Monday, October 5, 2015

Quick Jots Oct. 2015

Just a few things:

--What the Pope said to Kim Davis: "Really?  Really?"

--Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders: Only in America, man.  Truly their political success makes this country special, in every sense of the word.

--Actually, the Pope said: "Can you make your husband change his clothes now?"

--The chances of your child "getting" autism from the flu shot is much, much, much, much less than your child dying of the flu, or of spreading it to someone who may die of it.  Or of making the flu more virulent.

--In India right now, a strain of the plague exists that is not vulnerable to any antibiotic at all.

--Since I published my recent Kim Davis blog entry, I lost a follower of this blog.  I wish you well, and I'll leave the light on for ya.

--But you still can't decide which part of your public job you're not going to do.

--BTW, the Constitution does not guarantee you the right to wield your religion as a weapon in your war against those you hate.  It guarantees you the right to have that religion, and it guarantees you the right not to be thrown into jail by the government for having that religion.  And that's all.

--You still have to do all parts of your public job.  And you have to serve wedding cakes to everyone, too, for that matter.

--Freedom of Religion means the government can't discriminate against you, and you can't discriminate against others.  Get it now?

--Note to bakery couple: You're spending more money on your defense than you would have if you'd just paid the damn fine and made that damn cake.  And, P.S.--How do you know the person who just made your pizza wasn't gay, and spit on it?

--And if you want to use the Bible as your weapon, you do so at your own peril.  It says that divorce is bad, too--and Kim Davis has been divorced three times.  The only things more surprising than that are that she has been married four times--and that she has been married at all.  Let the record show that she has not refused marriage licenses to those previously divorced.  Though she did (inadvertently, is my guess) give a marriage license to a transgender person.

--In all seriousness, this Pope--who is more liberal than the New Masses--probably did not pat her on the shoulder and say, "Good job."  I'm betting he very politely gave her some what-for, no matter what she ends up saying later.  I can see him whispering, "I've just worked very hard not to distance people from this religion, so will you please knock it off?"

--If there's to be yet another Carrie remake or sequel, she should be in it.  That's perfect casting.

--Now, from out of left field: Though the Yanks (See what I did there?) made the playoffs and the Sox didn't, the Sox are currently playing much, much better, and have more reason to be excited for next year than the Yanks do.

--The Yanks are not long for these playoffs, either.  They're old, they're tired, and they cannot consistently hit, drive in runs, or pitch well in innings 1-6.  They're in the playoffs because they have three hitters with 80-95 RBIs, and because their 8th and 9th inning guys are lights-out.  That won't be enough in the playoffs against teams with much, much more.

--Religion, politics and sports.  Yup.  Sorry about that.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

New Disasters--The Black Death

Interesting little book--just 111 pages--about the Black Death of the Middle Ages, between 1347-1351.  I saw it in my local library while I was researching plagues and flus for my next novel.  Though I'm focusing more on the Great Plague of the 1660s in England, and not the Black Death of the Middle Ages (for they're not the same thing, and there are a great number of differences), I figured I could learn a little something from this.

It's broken up in sections: its arrival; recent scientific re-assessments (this was published in 2003, so it's still relatively recent); writings about the plague from the time; and the repercussions of the Black Death.

What I learned, in no particular order:

--It seems now rather certain that the Black Death wasn't just the Justinian Plague, carried by fleas on black rats.  Lots of evidence indicates that anthrax (the disease that killed cattle, not the powdery stuff used in germ warfare today) was also going around, either on its own or as a unique anthrax / plague strain.

--Part of the evidence for this was the unbelievable number of animals dying before the people started to die.  Also, the deaths did not abate much in the winter--odd for a plague dependent on fleas and rats to spread it.  (Neither survive or move around much in the winter.)  And people died with extreme rapidity from a third strain of the plague; it was said that they could go to bed feeling fine and be dead by morning.  (This does not seem to be an exaggeration.)

--The plague was said to come from vapors within the Earth, released during earthquakes.  It was believed that breathing man-made yuckiness--like from latrines--was beneficial, and would fight off the nastiness from within the Earth.  Planet alignments and other astrological things were also blamed.

--People died faster than they could be buried.  Putrefying bodies of people and animals would lie in the streets, and the stink was said to be incredible.

--Gravediggers, doctors and clergy died fastest, as they attended to the dead and dying.  Since nobody was left alive to bury the dead--and since those left alive didn't want to touch the dead or dying for fear of getting sick from their "humours" and "vapors"--a lot of money was paid to people who called themselves becchini.  These people would take the dead from their homes, from the streets, etc. and bury them.  But after awhile, nobody wanted to touch or associate themselves with these people, either, so the becchini became disgruntled and homeless, and often turned to crime.

--Those who couldn't afford to be cared for or buried simply weren't, and died alone in horrible conditions, and their bodies left to rot wherever they died.

--The Black Death may have some DNA in common with the HIV / AIDS virus.  Recent evidence suggests that 12%-15% of those with European descent--and an ancestor who contracted the plague and survived it--may be immune to the HIV / AIDS virus as well as the Black Death.

--The same plague from the Middle Ages is alive and well in a few spots, including the Midwestern U.S.  Some cases have cropped up in Colorado recently.

--A strain of the Plague--as well as strains of other viruses--are immune to today's strongest antibiotics.  A cocktail of super-antibiotics is used to fight these resistant viruses now.  Once the viruses become immune to these cocktails--which is very soon--there won't be anything left to stop them.

--God, then like today, was thought to be punishing the bad people.  [See: AIDS in the 80s.]  But then everyone, of every stripe, class, age and religion, started dying, so that theory was dashed by everyone--except the living, of course, whose every breath proved their moral superiority.

--A common "cure" was to bleed and purge the victim.  This led to an even more rapid death due to blood loss, exhaustion, dehydration, and a weakened immune system.  Those who came in contact with the blood or feces of the victim could contract the illness as well, so that the "cure" killed them, too.

--Mercury was often recommended, which made plague victims die of the plague and of mercury poisoning.  Several learned people complained that their doctors were killing them quicker than the pestilence was.  (BTW, the plague was never called the plague at the time.  It was called a "pestilence" or "the Great Pestilence.")

--The most common thing doctors did for the victim?  Study their urine.

--In some towns, when one member of a family got sick, the entire family was sealed inside the home, so that everyone--the healthy and the sick--died.

--Before everyone died of the plague, those blamed for it the most were the Jews and the undesirables of society.  [See: World War II.]  It was commonly believed that Jews were poisoning the wells, and tens of thousands of Jews across Europe were hunted down because of this belief, including entire communities.

Anyway, a little book that, in these virus-ravaged days, makes for some eye-opening, if not chilling, reading.  With the Earth long overdue for a pandemic like the 1918 super-flu, and with our current attitudes about change and blame, this book made for some quick, interesting and thought-provoking reading.

The more things change, it seems, the more things stay the same.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Girl in the Spider's Web

An exceptional novel that I almost gave up on in the beginning.  As bad as the first 1/4 or 1/3 was, the book picks up speed and quality after the death of a noted computer specialist--and the emergence of Lisbeth Salander.  Whether by design or by accident, the book becomes extremely good after she emerges.  Her character meshes everything and everyone else, and makes it all work.  Before she appears, it all flounders.

The four books have the same tagline on the front cover: "A Lisbeth Salander novel."  Though Mikael Blomkvist is also in all four books, Salander, again, is the fulcrum that powers the works.  David Lagercrantz, taking over for Stieg Larsson, undoubtedly knows this.  But you wouldn't know that at first, as Lisbeth is behind the curtain and is only barely even spoken of.  Larsson notoriously hindered his last novel by doing the same to her--keeping Lisbeth prone in a hospital obviously paralyzed her movements, and when Lisbeth isn't moving, neither is the book she's in.

And so I have to believe that it is by design that she doesn't appear for awhile here.  Maybe Lagercrantz believed he was building tension, or maybe he believed he didn't have an open door for her until he finally did.  I don't know, but these books don't work like Dracula did; the more you didn't see the Count in the book, the more mysterious and terrifying he became.  Salander isn't like that.  She's not terrifying (except maybe to the men who hate women); she's kinetic.  She bristles with energy and fury.  (Maybe her fury gives her this hyperactivity and kinetic energy.)  It's possible that Lagercrantz believed he could offer up too much of a good thing by making her appear too early.  If so, he's probably right, as it's really not possible that someone of her limited physicality could actually brim with as much energy and survive the shocks her flesh was heir to.  (I'm a rather hyperactive slim guy, but I haven't been shot multiple times, or been abused as she had been in her youth and in the first book.)

The writing is very Nordic Noir: very dry, very "Just the facts, ma'am," and very specific.  In the beginning, this was to the point of being pedantic, and it almost became stale before Lisbeth appeared.  Then, the writing fit her persona, and it all took off.  Lagercrantz also does a good job playing the cards he's been dealt by the first three books, and then running with them.  Though his writing is a little different from Stieg Larsson's, by the end it does seem possible that Larsson could have written this.  None of the characters do anything they shouldn't do.  They don't behave strangely or do strange things.  There is a relationship that gets downplayed here, but I was expecting that.  For this series to take off with Larsson's passing, one relationship had to sort of cool, and one had to sort of subtly pick up.  If you've read all the books, you should be expecting it, too.

And, finally, Lagercrantz somehow manages to flesh out Salander here, without going too far.  He does toe the line, but he doesn't cross it, and what we learn and see of her past is worthwhile, riveting, and completely at home with her character.  There are also some very interesting premises here, including a neat little section that shows how computer intelligence has increased in just five years.  This section posits the question: What would happen when a computer can learn by itself, and fix its own mistakes?  A character wonders what a computer would think when it realized it's owner--who can turn it off, remove its insides, and essentially kill it--is much less intelligent than it is.  It all sounded too uncomfortably like a computer very soon could be some sort of HAL, Skynet, Blade Runner hybrid.  This stuff alone made the book interesting and worthwhile to read.  It all stays just on the good side of info-dump.  As in Larsson's books--and as in the genre itself--there is a lot of character-explaining here, and they sometimes talk a little too long, longer than it seems that real people do.  But, again, it stays just on the good side, and it never slows down the pace of the book once the pace establishes itself.

And so finally this book was a winner for me.  It's clearly better than the third Larsson book, possibly better than the second, and equal to the first.  Possibly it's better than any of them.  You should read it.

P.S.--Unlike most book series, this book builds upon and needs the other three, and so the reader should read each of those before he reads this.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Appreciation From Time to Time

Very enjoyable sequel to Time and Again until the ending that almost ruins the whole thing.  This book violates a rule that Finney seems to have established with the first book: a sense of wonder and fun is more important than a sci-fi plot device or message.  The ending is a cruel trick on a character who deserved much better, just to re-state a message already mentioned many times over. 

This also does an injustice to the sinking of the Titanic, treating like an "ah-ha" morality trope, rather then the world-changing tragedy (as the book itself says) that it was.  Also unfortunate were that the two characters who witness the sinking of the Titanic don't describe it--an impossibility, as it jarred for life every single survivor.  Here it's unmentioned, and the narrator offers a sort of epilogue and the thing ends.

There's also false advertising, as the back of the book blares the news that the novel revolves around the main character's attempt to change the course of history by changing the fate of the Titanic.  But, actually, the Titanic doesn't show up in the book until the last 20 pages or so, and the main character's only on it for 10.  Despite the ad copy, this book has almost nothing to do with the Titanic at all.  In fact, this book could have very easily ended without including the fateful voyage at all.  Had it done so, it would have been a much better book.

This time, everything I'd written about the wonder of the 1880s of Time and Again also fits here.  The era is 1912, of course, and it mostly focuses on Broadway, its plays, and an odd but entertaining digression about vaudeville performers and other circus-like performers.  They evidently graced the Broadway stage in the time, as did many other types of performances that may surprise you.

Again, the main reason to read this is the description of NYC in 1912.  The plot doesn't matter.  The tropes don't matter.  The messages don't matter.  If you can lose yourself in the world described here, and forget the ridiculousness of plot and morality--passed off here as philosophy, but don't be fooled, it's morality--then this book is still worthwhile.  It's taken me a few hours to get over the ending, and the movie Titanic has been on HBO all day, and is on now as I write this, which doesn't help at all, but the two books really are fantastic escapism into another time and place.  They are worthy of reading and of wonderment.

What isn't worthy, again, is Finney's treatment of his female characters, who are again very minor, very in love with the main character, and frankly treated like little girls who can't help themselves.  Both girls (Julia from the first one, and the unnamed woman [!] from this one) are better women than their author treats them, and deserved better.  You'll probably tire, as I did, each and every time the main character apologizes to the reader (and to Julia, by association) for kissing this book's heroine, which he does consistently and, apparently, uncontrollably.  Again, she deserves better than the ending she got, and the name she didn't get, and I'm getting annoyed about it all again as I write this.

Whatever.  Feel free to just let those things pass and to lose yourself once again into the very well-realized New York City of the past.  Again it'll seem like you're walking down Broadway yourself, seeing what he sees and living the life he lives.  It's worth it to do this.

If you do, let me know if the ending bothered you as much as it did me.  I can overthink things sometimes, which you already know if you've read my reviews. Too bad Finney died at approximately the same time this book was published.  As he re-wrote the ending of the first book to make this one possible, so too could he have changed the ending of this one in the beginning of a third.  These are now as stuck in time as his two New York Cities are in theirs.  It's a curious statement of the solidity and permanence of history, as their own unique--yet similar--times and places, to be experienced and appreciated, never to be either again.

Time and Again the main character states an appreciation for the moment he has just experienced, the thing he has just seen, the air he has just breathed, appreciated for the unique and temporal experiences that they were.  If only I could do the same, as often as I should.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Sense of Wonder--Time and Again

I read this book partly because I'm researching a book of my own that takes place partly in 1892--ten years after the 1882 of this book, but still, I didn't have any 1880s information at all.  Turns out, Finney infamously uber-researched for this book.  In fact, it seems that the sole reason he wrote this book is to simply describe 1882 until it felt like he lived there.

This he does.  If you're at all interested in the past--and the 1880s in particular--you should read this book.  If you live in New York City and want to know how Broadway and Fifth Avenue and the many buildings constructed in that time became alive in their own right, and then grew into the life's fabric of the city, you should read this book.  If you're even a little bit a traveler or an explorer at heart--if you're even a little curious or interested in history and people at all--you should read this book.  And if you think it's interesting to understand the people of the era--the actual, flesh-and-blood people of a time--more than just the important historical facts themselves (as I do), then you should read this book.

In short, this was quite a little pleasure, a rare, quaint joy that reading should bring but often does not, even when reading a good or important book.  This gets you away.  Not just into 1882 NYC, but the mid- to late-Victorian Era of your own town and city.  Have you ever wondered what it was like in 1882 where you are?  This book may give you an idea.  Chances are, it was like this, just maybe on a lesser scale.

But the air was clean and the people were evidently a little more carefree than the early pictures would have us believe.  There were horses and sleighs everywhere; children played outside, even in the winter.  There were no screens to enslave us, no computers to weigh us down.  People awoke early, at sunrise, and went to bed just after sundown.  There were telegraph wires everywhere, like electric wires today, so the landscape wasn't as bare as you might think.  The el rattled the city, and electric trains shouldered aside horse-drawn carriages and coaches.  Everyone walked, and people probably spent more time with each other.

This is romanticized history, of course.  You won't see how the very poor live here; in fact, the author just barely refers to them at all.  Most of the action takes place in the richer Broadway, Fifth Avenue part of Manhattan.  There aren't minorities here, either--these things, and the way Finney handles female characters, make the book seem a little less sophisticated than what we may be used to today.  They aren't jarring, and they aren't what this particular story is about, but there it is nonetheless.

It was written by the guy who wrote the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (that was the other reason I wanted to read this), so there's a slight sci-fi aspect here, but it is very slight.  This is more historical fiction than it is science fiction.  It's a bit of fantasy, too, if you think of 1882 NYC as another world, which it sort of is.

My favorite thing about this book (and books like it) is the sense of wonder that it instills in the reader.  Finney clearly was enjoying himself as he wrote this, and the writing and tone exude a sense of wonder that he himself must have been feeling while writing this.  You get the feeling that if Finney has the chance to walk into 1882 NYC and to stay there, he would have as well.

Would you want to stay in the 1882 of your own place?