Monday, September 27, 2010

sixty-four

Ask the Pilot

Ask the Pilot is an interesting read. I learned some things I found useful: the daily grind of a pilot, crew, and plane; how airlines operate networks; what flight attendants look at and notice when they deal with passengers; "cross check" over the PA actually does mean that the flight attendants are checking each other's work as they go through the cabin prior to takeoff and landing, while "1L, 2R" means which doors need to be opened after landing; being a pilot is very unglamorous unless you're an international long-haul pilot; seniority is the way the airlines operate; planes are both complicated and simple in that the plane automatically takes care of a lot of the more difficult aspects of flight, but these systems are complicated to oversee, and autopilot isn't used all the time.

I thought the format of chapters that begin with an essay on the topic, with a series of Q&As that follow, was a smart way to organize the book. However, I thought the Q&As got a little repetitive, and his prose is informative, snarky, but boring and pedestrian at the same time. Great job for a pilot, okay job for a writer.

sixty-three

The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)

I'd heard great reviews of this book from a surprising number of people, so I had to give it a try. And the back book cover contains the following.

"I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during the day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me."

Not bad - has a level of mystery balanced with snarky arrogance that I find absolutely fascinating. My only worry was that it'd be too silly to be believed, but this is a very science-based fantasy novel, if that can be believed. Rough things happen, though the way that the narrative is given to the reader, it's pretty clear that he survives the events in the story he tells. It's almost an adult's version of Harry Potter arriving at Hogwart's - imagine Harry penniless, uninvited, and attempting to enter the school four years before he's allowed, with no familial support. Rothfuss's prose is funny, compelling, and really draws you along. It's smart as well - Kvothe's quick wit and interesting observations are fun.

But I'm not sure I've seen a passage like this in a fantasy novel:

"Perhaps the greatest faculty our minds possess is the ability to cope with pain. Classic thinking teaches us of the four doors of the mind, which everyone moves through according to their need.
First is the door of sleep. Sleep offers us a retreat from the world and all its pain. Sleep marks passing time, giving us distance from the things that have hurt us. When a person is wounded they will often fall unconscious. Similarly, someone who hears traumatic news will often swoon or faint. This is the mind's way of protecting itself from pain by stepping through the first door.
Second is the door of forgetting. Some wounds are too deep to heal quickly. In addition, many memories are simply painful, and there is no healing to be done. The saying "time heals all wounds" is false. Time heals most wounds. The rest are hidden by this door.
Third is the door of madness. There are times when the mind is dealt such a blow it hides itself in insanity. While this may not seem beneficial, it is. There are times when reality is nothing but pain, and to escape that pain the mind must leave reality behind.
Last is the door of death. The final resort. Nothing can hurt us after we are dead, or so we have been told."

Usually when fantasy authors try to ruminate about morality or existence like this, I've found, it comes across as filler or self-indulgent blather. Rothfuss seems to have a deeper story he wants to tell than magic and swords (and honestly, I'm not sure I remember a sword in the whole book). The Name of the Wind is more about the nature of stories than adventures, sorcery, and battles. I eagerly await Kvothe's wit in the next volume, which will be out next year.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

sixty-two

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington, #1)
On Basilisk Station has been on my list since I read David Weber's "Oath of Swords" and "The War God's Own" and somehow loved them. Those were in his own fantasy world (knights, armor, gods, dwarves, engineering), whereas I know a lot of people seem to like his larger sci-fi Honor Harrington series. This is the first one.

Honor is a great character, smart, succinct, funny, and manages not to fill all the stereotypes for the "smart female captain." Seeing as it was written in 1993, Weber deserves some applause for this. The story itself was gripping, interesting, and managed to make you think a bit. Set in the distant future, but still somewhat realistic, and relying on physics we can mostly understand, Honor is in the Royal Manticoran Navy, which is one nation of star systems vying for power with others nearby, connected by faster-than-light drives and wormholes. The interesting bits come in when Weber brings us effortlessly into his space combat tactics, local politics, military politics, and the role of the enlightened colonizer. The plot that Honor uncovers is a little predictable, but still interesting. It kept me reading long enough to want to know more about her, and I'll be reading the next in the series soon.

This was also my first book read on my borrowed Kindle - I'll post about it separately soon, after I post on audiobooks, but I'm finding the experience alternately easy to use and annoying to use.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

sixty-one

Sydney: The Story of a City

After planning a trip to Sydney, of course this book called Sydney, The Story of a City makes sense to pick up from the library. I would have loved a less stodgy tome, but I did learn a lot about the city and who lives there. One thing I'll get out of the way is that Moorhouse loves to write run-on sentences. Here's an example:

"People also fish from jetties here or over the concave wall that was built right around this part of the Harbour to prevent rats ever again coming off the tramp steamers into town, after a disastrous plague at the turn of the century; they slurp ice cream as they watch the ceaseless traffic in vessels rumbling past; they linger over a coffee and a Danish while they read the Sydney Morning Herald or one of Mr. Murdoch's publications; they queue for Travelpasses of varying denominations that will allow them to ride any ferry, bus or CityRail train without further ado; they amble along the eastern arm of the Quay, to sample bivalves in the Oyster Bar, and then continue strolling on to the Opera House where, on a shining day, scores of sun worshippers will arrange themselves lazily on its long cascade of steps."

Yeah. That's one sentence. It was a bit of a list, so it's slightly justified, but really? It's distracting, like the singer at the family picnic that holds a note three times longer than is really necessary, just to get attention. Yeah, I just said family picnic, and implied people sang at them. Deal with it.

The book was useful to have read on the trip, and I recommend it if you plan on spending time in a city as lovely as Sydney. I don't recommend it if you don't. It was slightly difficult to get through and he's kind of a dork, but as I said, I did learn a lot, and was able to play Annoying American In-Law Tourist and tell Australians things they didn't know (or things that Moorhouse told me that were lies). For instance, did you know the Labor party is not spelled the "Labour" party in Australia because three Greek started the Anglo-American company, and then, one can assume, imported American spelling habits? Or that once the news came back from Gallipoli and began to sink in, a new batch of recruits in WW1 decided they didn't want to go to war - so they found a hotel, drank themselves silly, came into town on a train, and had a gunfight with police that involved a firehose, several injuries, and one death. The official response was to order all bars closed at 6pm during the war - but these rules lasted well beyond the war. So the tradition arose that workingmen would run to the bars as soon as 5 o'clock chimed, binge drink for an hour, and then stagger home with a bottle in a brown paper bag. You also find out that stoush means "fight." You begin to understand Australia a bit after a few anecdotes like this.

We had a great trip and I highly recommend it - it's a beautiful country, people are nice, they do have good beer and often spell things correctly. The book... only entertain reading that if you're up for it.

sixty

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

I have read so little poetry that I had to add "poetry" as a new shelf on Goodreads when I reviewed this book there. But Langston Hughes was a perfect solid introduction to poetry that I wasn't required to read by a teacher or professor. And seeing as I got married in a room called the Langston Hughes Room, I figured I should read a bit more of what he had to say. Fortunately, he had a lot of great things to tell the world.

He tackles the everyday with humor, insouciance, wit, and a twinkle in his eye:

Looks like what drives me crazy
Don't have no effect on you-
But I'm gonna keep on at it
Till it drives you crazy, too.

And he still manages to deal with bigger, important national issues with intelligence, sincerity, and integrity. This poem was very well written in a time (early 20th century) that must have been frustrating, depressing, and awful for people of good conscience:

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To Stand
On my own two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I'm dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow's head.

Freedom
Is a strong seed
Planted
In a great need.
I live here too.
I want freedom
Just as you.

I wasn't sure how I'd deal with poetry. A lot of it has seemed to me to be silly and self-absorbing and self-absorbed. But oftentimes you (or at least Langston, who does it much better than you) can communicate more clearly in poetry than prose. It is fun to feel the cadence of the song of poetry in your head, rather than proses sometimes plodding sentences. I doubt I'll turn into a poetry nut, but I'm opening my eyes to the good stuff. Do you read poetry that you enjoy?