Friday, November 28, 2014

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin -- Book Review

Photo: Hardcover for the book, from its Wikipedia page.  Not the edition I read.

You ever notice the longer a book is, the less you have to write about it?

Anyway, I suppose you wouldn't be reading this review if you haven't already a) read the book; b) seen the HBO series; or c) both, so I won't waste time writing about things you already know.

I'll just point out my favorite parts of this book.

1.  It reads very quickly.  Because it's 1,009 pages, this is no small thing.  Martin doesn't seem to get the recognition for his writing that he deserves.  I'm impressed by his vivid descriptions of just about everything.  Typically, overlong description is probably what Elmore Leonard meant when he said he tried to not write the parts people skip.  But when you're world-building as Martin is here, you really do have to describe almost everything.  This can be tedious in lesser hands.  But I found myself not skipping these parts.  In fact, I didn't skip any parts.  And a neat writerly trick I noticed from him: his sentences have much more alliteration, assonance and consonance than you'd think they would.  These things make the pages move.

2.  Daenerys's trip through the House of the Undying Ones was unbelievably well-written.  (And a figure in there murmurs the title of the entire series: A Song of Ice and Fire.)  Martin somehow encapsulates the themes of the entire series in one trip through this house, and does so both literally and figuratively--and mysteriously.  No small feat, since I've seen the episode already.  But seeing the show does not take away anything from the reading.  If you've been holding back for fear of that, don't delay any longer.

3.  The battle for King's Landing at the end was amazingly taut and suspenseful--again, no small feat, considering I've seen the episodes.  Even though you know what's coming, you're quickly turning the pages.

4.  Martin is able to delve deeply into all of his characters.  This is a helluva achievement because a) he writes about some women, notoriously difficult for a male writer to do; b) he gives equal time to every character, and there's a lot of them; c) he somehow holds it all together without confusing the reader; d) he knows just when to cut away from a character, and he knows just when to come back to a character; e) he doesn't fall into a pattern with his character cuts; he'll go away from a character and come right back to him again, then not return for many chapters.  In other words, it's not always A then B then C and then back to A again.  He cuts to and fro depending on what his story dictates.  I can tell you from personal bitter experience that all of this is not easy to do.  Agents and editors say not to write from too many POVs for a reason.  This may be the exception that proves the rule.

5.  The book is great even though the series follows it very, very closely, with only minor exceptions.  (And one or two major ones.)  But, again, no small feat, since I've seen the episodes and the episodes parallel the book very, very closely.

Anyway, even if you've seen the show, you should read this.  In fact, because you've seen the show, you should read this.

And I don't normally like these kinds of books.  World-building, sword-and-sorcery, knights and fair ladies, medieval stuff...not normally my thing.  Epics in general, especially fantasies, are not for me.  It took me over twenty years to read the three Lord of the Rings books.  I've never even tried to read any of the Harry Potter books (though I have them all).  I'm just too damned impatient for long books and long series.

But, as I mentioned, these may be the exception that proves the rule.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber -- Web Sleuths and Cold Cases

Photo: The hardcover's hardcover, from this website at Simon and Schuster.

Though a little dry at times, The Skeleton Crew is a work unlike anything I've read before: a nonfiction piece about web sleuths, people who match missing people with unidentified bodies, thereby giving closure to the families of the dead and, to boot, solving a cold case.

That such people exist is a surprise, and yet not, to me at the same time.  Mostly the web detectives are obsessed people with a personal void to fill.  Some are siblings of someone murdered, or someone missing.  Todd Matthews, the man the book revolves around the most, had siblings die very young--just a few years old--and he thinks he's perhaps trying to resurrect them, in a way.  He doesn't really know.

But he solved the now-infamous case of Tent Girl.  In this book you'll also read about the still-unsolved case of the Lady of the Dunes, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  Another case, of a young redhead killed in the desert outside of Las Vegas, haunts me still.

And you might be surprised to know that as many as 40,000--and perhaps more--unidentified bodies take up space right now in coroner's offices throughout the U.S.  More find their way into the unidentified statistics every day.

And they're not all homeless, addicts or prostitutes, either.

One article I read today--similar to this book but not in any way connected to it--concerned a woman who lived under a ton of aliases for over thirty years before she committed suicide in Texas.  Who was she, really?  Nobody knows--including her husband.  She'd covered her tracks that well.  Her latest driver's license was of a name she'd stolen off of an 18-month old's gravestone in Idaho.

Then there was the story of a woman who was kidnapped, sold to a man who molested her and married her (yes).  She's not dead, of course, but she tells the story of a woman, from her exact same situation, who was killed by the man she'd had to marry.  Who was this other girl?  Nobody knows.  She'd just been taken off the street, sold to some guy, and re-named.  And now she's dead, and nobody knows who she is--not even the guy who kidnapped her.

So who's The Lady in the Dunes?  The woman who had her head bashed in and her hands chopped off to hinder her identification?  Nobody knows.  And there's thousands of people like her, unidentified, unknown, unburied and ungrieved-for, all over the country.

Fascinating, in a sad, morbid, I-can't-believe-it kind of way.

And definitely worth reading, if you can stomach it.

It's written by Deborah Halber in a literary-mystery kind of way, weaving interconnected stories, flashing back, coming back around again.  You have to pay attention, but it's easy to do if you care enough.  I found myself Googling some of the nicknames and some of the victims, and reading a few of the websites mentioned in the book.

I even gave a passing thought to trying it myself.  Me, the web sleuth.  But I won't. 

I know better.  It's too depressing and too addicting, and I'd never recover.

The writer in me sees a good novel in here somewhere.  I'll add it to the list of manuscripts-to-come for now.  I've got to return the book to the library, but I'll look to buy it soon, so I can own it when I start to write my web-sleuthing novel.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Revival by Stephen King

Photo: The book's cover art, from its Wikipedia page

Another compulsively-readable book by Stephen King, Revival is one of his recent best.  A mish-mash of Frankenstein (thematically) and Lovecraft (in plot, Otherness, and The Angry Ones, as well as some fairly fearsome Gods) and Hieronymus Bosch, it reads like a first-person confessional (which is a well King has tapped for some time now) and it ends with one of the more horrifying things that King--or anyone I've read--has ever written.
Especially if it's true, if that's really what's waiting for us Afterwards.  If you've ever seen Bosch's Seven Deadly Sins or his Garden of Earthly Delights, you'll know what I mean.  Nasty, disturbing and memorable stuff.  This book's ending--and the potential ending for us all, good or bad--are just that: nasty, disturbing and memorable.  Frightening, because the "good" or "bad" doesn't matter.  The ending depicted here isn't the ending of the bad.  It's the ending of all of us.

In recent interviews, King has said that the views expressed by the narrator are not necessarily his--a fact that any reader is well aware, in anyone's writing.  But he has also said recently that he thinks about Death and God a lot (which King fans have always known), and that he does believe in God.  Sometimes he says that there has to be a God, because otherwise he would not have survived his accident or his addictions.  (This begs the question: Since others have not survived being hit by a car, or concurrent alcohol and coke addictions, does that mean there isn't a God?  Or does God simply not want them to live?)  Lately, King's been using Pascal's Wager to express his views.
(Pascal's Wager has always seemed like a cop-out to me, but it's really not meant to be.  And as I get older, and I contemplate that slab of stone more and more, Pascal's Wager sounds infinitely more rational.  Though I don't know how one can live a life as if one believes in God, which is what the Wager advises, if one truly does not believe.  But I suppose an agnostic like myself could pull it off.)

This is actually not much of a digression, as a belief in Something is very much at the core of this novel.  Picture an agnostic who grew up with devout, religious parents, and throw in some family tragedies, a wasted life of coke and booze, and some Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror, with Bosch's view of a potential eternity in Hell and a Frankenstein theme, and some hellish chaos on Earth at the very un-Stephen King-like end (after all the Frankenstein / Lovecraft / Bosch stuff), and you've just about got the narrator and his story.

There are some other horrors until then as well, neatly tucked into this novel.  There's a car accident you won't soon forget, and a dream about dead family members that those of us with dead family members will all relate to--and not happily.  And his ending after the ending (a writing style I've pointed out in my last ten or so reviews of King's work) is even more unforgettable.  It's debatable, in fact, if the first or second ending is more horrible.  Since I don't believe in the existence of the first, and since I very much believe in the existence of the evil--or of, worse, the tragic inexplicable--portrayed in the second, I'm going with the latter.  You watch the news, you see this.

The writing is as compulsively-readable as always, but--finally!!!--here are some horrors, terrors and chills, too.  If forced to rate out of five stars, I'd say this is a four--only if compared to his truly great stuff, like IT and The Shining.  But compared to his most recent stuff--some of it quite terrible, and sometimes, at best, rather pedestrian--Revival would get five.  Though the title refers to the revival of the narrator and a few of its almost-dead characters, it could well refer to King's horror writing as well.

Read it, regardless.  And then Wikipedia Pascal's Wager, if you have to, and tell me whether it makes more pragmatic, rational sense than it may have in your youth.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Scientists Find Mechanism for Spontaneous HIV Cure

Photo: from the AFP, at this website.  The entire article is copied below, but here's the source.

In case you missed it.  Not only a landmark in the fight against HIV / AIDS, but also a strong comment about evolution.  First, the short article--found on this site--and then my comments / thoughts.  (Remember, I am not a doctor.  Don't take my thoughts as solid medical advice.  Cuz, like, they're not.)

French scientists on Tuesday unveiled the genetic mechanism by which they believe two men were spontaneously cured of HIV, and said the discovery may offer a new strategy in the fight against AIDS.
In both asymptomatic men, the AIDS-causing virus was inactivated due to an altered HIV gene coding integrated into human cells, they wrote in the journal Clinical Microbiology and Infection.
This, in turn, was likely due to stimulation of an enzyme that may in future be targeted for drug treatment to induce the same response, they said.

"This finding represents an avenue for a cure," study co-author Didier Raoult of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) told AFP.

Neither of the men, one diagnosed HIV positive 30 years ago and the other in 2011, have ever been ill, and the AIDS-causing virus cannot be detected with routine tests of their blood.

In both, the virus was unable to replicate due to DNA coding changes that the researchers proposed were the result of a spontaneous evolution between humans and the virus that is called "endogenisation".

"We propose that HIV cure may occur through HIV endogenisation in humans," they wrote. "We believe that the persistence of HIV DNA can lead to cure, and protection, from HIV."

The approach hitherto has been the opposite: to try and clear all traces of HIV from human cells.

The teams said they did not believe the two patients were unique or that the phenomenon was new.


Okay, so like I said, I'm not a doctor.  And I'm not a scientist.  But I do find lots of things very interesting, and hopefully I'm a fairly intelligent guy.  So, here's my two cents, if you care:

As far as I know about viruses (which is not far), they can mutate at any time.  In fact, they have to mutate.  Like we have to breathe, they have to mutate.  Again, no doctor, but it seems like viruses like HIV / AIDS and the common cold and, for all I know, Ebola, are always evolving, sort of uncontrollably, without their will.  If viruses can be said to have will, which is maybe a conversation for scientist-philosophers.

So this seems to be yet another example of evolution, for all you Creationists out there.  (For the record, I, too believe in creationism, to a degree.  In fact, I think the Creator has a lot of weapons at His disposal.  One of these is called evolution.)

Secondly: I'm reminded yet again of Ebola Reston, as written about by Douglas Preston in The Hot Zone.  (Read that if you haven't.)  The short story about Ebola Reston is that the Ebola virus inadvertently let loose in a medical / research facility in Reston, Virginia mutated--but by the grace of God, or something--into a strain that was not lethal to humans.  It gave lots of them very bad flu-like symptoms, but did not make them crash-and-burn, like Ebola Zaire does.  (And still is, now in other countries in Africa besides Zaire.)

Anyway, I'm reminded of this because Ebola Reston mutated--luckily; no reason it had to--into a strain that was not lethal to humans.  Viruses mutate.  It's what they do.

And so, apparently, did this Ebola virus into these two men, thirty years apart.  If a virus mutates, someone's got to be the host for that newly-created mutation, right?  I mean, if it goes into John Doe as Ebola Zaire X and mutates into Ebola Zaire Y somewhere either in John Doe or in the next victim, then that person is carrying around the newly-created strain, right?  That's what happened with Ebola Reston--it mutated between a few gibbons and a few people, and somewhere along the way it became a little less virulent and it didn't kill any people.

These two guys mentioned in this article, thirty years apart, apparently were two lucky guys in which the virus mutated into a form that couldn't kill them.  In fact, if I'm understanding the article correctly, it mutated into a form of the virus that could not replicate itself because both of these men stimulated enzymes that integrated into the virus's DNA and made it impossible to replicate itself.  Scientists call this "spontaneous evolution."  But to me it sounds like the thing is trying to replicate itself so it can live in its host, and then mutate, but it couldn't, so it didn't.

Replication, for those who don't know, means that the virus has to make tons more of its exact self in order to live in a host.  A virus, like a cold, enters your system as one virus, one single-celled (?) organism (like mononucleosis, which is what the word actually means), but--unlike mono, I think--most viruses have to make exact Xerox copies of itself inside you, or it can't live in you.  Your DNA and cells help them to do that.

But the protein / enzyme-happy systems of these two guys prevented the virus from doing so.  

(I'm probably butchering the science here somewhere, but I think I have the gist of it.)

And these two guys killed it upon contact!  They are, in fact, immune to Ebola Zaire, or whatever strain it was they had.  I'm assuming it was Zaire, as that's the lethal one we're all hearing about.  Being immune to Ebola Reston, for example, won't help us.

This "spontaneous evolution" is another checkmark to prove the existence of evolution.  I say this only if you had those "evolution is a theory" textbooks in your science classes in Arkansas or Pennsylvania, and not for the rest of the known world, for whom evolution is as basic as the world being round.

Just food for thought.

Maybe guys like these are the beginnings of homo-sapiens's (that's you and me) way of starting to become immune by the Ebola virus.  I mean, we already are mostly immune to the common cold virus, at least to the extent that it's a minor annoyance and may keep us out of work (or give us a sinus infection afterwards, thanks very much).  But it can't kill us.  That's because our species got used to it.  It's part of our DNA now since we and the cold virus have been around each other so long.  It can kill the Martians in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds (and in the movies, like Spielberg's) because the Martians were brand new to it, and so therefore hadn't become immune.

We, as a species (though probably not in our lifetime), can also get used to it by living with it long enough.  Like we did with the common cold.

Well, one strain of it, anyway.  Before it mutates.  Before it changes.  Until it evolves.

So, who are these guys, and how can we extract and harvest some of their proteins?  And, how can I get some of that?  (Or, does it not work like that?) 

I'll have whatever they're having!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Comic Con 2014 in Providence, Rhode Island

Photo: The entrance for this year's Comic Con in Providence, Rhode Island.

Photos: Hundreds of people, if not more, stood in line outside the Convention Center, in howling wind and rain, and never got in.  These were amongst them.  I took the shot of these cold, disgruntled people as I left the Con and went to my car.  The line started in the lobbies, went downstairs, then started again at the doors outside, snaked around the building, and ended past these people, in front of the garage I parked in.  Poor souls.

I had a great Saturday at Comic Con, though it apparently turned into a horror show for everyone who arrived after 12 p.m. or so.  Ticketmaster or the Convention Center (they're playing tennis with the blame) never stopped selling tickets, so that thousands of people past the max showed up.  When I left at about 3:30 p.m. (I got there at 8:30 a.m., waited with hundreds of others in The Dunk--as opposed to many hundred who waited outside in the cold, wind and rain--until the doors opened at 10:00 a.m.).  But when I walked out at 3:30 p.m., there were hundreds of people waiting in the lobbies, another hundred or so downstairs, and many hundreds of others outside in a long line, in a pouring rain.  Most of those outside never got in at all!

But I did.  Got there early, despite the protests of my friends, who said I was crazy, that it wouldn't be crowded.  (Though driving there was a breeze; took about 20 minutes.)

I spoke to, got pictures of (and with), and got autographs from:

1.  Anthony Michael Hall (Very nice and humble.  Different than I'd heard, and he'd lost a lot of weight since The Dark Knight.  I was his first fan of the day--he was about a half-hour late, as were most of the other celebs.)

2.  Karen Allen (Still very pretty and funny-feisty.  Same exact smile and laugh.)

3.  Michael Biehn (He's had a stroke, or he has MS or MD or something similar.  Looked really, really bad, more of a walking dead than Scott Wilson or Seth Gilliam.  Really too bad; one of my favorite 80s actors.)

4.  William Katt (The Greatest American Hero, though I still prefer him in the original Carrie.  Looks about the same; very fit and looking good for his age.)

5.  John Rhys-Davies (His last name is pronounced like Davis; didn't know that.  I prefer him as Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Karen Allen, though he's very good, of course, as Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I got his autograph and Karen Allen's on the same Raiders picture.)

6.  Seth Gilliam (Father Gabriel from The Walking Dead.  Extremely fit and lean and athletic-looking.  Very energetic, positive, pumped kind of guy.)

7.  Took a break from autograph-hunting to sit in the audience for a panel discussion with Karen Allen and John Rhys-Davies speaking of Raiders.  I went to the mike and asked a question to them about being directed by Steven Spielberg, as I had also been "directed" by him as an extra in Amistad.  A friend took a video of me asking my question, and their 5+-minute answer.

8.  Scott Wilson (Hershel from The Walking Dead.)  He had by far the longest lines of any celebrity there that day--much longer than William Shatner and the other Trekkers.

9.  Eliza Dushku.  I've only seen her in True Lies, long before she was in Buffy, and Angel, and other things I never saw.  Had a couple of bags stolen from her by a guy Channel 10 said was wearing "an Egyptian costume."  Maybe Sallah?  Incredibly, unbelievably beautiful, far more than the "supermodels" and "models" there.

Not a bad day, despite being packed in like sardines (since the Con violated fire safety laws and went way over the limit), and despite, once again (as at Terror Con in the same building), dealing with a staff who didn't know anything about anything.  At both Cons combined, I asked the staff about ten questions--mind-boggling things, like "Where's the nearest exit?" or "Where's the ATM?"--and each time I was told, "I don't know."  Literally, each and every single time.

So there's a lot of stuff for a lot of blog entries.  I'll cover one at a time, in the order I got their autographs, or their picture.  The list above is the exact order.

There'll be lots of pictures of the celebs and of their autographs, plus a bit on what they were in and how those movies or shows effected me.  Hope you like 'em.