions that are incomprehensible to the folk around her and she is sometimes confused by their terminology, but I suspect it would have been a major impediment in such a situation.

So, although not my cup of tea, I can see what the fuss is about.  I understand that Outlander is currently being made into a TV series?  I may even sneak a peek at it, if my library acquires it on DVD.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth / Chris Hadfield

4.5 out of 5 stars
Colonel Chris Hadfield has spent decades training as an astronaut and has logged nearly 4000 hours in space. During this time he has broken into a Space Station with a Swiss army knife, disposed of a live snake while piloting a plane, and been temporarily blinded while clinging to the exterior of an orbiting spacecraft. The secret to Col. Hadfield's success-and survival-is an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: prepare for the worst-and enjoy every moment of it.

My thoughts:

It was a pleasure to read Chris Hadfield’s memoir—it took me only 1 day. I was surprised at how many little “rules of living” that I share with an astronaut. For example, I always have Plan B and Plan C prepared, just in case Plan A doesn’t work. By and large, I find that I really don’t need Plan C, but it is useful to have anticipated disaster and to know “where do I go from here?” (But I also have a little saying: What Miss Wanda wants, Miss Wanda gets—I’m pretty used to getting my own way!)

Like Hadfield, I also believe in enjoying the small things. If we only are happy during the big positive events, we won’t be happy very often! I celebrate any small victory or beautiful everyday event so that there are things to enjoy on a regular basis. (As well as reading An Astronaut’s Guide, I also cleared, cleaned and reorganized my cookbook shelf in the kitchen yesterday—I’m spending far more time than I thought I would just admiring my handy work and celebrating cleanliness!!)

Of course, besides the philosophical themes, it was also fun to hear about the details of living in space. Hadfield answers most of my questions about living conditions aboard the ISS (although I’m still wondering how female astronauts/cosmonauts deal with the bathroom issue?) In addition to the danger factor, that alone would keep me from ever wanting to go to space! Besides, if there aren’t any birds there, why would a birding-obsessed gal such as myself ever want to go there?

I was also amused to find out that Hadfield’s children tease him—playing a game called The Colonel Says, where they yell out some of his favourite sayings and laugh hysterically at them! Still, they seem to be very supportive of his endeavours, with one son helping him with social media while he was commander of the ISS.

All in all, a person has to be very driven and competitive to become an astronaut, but despite this Hadfield comes across as a pretty decent guy that it would be very interesting to have a coffee with (presumably Tim Horton’s coffee, the favourite on the ISS).

Friday, 14 February 2014

The Sun Horse / Catherine Anthony Clark

This was a favourite book from my childhood--I borrowed it a number of times from our school library.  When I discovered that our university library had a copy, I was excited to have a chance to re-read as an adult and see what had so captivated my younger self.  I was pleased that the book retained its charm all these years later.

Set in the province of British Columbia, Canada, the protagonist is an orphaned boy, Mark, sent to live with his aunt and uncle.  In his new school, he befriends a girl named Giselle.  Her father has mysteriously gone missing, following a hunting trip during which Giselle suspects that he was trying to capture the beautiful and mysterious Sun Horse, which local legends identify as living in Forgotten Valley in the mountains.

Of course, Mark and Giselle decide that they are going to find and bring home Giselle's father.  Their adventures include making friends with a bat (whom Giselle is surprised to find she can communicate with telepathically), meeting the Marsh Witch who takes care of the swans and runs around the marsh on her stilts, and asking for assistance from the local Indian tribe. 

The Marsh Witch is particularly fun--she uses cobwebs and captured dreams to make sky ropes which can lasso clouds.  She then climbs the ropes and rides the clouds to see what is going on in the valley.  Although she looks scary in the beginning, the children discover that she is really a caring woman and a great ally.

I was also pleased at the positive depiction of the Native people in the book.  They seem much more reasonable than some of the caucasian people the children encounter.  Their chief is also the owner of the fabulous Sun Horse.  They know what's going on and are willing to share their knowledge with those who have honourable reasons for searching.

Today's children would no doubt find this book quaint or boring, with it's emphasis on the hard work being done by both adults and children on the frontier.  But it has great messages of co-operation between cultures, respect for the natural world and not judging people by their appearances.  I'm sure my younger self was mostly besotted by all the horses in the book, but I'm glad these positive messages were also there to be absorbed along with the horsey aspects.

It's a shame it is out of print and so difficult to locate.  Copyright 1951.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Cooked / Michael Pollan

4 out of 5 stars

In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer.

The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.

I have to say that I appreciate an author who tells me that I am being subversive or rebellious if I cook.  It’s one of the few forms of rebelliousness to which I wholeheartedly subscribe.  Having read Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss last year, I been working diligently at eliminating processed foods from my diet—easier said than done!  Especially when one is also attempting to go gluten-free.  

I have many happy memories of cooking on the farm where I grew up.  We knew the cows that provided our milk, the chickens that laid our eggs and the cattle and pigs that provided each evening’s main course.  Sometimes Mom would even mention them by name as she served up supper.  I have been in quest of a real pork chop for some time now and think I have found a butcher shop that provides a product very, very close to my idealized memories.  One of the things which struck me when I moved to the city was the lack of taste in the meat and vegetables purchased from the chain grocery stores.  Carrots from a chain store are more like wood than like vegetables and tomatoes are hard and tasteless compared to those we grew in our garden (fertilized with well-aged, long composted animal manure).  

The problem, for me at least, is one of time.  I love to cook and bake—but I also work full time and enjoy a busy social life.  Having read Cooked, I can see that I will start attempting to schedule more cooking time into my life—in the past, I have whiled away many happy hours stirring soup pots, checking on oven contents and poking at dough.  It’s time to return that gentle form of rebellion to my life on a regular basis.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

We / Yevgeny Zamyatin

In the One State of the great Benefactor, there are no individuals, only numbers. Life is an ongoing process of mathematical precision, a perfectly balanced equation. Primitive passions and instincts have been subdued. Even nature has been defeated, banished behind the Green Wall. But one frontier remains: outer space. Now, with the creation of the spaceship Integral, that frontier -- and whatever alien species are to be found there -- will be subjugated to the beneficent yoke of reason.

One number, D-503, chief architect of the
Integral, decides to record his thoughts in the final days before the launch for the benefit of less advanced societies. But a chance meeting with the beautiful 1-330 results in an unexpected discovery that threatens everything D-503 believes about himself and the One State. The discovery -- or rediscovery -- of inner space...and that disease the ancients called the soul.

The beginning of the novel is mesmerizing, following the calm, logical, mathematical life of D-503 as he lives every day doing all the good things that his State requires of him:  chewing every bit of food/organic glop a requisite number of times, sleeping an exact number of hours each night, rising at exactly the same time each morning and watching his neighbours do exactly the same things because they quite literally live in glass houses.  If someone deviates from the scheduled norm, everyone knows.  Sexual liaisons are also scheduled by the state, requiring pink tokens and thereby gaining permission to “draw the shades” so that your fellows can’t observe you.  D-503 is a highly successful member of the One State, primary builder of the spaceship Integral, until the day he runs into a highly attractive and non-conformist woman, I-330.  He immediately loses his desire for his lovely former sex partner, O-90, and as time progresses, he feels like he is losing his mind.

You can’t help but feel for this man, who never expected to run afoul of the State, who expected that life would continue to run smoothly, when he encounters “radical” ideas—he has been taught that freedom and happiness are mutually exclusive and when this assumption is challenged, he is thrown into sanity-disturbing turmoil.

Zamyatin wrote this in the Russia of the 1920s, and it is easy to see how it influenced both George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, both of which I love.  I can see that when my reading project is finished (or farther along), I will be backtracking to read anything else by Yevgeny Zamyatin that I can find translated into English.