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markk

Currently reading

Edward the Confessor
Frank Barlow
Progress: 118/375 pages
For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012
William B. Feis, Peter Maslowski, Allan R. Millett
Progress: 181/736 pages
James Madison: A Biography
Ralph Louis Ketcham
Progress: 337/753 pages
Tales in Time: The Man Who Walked Home and Other Stories
Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Lewis Padgett, Garry Douglas Kilworth, Peter Crowther, James Tiptree Jr., Charles de Lint, Spider Robinson, Jack Finney, L. Sprague de Camp, Brian W. Aldiss, H.G. Wells

My weekend of wrestling with Amazon

This has been a weekend punctuated by Amazon-related stress, in two very different ways. The first was with a gift return that my son wanted to do. Usually this isn't a problem, because Amazon prides itself on its return policy. Yet our situation was complicated by two factors: first, what we wanted to return was an unusued birthday gift he received in September; and second, the "gift receipts" that came with it didn't work because evidently the purchase was never tagged as a gift (don't ask me how on Earth they got a gift receipt for the gift; Amazon's ways are a mystery to me). I spent about a half an hour yesterday chatting online with someone from Amazon who agreed to email me the receipt; when I realized that the email went to the person who gave us the gift (oops!) I had to send over another hour chatting with two Amazon employees before an email popped into my box with return labels to print out.

 

This is pretty standard stuff when it comes to dealing with online retailing, but it's added to a bit of self-imposed stress from another quarter. A few days ago, I was informed that I won a $50 Amazon gift card for doing a follow-up survey for a study my son and I did a few years ago. Seeing the email with the gift code made my day, but since then I have been agonizing over what I should buy with it.

 

This is hardly a new problem for me. For as long as I can remember, I agonize over how best to spend gift cards I receive for bookstores and online sellers. To me they're carte blanche to go crazy, only then I sweat over how to best use my newly-gained indulgence. Suddenly books that I would have no qualms spending cash on receive the sort of ponderous consideration many people give to marriage proposals, and I. Just. Can't Commit. It doesn't help that none of their third-party sellers have the book I want the most right now, so I'm trying to sort out my lower-level priorities so I can make my decision.

 

Yeah, this is a FWP that most people would love to have. But coming on top of dealing with the return it's been more of an Amazon-centric weekend than I would prefer. Hopefully I can figure it out soon so I can go back to my usual background levels of Amazon loathing.

On to Cnut!

So today I finally got around to writing a post I intended to have up last Wednesday. Still, it's up at last, which means that I can move on to the books themselves.

 

On a related note, someone finally commented on one of my posts! At least I think it was an actual comment, as until now I've only received spam from bots. But I'll take it as a positive sign that more people are discovering my site. Now I just need to give them new reviews to read!

Oh, HELL no!

Yesterday I was perusing the Internet looking for something to read while I munched on my lunch, and I came across this item.

 

Frankly I can't look at it without hyperbole spilling forth. And I know that to call it an desecration and an atrocity and a crime against culture profoundly abuses those words and phrases. But dammit, to me this is wrong on so many levels. If you want to read a biography of Dostoyevsky that you can carry around, get a shorter one, dammit! After all, it's not like Joseph Frank wrote the only one out there; you don't need to cut a damn book in half (which means foregoing the endnotes) to learn about his life. Or perhaps you could just go to the gym and do some arm weights, because if those extra three pounds is too much for you, the problem may not be the author's or the publisher's.

 

In other news, I just discovered there's a five-volume Dostoyevsky biography out there, so I will probably do something really stupid at some point and try to read it. Idiocy comes in many forms these days.

Podcast #172 is up!

Boy on the Bridge: The Story of John Shalikashvili's American Success - Andrew Marble

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Andrew Marble about his biography of John Shalikashvili, an immigrant boy who became America's top military officer. Enjoy!

Thoughts on a horror classic

 

Yesterday my son and I went with a friend to Tucson to do some used book shopping. Though the pickings were a little slim (I ended the day with just one new book for my collection), we cleaned up in another category: classic horror movies.

 

This was something we did in response to my son's growing curiosity about the genre. Evidently horror movies are a regular topic of conversations at his school, most likely because the R rating means that they're forbidden fruit for any third-grader with anything other than the most permissive parent. Mine has been pushing me to find horror movies we could watch, and last week I relented by telling him that we could get horror movies, provided they predated the MPAA rating system (that's not how I phrased it, of course,  but that is what my limit amounted to). He found this compromise acceptable, and while we were shopping in the multimedia outlets there we picked up some DVD sets containing a number of Universal horror movies. Eager to enjoy his new acquisitions, he asked to watch one of them with me, and the one he chose was the original version of The Mummy from 1932.

 

I started the movie with a degree of concern, as my son declared that he was only a fan of "horror" and not "suspense horror." To my pleasant surprise, though, the movie was able for the most part to hold his attention, and when we finished he declared that he liked it. I did as well, and watching it proved a very interesting experience.

 

Growing up there were few things I enjoyed more than watching science fiction and horror films. I even had a list that I had cobbled together from the books I read about them, and I used it to record whenever I watched them. Because this was before my parents acquired a VCR, this meant catching them when they were on TV, which means that I missed a few. The Mummy was one of those that I had missed, so seeing it was as novel for me as it was for my son.

 

What was surprising was how well it held up. The plot is fairly straightforward, and not that different from later remakes of the film: in it, the mummified corpse of a prince named Imhotep unearthed by a British Museum expedition is brought to life by a curse and escapes the museum, only to reemerge a decade later posing as an Egyptian with uncanny information about the location of a grave site. Buried at the site is his lover, whose soul has been reincarnated in the body of a young British-Egyptian woman. Once the grave's goods have been excavated and put on display, Imhotep uses them to try to mummify his reincarnated lover so that they can be together for eternity.

 

What makes the film succeed is its atmospheric nature and Boris Karloff's fantastic performance as Imhotep. And while there are a few parts that are cringeworthy today (including a plot point that's downright racist), the story is resoled in a way that is more progressive than so many of the "woke" productions of today. As Imhotep effortlessly holds off the two men who interrupted his ceremony in order to save the girl, the reawakened princess, who is horrified at Imhotep's sacrilege, prays to a statue of Isis for salvation. The statue then comes alive, discharging a bolt of energy that fries Imhotep, destroying him and ending his threat.

 

Seeing something like this today would probably be regarded as praiseworthy. Seeing it in a film that is nearly a century old astonished me. Who would have thought that in an era where casual sexism was so omnipresent there would be a film in which the heroine essentially saves herself? I certainly didn't, though after seeing it I'm going to have to make a better effort to check my future expectations before I sit down to watch other films of its type.

My "Just One Book" post on Æthelred the Unready is up!

With all that's been going on of late, I haven't been able to take the time until now to write up my summary of the Æthelred biographies that I read for my reviewing project. It's up on my site at last, though, which means that I can move on to Cnut and with it a more regular posting schedule.

My review of "1917"

 

This afternoon I went with my father to go see 1917. To be honest I was planning to skip it, but when my mother called and suggested that I should go see it with my dad, I decided to make the time. He's usually not one to see movies in theaters anymore, and as the last film we saw together was Jurassic Park III I figured I should take advantage of the opportunity to say that the last film we saw was something better than that.

 

And to my surprise, it was. Instead of the somewhat pretentious, tribute-laden, cameo-heavy film I was expecting what I found it to be was an entertaining drama about two British soldiers on the Western Front sent on a (somewhat implausible) mission to head off an attack during the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. It's just the sort of premise that allowed Mendes to break away from the usual futility that characterized trench warfare and offer something different. Best of all, the technically-impressive continuous-take Mendes uses was executed surprisingly well, though after seeing it I still don't think it adds a whole lot to the movie.

 

So while I can't say that it should win the Oscar for the year's best picture, it definitely is worth your viewing time. I especially recommend seeing it in the theater, as between the suspense of the mission, the single-take approach, and the special effects it's one of those films that is best seen on the big screen.

 

An ominous letdown for the "X-Wing" series

Wedge's Gamble (Star Wars: X-Wing Series, Book 2) - Michael A. Stackpole

It was inevitable that my recent immersion in the Star Wars Extended Universe/Legends media would lead me to Michael Stackpole's "X-Wing" series. Given the interconnected nature of the works, the references to events from it in Timothy Zahn's Hand of Thrawn duology left me wanting to read the characters and events mentioned. And the first book, Rogue Squadron was enjoyable enough as an inaugural volume that introduced some appealing characters while laying the groundwork for future volumes.

 

By contrast, Wedge's Gamble is something of a ominous letdown. With the New Republic preparing to take the strategically important planet of Coruscant, the pilots of Rogue Squadron are infiltrated onto it as part of an intelligence-gathering mission. This was the first warning sign for me, for while I get the need to keep the story focused on the main characters, the need for pilots to serve as covert operatives seemed more than a stretch. Yet this was a minor complain when set against the plan hatched by Ysanne Isard, the former head of Imperial Intelligence and the main antagonist of the series. Her scheme to spread a virus designed to sicken and kill missions of non-humans was far too mustache-twirling for my taste. For a series known for its complex and nuanced villains, having one engaged in such an overly-complicated effort to commit genocide while sowing political discord over medical supplies is something of a letdown. Though I'm hoping that the later volumes move past this, the fact that the fourth one is entitled The Bacta War suggests that the rest of Stackpole's series are going to be grounded in it, which is why I'm having trouble finding the motivation to pick up the next book in it.

SPOILER ALERT!

Taking different directions with the stories in the Original Trilogy

Star Wars Omnibus: Infinities - Chris Warner, Dave Land, Adam Gallardo

Alternate history ranks among the more robust genres in science fiction, as authors frequently explore the consequences of what might have happened had historical events taken a different turn. Far less common, however, are what might be termed alternate stories: other takes on notable fictional works. While both Marvel and DC have explored the possibilities in such storytelling (in their "What If" and "Elseworlds" titles respectively), for the most part it's a form little seen outside of comic books. Thus, for Dark Horse Publishing to undertake alternate storytelling of the famous "Original Trilogy" of Star Wars movies marks something of a novelty. In three separate limited-series comics (brought together here in a single omnibus volume) their writers and artists envision what might have happened had events in some of the most famous movies in history had taken a slightly different turn.

 

The first of these comics builds upon the events of the fourth film, A New Hope. In it, the proton torpedoes Luke Skywalker fires into the exhaust vent only damage rather than destroy the Death Star. With the Rebel base on Yavin-4 destroyed and Princess Leia recaptured by Darth Vader, Luke travels to Dagobah to begin his training with Yoda. This sets up an interesting dynamic, with Vader attempting to turn Leia to the Dark Side while Luke more readily embraces his training to become a Jedi. Yet the ending leaves something to be desired, with the resolution just a little too pat for my tastes.

 

In the second of these tales, the focus is on the events and the characters featured in The Empire Strikes Back. Here the divergence is a small event with enormous consequences, with Han Solo's tauntaun dying before he can locate Luke in Hoth's frigid wastes. Luke's own subsequent death from exposure because of this sets of a new chain of events, with Han, Leia, and Chewbacca fleeing directly to Bespin before going to Dagobah themselves. This was by far my favorite of the three, both for Dave Land's story (which is inventive while remaining true to the elements of the movie) and for how he develops Leia as a Jedi, which allows him to explore the possibilities of what is by far the most disappointingly unexplored aspect of the entire Star Wars franchise.

 

It would be hard to top Land's story, and the final comic, which is based on Return of the Jedi, emulates the film in the franchise by falling short of its predecessor's high standard. In this story, the team's failure to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt's fortress forces Luke and Leia to continue their search for his carbonized body. While this alters events somewhat, the story's divergence is considerably less than that of the two previous ones, with the final events for the most part playing out as they did in the movie. Though the ending is interesting, it's something of a letdown after the more creative explorations in the first two series, even if it does end up fitting in with the pattern of the original trilogy of films.

Leia in her own right

Star Wars: Princess Leia - Terry Dodson, Mark Waid

Among the benefits that I have gained from my recent immersion in Star Wars media is an appreciation of why people find Princess Leia so awesome. For a long time she seemed to me to be part of the trio in the movies in order to give Luke and Han someone to rescue or to fill a spot as the object at a love triangle (an icky one considering that one of the men in it turned out to be her brother) or as a figure in a gold bikini for adolescent boys to lust after. While her role in the more recent Star Wars movies was larger, when it came to the action she was still too often sidelined in favor of the men or newer characters like Rey.

 

By contrast her portrayal in the "Disney canon" series could not be more different. Freed from the limitations imposed by Lucas, she comes into her own as a leader and a warrior. And nowhere is this demonstrated than the pages of her own eponymous series. Set in the aftermath of the events of the original Star Wars movie, it's centered around Leia coming to terms with the destruction of her home planet of Alderaan and the duties that have been thrust upon her because of it. With the assistance of an Alderaanian pilot flying for the Rebellion, she travels to other worlds in an effort to bring together the scattered survivors to form the core of a new community. Throughout its pages Leia has to deal with the hostility of others, the challenges to her new status as the leader of her people, and her own guilt over Alderaan's fate. It's a wonderfully mature and emotional portrayal, one that demonstrates the core strength of the character that I had missed until now. It makes for a graphic novel that every fan of the character should own, and one that anyone trying to understand her appeal should read.

Explores the broader storytelling possibilities in Lucas's universe

Betrayal - Scott Allie, Ryan Benjamin, Curtis Arnold

George Lucas's Star Wars movies are grounded in a binary struggle between good and evil. On the one side you have the Jedi, the Republic and the Rebellion, and on the other the Sith, Palpatine and the Empire he builds. Both are largely monolithic, with people (most famously Anakin Skywalker) occasionally switching sides but largely respecting the order to which they've aligned. It's straightforward in a way that makes for nice moral contrasts, yet it loses much of the sophistication that can make for great storytelling.

 

This is why I enjoyed Scott Aille's Betrayal as much as I did. Set in the weeks before the events of the original Star Wars movie, it's centered around a group of top Imperial officials who decide that the Empire would be better served if it was led by them rather than a Sith lord and his apprentice. Well aware of Palpatine's and Vader's powers, the cabal concocts an elaborate plot involving brainwashed stormtroopers, mercenaries, and staged assassination attempts designed to remove them both. It's a great premise, and one that is a natural fit for the Star Wars universe: an Empire run by talented and ambitious military officers is bound to produce a few who are tired of living under the threat of being Force-choked to death for unavoidable reversals and who think they could do a better job were they in charge. Though the outcome is never in doubt, seeing how it plays out makes for entertaining reading, and serves as a great example of the larger narrative possibilities in Lucas's long-ago world.

I missed you people

— feeling happy

For the past four days one of the first things I did when I went online is check on the status of Booklikes. Encountering the 522 message on Saturday was annoying; by yesterday, I was growing concerned that it signaled the demise of the site. So to open up my browser today to find that Booklikes was back online brought a smile to my face. And it's all because of you.

 

I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but in so many ways I prefer Goodreads to this site. With its app and with its other features I find it to be so much more useful in terms of cataloguing and tracking my reading than Booklikes. Yet unless I'm doing some big librarian project I spend much more time here than I do there.

 

Why is that? It's because of you people.

 

It took me losing access to the site to realize this, but I enjoy Booklikes so much more because of the community. While I have more "friends" on GR, the site is almost designed to discourage interactions. And this is what I have come to enjoy so much about Booklikes: reading your posts, spending time to articulate my thoughts into one, and getting your thoughts on what I wrote. And in the end, that's not me, that's you.

 

So wanted to say that I missed you, and I'm glad the site's back and you're back. Now please post something so that I can like it, otherwise I'll have to fill the space with more stuff like this.

 

Oh, yeah, and that bug that's preventing reading dates from being recorded? It's still there. So much for the hope that all of this was about fixing that problem.

Reading progress update: I've read 191 out of 368 pages.

Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler: Neville Chamberlain, Sir Horace Wilson, & Britain's Plight of Appeasement: 1937-1939 - Adrian Phillips

On Tuesday I realized that my recent binging on Star Wars media led me to miss my deadline to review Phillips's book, so I'm working frantically to get caught up. Fortunately it's proving an easy read, and I should be able to send something off by the end of the week.

Podcast #171 is up!

King Chongjo, an Enlightened Despot in Early Modern Korea - Christopher Lovins

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Chris Lovins about his study of the reign of the 18th century Korean monarch King Chŏngjo. Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 398 out of 416 pages.

Alphabet Squadron - Alexander Freed

This is my first dive into the post-Disney acquisition "canon" books, and while it's a decent novel I'm not enjoying it as much as I do the Expanded Universe/Legends series. I was struck by this passage, though, in which the main character, Yrica Quell, discusses Operation Cinder, the Emperor's post-Endor directive to his forces to destroy planets joining the rebellion, with a reprogrammed torture droid.

     "Can I offer my theory?" the droid asked.

     "As a friend?"

     "A proper therapist would let you figure it out yourself," the droid said,. "But I'm ignoring boundaries tonight—so yes, as a friend."
     Quell managed a strained smile and nodded. "What's your theory?"

     "The answer," the torture droid said, "is simple: The Emperor who ordered Operation Cinder, who oversaw countless genocides and massacres and created an Empire where torture droids were in common use, was not a man of secret brilliance and foresight.

     "He was a cruel man. Petty and spiteful in the most ordinary of ways; and spiteful men do spiteful things. Whatever else he intended, that is the root of it all." 

I found that especially profound in light of recent events.

Draws profitably upon the expanded Star Wars canon

Star Wars Vol. 7: The Ashes of Jedha - Salvador Larroca, Kieron Gillen

One of the things that makes the recent series of Marvel Star Wars comics so interesting is that, unlike their earlier run in the 1980s and the Dark Horse comics in the 1990s they have much more of the canonical franchise to work with. A case in point is this volume, in which the intrepid trio return to Jedha in the aftermath of Krennic's use of the Death Star on the planet's capital. Though the planet is now a gutted ruin, the Imperials are back to extract whatever remaining kyber crystals they can find, while Leia, Han, and Luke ally with the remnants of Saw Gerrera's band of partisans to oppose him.

 

In writing a story about the post-Rogue One events on Jedha, Kieron Gillen does exactly what Star Wars extended media should do: tell an interesting story that expands upon the narrative available in the canon. By interconnecting the story with the non-episodic movie, we get to see the fate of Jedha and how it fits into the larger story of the rebellion after the Battle of Yavin and even lays the groundwork for a plot detail in Return of the Jedi. It makes for a much richer reading experience, one that shows what possibilities exist for exploring the new movies and television shows within the comics and books being produced around them.