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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Visiting Rye And Cambridge with E. F. Benson & Gregory Benford

As promised, I've occasionally checked in, and worked on my 2011 Books page. Here's two of the entries I did yesterday.

E. F. Benson's 500-year-old house in Rye, England

E F Benson: Trouble For Lucia In some ways, this sixth and final Mapp & Lucia book is my favorite of all. One of the most colorful characters in Tilling is a young spinster named Quaint Irene. Instead of limiting herself to realistic depictions of houses and landscapes, she peoples her paintings with nudes and other elements that rock local society. So while most look down on her as hopelessly out-of-touch, with no likely prospects of the future, she gains national recognition when one of her paintings becomes celebrated in London. She also spearheads a campaign to help Lucia get elected as mayor of Tilling. 

Another interesting aspect of this novel is a social one. Up until now, people in Tilling are limited to inviting their friends over to their house if they want to socialize. While this doesn't tax someone of Lucia's financial standing, others like Mapp, who calculate the cost of everything, prefer having friends over for tea because dinner is more expensive. Everything changes when Diva Plaistow opens a tea shop in her home. Her friends, including Mapp and Lucia, find it so much easier, and expensive, to gather there. Each person can order what he or she wants, and even if they pay for the party, it still costs less, and is more convenient, than hosting a party at their house. Thus we see the introduction of a social change which sweeps through England, that of the local tea shop where friends gather for tea, refreshments, and conversation.

Gregory Benford: Timescape Earth's ecosystem is collapsing as a result of pollution, the long-term effects of using chemicals in agriculture, and mankind's continual destruction of native landscapes to enlarge cities. So scientists from the present attempt to use knowledge of their mistakes to send knowledge back into the past. Nothing can save the ruin they have brought on themselves, but by alerting their earlier counterparts to the consequences of their actions, they hope to build a habitable future for themselves, even if their own future is doomed. The novel becomes a race against time, as present-day scientists at Cambridge University in England try to send these messages before their power and food supply runs out, and their air becomes unbreathable. Meanwhile, the young scientist at past-day University of California in San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla races against time to translate the messages he's getting, and convince his more established colleagues before they pull his funding and he loses the respect of the scientific community.

This is an interesting and award-winning novel. It gained such prestige that Pocket Books used the title as an imprint for noteworthy Science Fiction novels they published. I enjoyed reading it in 2011, and then reread it a few years later for a book group. While the story still resonated with me on a number of levels, I found it difficult to convey my positive feelings to others in the group. Nearly everyone in the group found reason to criticize it in nearly every way they could. They claimed Benford didn't know his San Diego geography, as a character couldn't see a landmark from where he stood in a given scene. They criticized his characters, and claimed he must be a woman-hater. They criticized his science and math, despite the fact that he made his living as a scientist and educator at UC Irvine. For whatever reason, they didn't connect with the book, and they blamed Gregory Benford for that. Given their disdain for the novel, I had to wonder why they chose to read it in the first place. Ultimately, I left that group after a few discussions, because I didn't connect with them. They're the kinds of folks I have no desire to associate with, regardless of whether or not a meteor storm is heading toward the Earth.

It's not surprising I read all the Mapp And Lucia books in 2011, as we visited Rye (which Benson fictionalizes as Tilling) during that year's trip to England. We'll be visiting Cambridge during this year's trip, so maybe I'll end up reading Timescape again. I'll probably also reread The Babe, B.A. by E. F. Benson, in which the author takes a loving look back at his alma mater. And then, I suppose I'll have to watch "Shada" again, the Doctor Who serial written by Douglas Adams in which the Fourth Doctor and his companions Romana and K-9 visit Cambridge. While all three options appeal, the latter seems essential, somehow.

Dragon Dave

Monday, February 6, 2017

To England, the North Pole, Africa and Beyond

I've been busy with travel, writing, and just plain coping with life in January. But here's a rundown of the highlights of what I read in December.

1. Thirteen At Dinner by Agatha Christie. (Original title: Lord Edgware Dies). Hercule Poirot's friend Arthur Hastings returns to England in the novel The Big Four, and he returns to his new home in Argentina at the end of this novel. He narrates Poirot's investigation into Lord Edgware's death. The prime suspect seems to be his estranged wife, but not only does she have an alibi, she also seems to have no motive. Any time you can hang out with Arthur Hastings is a fun time.

2. Freddy Goes to the North Pole by Walter R Brooks. Freddy, a self-educated pig, is just one of many interesting characters who live together on a farm. As Freddy longs to travel, he sets up an agency, and he and the other animals conduct tours of nearby sites. Animals travel from nearby farms to enjoy these tours, and pay for them with food or work. Eventually he and his friends garner enough promises of work that they travel off to the North Pole. Along the way, they are rescued from an ice floe by a ship of whalers, who prove reluctant to let such an entertaining (and healthy) pig escape. So more animals on the farm must come to Freddy's rescue. They head off to the North Pole, have exciting adventures, and eventually catch up with Freddy. They also meet a very special person who has his own workshop at the North Pole. Can you guess who it is?

3. Captain's Glory by William Shatner. This novel was cowritten by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. William Shatner, of course, played Captain Kirk on the original series of Star Trek. The latter have cowritten other novels with Shatner, and produced and wrote stories for the series Star Trek: Enterprise. It's one of the most recent Star Trek novels I've read, and appears to be the last in a trilogy. After his death in the movie Star Trek Generations, Captain Kirk has somehow been returned to life. (You know, like Spock in the movie Star Trek III: The Search For Spock). He's married a woman of mixed ancestry, and has a young child who, due to accelerated growth, appears to be an adult. He captains a smaller ship, and his travels take him to Vulcan, where he is searching for Spock, whom everyone else seems to believe is dead. (Yes, again). Among his crew are an ancient-but-kicking Dr. McCoy, and engineer Scotty, who is little aged, due to having been trapped in a transporter for decades. There's a huge threat to the Federation, and Admiral Janeway, who served as captain of the Voyager in the series Star Trek Voyager, pulls together all her best people to investigate it. These include Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise (from the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation), and his former First Officer Will Riker, who now captains another ship. 

It's kind of amazing how the writers combined so many characters from different TV series. There's obviously a huge number of novels that I have not read which relate a lot of the history of all these people, and how they came to their present positions. At times I had difficulty believing in all these people from different series interacting together. But it was nice to think that the writers, and fans, loved these characters so much, that they wanted them to continue living, long after they should have passed on.

4. Ocean Of Storms by Christopher Mari and Jeremy K Brown. This story begins with a bang. Or, to be accurate, a massive Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) that blacks-out cities, and drops planes out of the sky. When scientists discover the EMP came from the moon, NASA kickstarts an Apollo-style mission. Yet, as in the movie The Martian, involvement with China proves essential to the program. So American and Chinese astronauts head off to the moon, where they discover a spaceship, and a mystery that will lead to a worldwide government coverup, and the subsequent investigation in Africa. 

Although the novel has the feel of a Science Fiction novel, it seemed better-suited to the Thriller genre. It was fast paced, and aspects of it were enjoyable. But I felt as if, had it been submitted to one of the established Science Fiction publishers, they would have rejected it for scientific and story reasons. Still, it was a free ebook-of-the-month from Amazon, and I felt like seeing what Amazon felt was noteworthy and worth reading. Having read so many older books recently, it was nice to read something that was published in the last few years.

5. A Rumpole Christmas by John Mortimer. Having watched the first two seasons of "Rumpole of the Bailey," I enjoyed returning to the character with this short collection. The stories mostly take place in and around the Temple area of London, where Rumpole works as a barrister representing the people who everyone believes guilty until proven innocent. But the story occasionally takes him farther afield, such as when his wife Hilda (or, as he refers to her, She Who Must Be Obeyed) takes him to a health spa to lose weight over the holidays, or spend Christmas with an old school friend. Rumpole's extraordinary character really makes these stories come to life. So, so much fun.

6. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. A young boy, whose father has remarried, lives with his sick mother in an English village so small it doesn't even have a McDonalds. (Note: There's more than a few of these in England). The teachers at school are tremendously kind to him, but some of the boys in his class bully him. While his mother's cancer treatments have always worked in the past, his mother never seems to get better. So his grandmother, who he doesn't know well and doesn't get along with, moves in. In his anger and isolation, he begins to notice a tree outside. His dreams of a tree-like creature meld into real-life, and bouts of mindless violence follow. But how much is real, and how much imagined? This novel won the prestigious Carnagie and Greenaway awards for the writing and illustration, and was recently made into a movie.

Reading-wise, December seems to have been a good month. I've had months in which I read more novels, and ones (such as last month) in which I've read less. Of course, this list doesn't refer to reference books, comics and graphic novels, and books-in-process. Nonetheless, the list is a substantive and varied, and a month of reading I can look back on fondly.

What books did you read in December? Any stories that stuck in your mind? Any reading experiences that you'd like to share with others?

Dragon Dave

Monday, January 16, 2017

Updating My Book Lists

The holidays are usually tough. This year proved especially so, hitting me far harder than usual. As you can imagine, this sapped my focus, as well as my will to do things like blogging. 

My wife suggested I edit my Book listing recently, so that suggested a project. Something I have a passion for: discussing the novels I've read. Typically, I'll read anywhere from sixty to a hundred books in a year. Recently, that's included graphic novels. Last year, I read around eighty. That's a fair amount of reading, when you consider that I also read comic books, magazines, and occasionally even reread a novel to enhance my understanding of it. I don't list graphic novels on the sidebar, so those are just novels and nonfiction you'll find there. 

Last year, I removed "Books I Enjoyed in 2011, 2012, and 2013" from the sidebar. This month I took off the 2014 books. In case any of you are interested in reviewing my reading tastes, or just looking for a recommendation, I've decided to set up a page for the previous years of reading that have dropped off the sidebar. 

Right now, I'm working on the books I read in 2011. I'm trying to include a few words of what I remember enjoying about each book as I can. It will take awhile, so if you're interested in my thoughts and recollections of 2011 Books, check back occasionally. Maybe I'll even include a few photos of the books. 

Hopefully, unlike my Conan Chronology page, I'll complete the 2011 Books page relatively quickly, and move on to later years. Maybe I'll even take another crack at Conan. Time, focus, and will allowing, I'll post this month about the books I read last month. As to the rest, (by Crom!), who knows what the future holds?

Dragon Dave

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Traveling with H.G. Wells, Jane Austen, and Arthur Conan Doyle

In November, I read several graphic novels, lots of comics, and a book on geology. I also read three novels. The first, by H. G. Wells, transported me to Switzerland. Or, at least, so it seemed. 

Supposedly, A Modern Utopia takes place on a planet like Earth in another solar system, but the descriptions of the landscape, and the picturesque villages, reminded me of Switzerland. In many ways, it reminded me of one of his earlier novels, The Wheels of Chance. In that novel, his protagonist, a young draper, sets off on a bicycle holiday in the south of England. His descriptions of the landscape are so vivid, so evocative, and so overwhelmingly beautiful that it made me want to follow the hero's bicycle journey with my wife. In A Modern Utopia, I felt as though he was transporting me to Switzerland. It's a country I would very much like to visit some day, and Wells spoke just as passionately about his surroundings in this idealized world as he did in The Wheels of Chance

After A Modern Utopia, Jane Austen returned me to some familiar sites in her novel Persuasion. The story begins in a manor house in Somerset, a county in southern England. In fact, it's the same county in which the real-life manor in the TV series To The Manor Born is located. 

As in the TV series, Austen's protagonist Anne, through no fault of her own, is forced to leave her beloved country home due to the fiscal mismanagement of a family member: in this case, her father. So she travels to stay with a family friend, then another member of her family, and this second visit takes her to Lyme Regis. 

While she and her party tour the seaside resort, a crucial event in the story takes place on the Cobb. This is a long walkway or pier, and perhaps the town's most striking feature. 

Jane Austen's characters then make their way to Bath, a setting she used in Northanger Abbey, which I read in October. Sadly, she doesn't offer much description of Bath in Persuasion. Austen painted a more vibrant view of the historic city in Northanger Abbey. (Also, Charles Dickens set part of his first novel The Pickwick Papers there, which I read earlier this year). Still, reading about Anne's visit to Bath made me want to travel there. It was a fashionable resort town in Austen's time, and remains a popular town for tourists today.

Finally, I returned to England for The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. This second collection of stories took me back to London, the great town's suburbs, and other towns in rural England. Then for the last story, "The Final Problem", Arthur Conan Doyle returned me to Switzerland, as Holmes and Watson seek to evade the clutches of the evil Professor Moriarty. As all Holmes aficionados know, Holmes and Moriarty have their final confrontation at a very real place: Reichenbach Falls. Having seen many dramatizations of this beloved story, I enjoyed reading Doyle's words, and following the characters' journey through Switzerland. 

Ah, the places great stories can take us!

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Insane Discover America Tour 2016: The Final Four

The final four stops on this year's trip were relatively short ones. Nonetheless, we could have spent longer at each place if we would have liked. While staying in Flagstaff, Arizona for two nights, we drove a short distance to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. It was odd to suddenly be surrounded by black lava fields. We found the landscape, and the plant life, reminiscent of our trips to Hawaii. Even the geological terms for lava, such as A'a and Pahoehoe, are used here. 

Adjacent to Sunset Crater is another national monument. Wupatki National Monument offers several sites of former habitation. The Native Americans who lived here built their settlements from these red stones, instead of carving into the hillsides, as they did in Mesa Verde National Park. In this flat landscape, you could see different aspects of community life, such as circular ball fields, in which children, and perhaps adults, played sports. There was also an interesting vent in the ground, through which you could hear air blowing to the surface. 

The movie "Best Friends" featured a short scene here. In the movie, actor Richard Hatch, who would later go on to star in the TV series "Battlestar Galactica," played a young military veteran who is driving cross country in an RV with his friends and his fiancé. A recurring theme of the movie is the Native American peoples with whom they interact in varying ways. Certainly the movie reflects on the value of community, as well as one's responsibility to others. This is something that these Native American Indian ruins also make one reflect on.

Within another short drive of our motel was Walnut Canyon National Monument. Here you enter at the visitor center, then descend stairs to visit more Native American dwellings. You can see how stratified the stone layers here are. It looks as though a giant carved these hills into steps. The dwellings are interesting to look inside. Unlike those in Mesa Verde National Park and Wupatki National Monument, you get the feeling that there were lots of hillside homes here, located really close together. So this gives the area a real suburban feel.

Finally, there's the grandly-named Montezuma's Castle. Apparently it has no more to do with the ancient Aztec king Montezuma than the ride Montezuma's Revenge at Knott's Berry Farm. Someone just saw the abandoned community one day, and was so bowled-over by it that they gave it a grand name. It's the last National Monument we visited on our trip, during our drive from Flagstaff to Pheonix. We spent a couple hours there eating lunch, and people paused to look over our shoulders as I sketched and my wife did a water color. Unlike our experience at Bryce Canyon National Park, no one seemed all that enthused by my sketching, but they loved my wife's painting. When my wife told one woman that she had not been painting long, she exclaimed, "Well, it certainly doesn't show!"

Sadly, we found no places of value at which to stop on our drive home from Phoenix to San Diego. Just hours and hours of featureless landscape. Maybe we missed some truly remarkable places. I hope so. It'd be nice to discover that there were all kinds of places chocked full of scenic beauty and historic interest, and plan another trip to see them. Nonetheless, this trip was filled with so many overwhelmingly beautiful and interesting places. I'm glad we stopped in each of them. I just wish we'd had more time to explore most of them. But then, that's the best way to remember a vacation, as it leaves you with a sense of awe, and perhaps, a reason to return.

Dragon Dave