Bacterium

Theoretically, my hands will not be on a keyboard for Halloween so you get this retro-review.

Not really holiday appropriate. You get what you pay for.

A retro review, of a self-published work, from February 11, 2012. I got a review copy through LibraryThing.

Out of curiosity, I checked to see what Mr. Pennington has been up to. I found a curious lack of an internet presence for him now.

Review: Bacterium, Nathan Pennington, 2011.Bacterium

This book’s title is pretty much truth-in-advertising with the thriller part being more of the story than the science fictional end of the world.

After killing off the President of the United States in the first chapter, we are introduced to the young couple of Sveta and Derek Silverman of Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Pennington carries on the time honored tradition of authors trashing their hometowns in a disaster story.) After a late night run to an emergency room to get help for their very sick baby, they find a hospital full of dead people and others who have just keeled over in their cars.

After their baby dies and no real news to be found on the internet or tv, they think answers and help may be coming from a group in Madison, Wisconsin, but, when the hoped for rescuers show up with guns and murderous intent, the hunt is on. Continue reading “Bacterium”

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The Skies They Were Ashen and Sober

No excuse for ignoring Halloween.

So, first here’s Jeff Buckley’s superb musical version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ulalume”, a poem conceived as a rhetorical exercise by Poe.

And, since Halloween is all about the spirits of the dead …

Appearances of the deadRaw Feed (1993): Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts, Ronald C. Finucane, 1984.

I picked this book up on a lark and am glad I did.  I thoroughly enjoyed this witty, informative book.

The cultural history of ghosts is fascinating – from the gibbering spirits who hung about tombs in the Classical (they’re sometimes angry, often hideous in appearance) period, to the shades that early Christian writers puzzled over (demons? delusions? Or returning spirits of the dead?) to the blazing straw figures, disembodied hands, and other apparitions of suffering souls from purgatory in the Middle Ages to the debt, honor, and revenge obsessed characters of the Restoration, to the stupid, vague Victorian and modern ghosts.

I was interested to see how ghosts came into play in the arguments of the Reformation.  Catholics viewed them as proof of souls in purgatory.  Protestants as demonic or angelic apparitions (or perhaps as “aerial” spirits – that portion of the soul that hung about the Earth unlike the “astral” part that returned to heaven – a minority opinion).  Finucane does a nice job showing the social functions of ghosts.  In mediaeval times, they were object lessons of souls consigned to purgatory, sometimes pleas for social justice (admonishing charity to the poor, confession of crimes) and appeals for piety, crusades, and indulgences.  Many accounts of ghosts asking the living – almost always known to them – to perform acts that will shorten their time in purgatory.  Continue reading “The Skies They Were Ashen and Sober”

The Affinity Bridge

Predictably, another series I haven’t gotten around to completing.

A retro review from June 16, 2009. I’m not working on other things — ’cause I’m holding an icebag on my face following some pre-Halloween surgery (with Dr. Frankenstein-like stitches).

Review: The Affinity Bridge, George Mann, 2009.Affinity Bridge

The first in a promised series of Newbury and Hobbes investigation, this is an enjoyable steampunk mystery.

For those unfamiliar with steampunk, don’t think an alternate history. Think an alternate aesthetic centering around Victorian electric and steam technology taken to levels not seen in our world (and usually impossible to have ever been seen in our world).

While Newbury is a student of the occult, this book is more about the sort of odd, baroque technologies you want in steampunk — airships, brass automatons, bizarre medical devices, and nifty weapons – rather than magic. While I might have wanted a bit more description of the fog-shrouded London of November 1901 where Victoria still reigns, Mann still does a good job building the atmosphere with descriptions – especially in the action packed final third of the book.

Newbury and Hobbes are well done, believable characters. Mann doesn’t make Veronica Hobbes a warrior babe. While a romance may be brewing between the two, Mann makes it seem credible and not a hackneyed mystery cliché. Continue reading “The Affinity Bridge”

The Fantasy Hall of Fame

An unproductive day new writing-wise, so you get a retro review from June 12, 2009.

Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame, eds. Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg, 1983.Fantasy Hall of Fame

The reputations of some of these stories and that of their authors may have waned in the 26 years since this anthology was published. None of the stories are bad though a few aren’t that special. The stories were selected in a manner similar to the Silverberg edited The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One. Attendees of the World Fantasy Convention chose stories to honor that were published before the convention begin doing their annual awards.

The stories are arranged chronologically, and the first is Edgar Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). This classic tale of a plague, mysterious colors, and death coming to a cloister of aristocrats is the grandfather of all those far future tales of decadents on a dying Earth. Poe influenced the prose and poems of Clark Ashton Smith, but the influence isn’t very evident in the latter’s “The Weird of Avoosl Withoqquan” (1932). It’s a story of an avaricious man who hears an ominous prophecy from a beggar he snubs. Smith’s Zothique series, very definitely a series of far future decadence, is not represented here directly, but it’s certainly echoed in Jack Vance’s “Mazirian the Magician” (1950), part of Vance’s Dying Earth series. In a story full of Vance’s exuberant palette of colors and exquisitely named magic, a sorcerer determines to possess a woman who has avoided him.

Of course, Poe was not just an inspiration but an idol to Smith’s friend, H. P. Lovecraft. He is represented here by “The Silver Key” (1937). It’s an odd choice, perhaps dictated by its length. There is nothing wrong with the story. Featuring Lovecraft’s alter ego Randolph Carter, it’s Lovecraft’s most autobiographical work. Carter, a man in his thirties, goes on a quest to find his way back to the world of dreams – and its innocence – that he knew as a child. There are many better Lovecraft stories though. Lord Dunsany was an influence on Lovecraft’s dream tales, and he’s represented here by “The Sword of Welleran” (1908). A wry tale of a city no longer defended by its legends and full of humor and despair and perverse emotion. Dunsany’s oddly syntaxed voice is probably still unique in fantasy. A lesser influence on Lovecraft was Ambrose Bierce. He shows up here with “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886), a short, eerie tale of life after death in a far future land. Continue reading “The Fantasy Hall of Fame”

The Ramen King and I

Yes, I know, it’s not one of my usual sorts of books.

This retro review was written in May 30, 2009.

Review: The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life, Andy Raskin, 2009.Ramen King and I

Raskin, for me, wasn’t a particularly likeable companion as he goes on a journey of self-discovery that weaves skillfully back and forth in time. What Raskin tries to discover is why he’s so habitually unfaithful to his many girlfriends. The sayings and life of Momofuku Ando, the world renowned (ok, Asian renowned) inventor of instant ramen, become Raskin’s higher power on his road to recovery.

But a funny thing happened in the final part of the book. Oh, I consistently enjoyed reading about Ando, and I found the asides on Japanese matters (business etiquette, food-themed manga, puns, sushi, museums devoted to ramen or gyoza, and samurai movies) fascinating and often funny. Surprisingly a revelation about Ando’s life proves relevant to Raskin’s plight. And Ando’s Zen like sayings go from seemingly silly business platitudes or personal eccentricities to something profound and useful. They become another example of the transforming wisdom sometimes found in the unlikely places of popular culture or the lives of the eccentric.

Raskin has started an advice column using the sayings and life of Ando. That may be worth a look, and I definitely would like to see him do more Japanese related material.

The Imprinted Brain

It’s here, it’s written, and I’m doing other stuff, so you get this retro review from May 29, 2009.

I in no way claim a personal or theoretical knowledge of autism.

Review: The Imprinted Brain: How Genes Set the Balance Between Autism and Psychosis, Christopher Badcock, 2009.The Imprinted Brain

Essentially Badcock argues that autism and psychosis, particularly schizophrenia, exist on a continuum. The autistic person and the schizophrenic contrast broadly in behavioral and organic ways. Some of them include trouble gauging the attentive gazes of others vs. delusions of being watched, inattention to others’ voices vs. hallucinating voices, difficulties in accounting for the different intentions of others vs. delusions of persecution or being the object of others’ sexual interest, an inability to share the object of attention with others vs. delusions of conspiracy, an extreme literalness and inability to lie vs. delusional self-deception, an early onset of autism vs. developing schizophrenia as an adult, acute visual and spatial skills vs. difficulty in visual reasoning and deficits in visual acuity, and brains with local areas over-connected with a neural network but an underdevelopment of global brain connections vs. the opposite in a schizophrenic brain. For Badcock `s argument, it seems one final contrast is the most important. The autistic has trouble modeling the minds of others. The schizophrenic obsessively models the minds and intents of others with frequent delusions of conspiracy.

Badcock doesn’t envisage a single brain system with autism and schizophrenia as its maladapted extremes. Badcock proposes two systems at work in the brain. One is a system devoted to things with its most extreme manifestation being in autistics. (It’s not for nothing that autism’s mildest form, Asperger’s Syndrome, is known as the “engineer’s disease”.) The second is a system devoted to social interactions with people. Badcock dubs this system “mentalism” but with none of the psychic connotations sometimes associated with that word – though Badcock argues that there are savants, “hypermentalists”, in this area just as autism produces savants. Humans, however, are generally evolved to deal with others of their species and not arithmetic, so the savant of mentalism does not seem as abnormal as the famous Rain Man. They may hide behind the reputation of a famous politician, artist, poet, con man, or prophet. Continue reading “The Imprinted Brain”