On The Nightstand – The War In The Dark – 8/13/2018

“The Covers Of This Book Are Too Far Apart”

Ambrose Bierce

**Spoilers – Sorta**

This is going to be a tricky review for me because I’m going to take great care to keep from being too harsh.  I did finish this book and I did find it somewhat interesting and entertaining.  Having said that, the first chapter was so poorly written that I came very close to doing something I never do – close it and put it aside.  I did honestly stop at the end of the first chapter and entertain a brief internal monologue:  “Do I really want to put the time into this?  I have so many interesting books waiting to be read.  I still have to finish “Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom.  What were Setchfield, his editor and / or his publisher thinking when they decided to go with this opening?”

Ultimately, I decided to give it a second chance and it did get better – marginally.  I can only assume that I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt because there’s another series rooted in the same general premise that I truly love – “The Laundry Files” by Charles Stross.  I was likely hoping that lightning would strike a second time – but – Nope – hardly a spark.  If you’re interested in the concept of a government sponsored National Security organization focused on the supernatural….Stop…Do Not Pass Go with “The War In The Dark”…progress straight to Stross.  Those books are very well written, well conceived, rooted in the Cthuhlu Mythos and they’re crazy fun/ funny.  This one…not so much.

It almost felt like the author just kept throwing random stuff into a blender to see what he’d eventually wind up with – a bit like “Uncharted” by Kevin J. Anderson and Sarah A. Hoyt.  Random demons…a male protagonist whose back story doesn’t really begin to develop until we’re halfway through the book…a female protagonist whose backstory is never really fleshed out…a character who’s ostensibly killed in very early in the book who reappears during the climax under the pretext of a faked death…a clandestine Soviet military facility in West Germany in the early sixties…Reliquarists…The Order Of The Leaf…John Dee and Edward Kelly….the idea of the Ascendence / Armageddon…the idea that the Fallen Angels would allow themselves to be led back into our world by the partial half-soul of a mortal – it’s all just kind of a hot mess.  Short to long – this is an ugly book – in tone and in execution.

I did finish and there were parts that I enjoyed.  I did appreciate the way both Vienna and Berlin were correctly described as epicenters of East – West espionage during the early years of the Cold War – very true.  I also appreciated the way the lingering destruction of WWII in the major cities of Europe was described – something else that rang true and that was artfully described.  Despite the lack of a true backstory, I enjoyed the female protagonist.  Sadly, though, there was too much mess and not enough nearly enough art.  There was a good story somewhere in here but it just wasn’t very well executed and I’m hoping that the author isn’t tempted to turn this into a series.  One was enough – at least for me.

Posted in On The Nightstand | 4 Comments

On The Nightstand – Fifth Ward: First Watch – 8/11/2018

So…how many times in Fantasy Novels does the author toss out a throw away line about the City Watch – almost always a nameless, faceless presence that’s mentioned in passing – included mainly for the purpose of setting the stage or because it’s an easily acceptable way to establish the atmosphere for a scene.  Here’s a novel idea – why not write a BOOK about those guys – and in the process make it fun freakin’ story – and let them be the heroes for once and not the guys that the heroes avoid, ignore, disrespect or put down with contemptible ease.  While we’re doing all that – here’s another neat idea – let’s make it a police procedural.

Dale Lucas has done just that and thanks to him for finally putting these guys at the center of the story.  Thanks also to FanFiAddict for pointing me in the direction of this book with his review of second book in the series – “Fifth Ward:  Friendly Fire”.  As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but keep asking myself – why hasn’t someone done this before or, if they have, why didn’t I know about it.  I started this one Friday after work and I was done by about 3:00 on Saturday.  It was fast, fun and totally worth the price.  This is probably not a book that’s going to stand the test of time but it was still a real treat – just the thing I needed to break away from some of the heavier stuff I’ve been reading.

The two main characters, Torval and Rem, are an odd couple that works.  Rem may be just a bit too wide eyed and well-intended while Torval may be a bit too angry and formidable at times but overall, they’re well matched and, by the end of the book, they’re working well together as partners.  Rem toughens up and Torval softens and humanizes – odd thing to say about a Dwarf but true nonetheless.  I liked the way Lucas created his environment – the city of Yenara is a place that can, for its residents and its cops, easily become the object of a Love – Hate relationship.  The Ward (Precinct) approach is well-conceived and the way the non-human races fit within the legal system is unique and interesting.  The objects of Torval and Rem’s investigations start small and the larger crime is masked until the end of the book as the threads of those two investigations come together.  Magic plays a very small part in order to keep the focus on the police and the police work.  I really did  think the whole thing was well-constructed.

This one was a winner – Lethal Weapon with medieval weaponry – a book that I didn’t want to put down.  I’ve already purchased the second book and plan to jump into it as soon as I can.

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On The Nightstand – Rogue Protocol – 8/10/2018

I am very close to finishing “Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom” by Stephen R. Platt – its been a longer journey than I’d expected – a good but slow read which I should be able to post on this weekend.  Still, this one arrived on Wednesday and it had to be read.

I’ll start by saying that I’ve read and reviewed the first two books in the series – first “All Systems Red”:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-the-nightstand-all-systems-red-1-16-2018/

It’s a book I enjoyed but wasn’t as enthusiastic about as most of those who’ve read it.

I also read and reviewed “Artificial Condition”:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-the-nightstand-artificial-condition-2-25-2018/

I actually thought this was the better of the two and it left me optimistic about the direction in which the story was heading.

Then comes this one and I’m left shaking my head a bit.  I’m going to start with this post where I ended my review of “Artificial Condition”:

“I honestly have only one complaint and it has nothing to do with the book itself.  I don’t like the way Martha Wells and the publisher are commercializing the work – hence the Razor / Blades quote.  The story is being sold as 4 separate novellas:

  • All Systems Red – 2017
  • Artificial Condition – May 2018
  • Rogue Protocol – August 2018
  • Exit Strategy – October 2018

They’re sold separately as hardcovers at the price of $16.19 and as e-copies for $9.99.  In reality, these are 4 sections of one book – obvious as you read through each separately – and could easily have been published in one volume.  The fact that they were all released within an 18 month period only confirms that the Author and the publisher made a pretty crass commercial decision to break the book into four pieces and sell them separately to maximize revenue.

Instead of paying $25 for a single hardcover volume, I’m forced to purchase 4 separate novellas for a combined cost of ~$68.00 in hardcover or ~$40.00 in digital format.  Before you say it, I will – shame on me – no one forced me to spend the money – I know I’m being played.  Nevertheless, I’m really enjoying the books and I want to get my hands on them as they become available.  It just leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and it makes me wonder about Wells’ attitude towards her fans and readers.  Wells and her publisher gave me the Razor but she’s selling me the blades – one at a time – at a pretty high price.”

The further I progress into the series, the more this frustrates me.  This volume picks up immediately upon the end of “Artificial Condition” – almost seamlessly.  It’s obvious that Martha Wells wrote this as a single volume and it should have been published as such.  I do feel exploited and a bit betrayed – not by the publisher – I understand and accept their business decision – but by the Author who could have forced a decision more in keeping with the interests of her readers.  There – I’m done – last time I’ll say it – until the 4th book is released.

If that were the only thing, we’d be fine.  It was an entertaining story and we get more of the same Murderbot that so many people seem to have fallen in love with.  Martha Wells serves up another type of Bot to serve as both ally and foil for Murderbot.  It’s a quick, easy, enjoyable read.  Even with all that, I can’t escape the feeling that something’s going a bit wrong with the story – and I think the problem – at least for me – is Murderbot.

In each Novella, Murderbot grows and his personality develops.  He defines himself through contact and cooperation with both new groups of humans, new types of Bots and new Machine Intelligences.  Murderbot really started to grow on me in “Artificial Condition”.  I enjoyed watching him rationalize his actions and I appreciated the way he connected with and related to both his human and machine acquaintances.  To be honest, I found him to be a little annoying in this book.  The personality traits he manifested made him feel to me like an odd combination of a grumpy old man and a spoiled teen.  I’m sure many – likely most – will find this to be intriguing and lovable.  It didn’t work as well for me.

I had a second, more wonkish problem and it’s one that’s been creeping up on me across all three novellas.  Murderbot doesn’t define very well for me as an entity.  There are many different categories of personhood in the book – humans, augmented humans, machine / human hybrids (like Murderbot), true bots (Miki and the Combat Bots) and artificial intelligences like ART from “Artificial Condition.  I’m struggling to find a rationale for the creation of an entity like Murderbot.  I continue to ask myself what the advantages of a hybrid entity like Murderbot actually are – incorporating biological vulnerabilities – particularly after the acknowledgement in “Rogue Protocol” that there are also Sec Bots that are even more formidable than Combat Bots.  Bots like Miki seem to have to capability to relate to and connect with humans.  Combat Bots and Sec Bots seem to be far more formidable combatants than Murderbot.  The only thing that really seems to separate Murderbot from augmented humans is the governor module that Murderbot has managed to hack.  I just don’t see how he fits in the larger scheme of things – what unique quality a SecUnit like Murderbot with a functioning governor module brings to the table.  There has to be a functional rationale for creation of an entity as complex and obviously expensive as Murderbot and I just don’t see it.

I know this won’t bother most but it stands out as a non-sequitur for me.  It doesn’t keep me from enjoying the stories – I have. It just keeps me from enjoying them to the same degree as other readers seem to – like an annoying itch that can’t be scratched.

Overall, this is a fun book and I suspect most will see it as a great addition to the story.  I’d recommend it to anyone who’s enjoyed “All Systems Red” and “Artificial Condition”.  I’m certainly going to buy and read the final installment – “Exit Strategy”.  I guess all this means is that the series is not going to make it to my top shelf and I don’t know how much staying power it’s ultimately going to have.

Posted in On The Nightstand | 3 Comments

On My Mind – Six Mistakes Of Man – 8/4/2018

**Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman orator who died in 43 B.C., recorded what he considered to be the six most drastic mistakes repeatedly made by man.**

The delusion that individual advancement is achieved by crushing others

The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed

Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot do it ourselves

Refusing to set aside trivial preferences

Neglecting development and refinement of the mind by not acquiring the habits of reading and study

Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do

**Some things never seem to change**

This is the third of my Pillars but – as always – I thought I should link back to the post that started the series:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-my-mind-principiis-7-28-2018/

I followed that with a post on my 1st Pillar – IF by Rudyard Kipling:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-my-mind-principiis-if-7-28-2018/

Followed by a post on my 2nd Pillar – Live A Good Life by Marcus Aurelius:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-my-mind-principiis-live-a-good-life-7-31-2018/

I’ve always kept Cicero’s Six Mistakes Of Man as the 3rd of my six Pillars and, as a result, this post represents the halfway point in the series.  This is one that came to be as a result of the time I occasionally spend reading works of classical history.  I stumbled across it in a biography of Cicero (quick note – something I learned from my son and step daughter – our two Latin scholars – his name is actually pronounced Kikero – the C in Latin always being pronounced as a K).  It captured and held my attention at the time because it seemed to hold up so well across the years – once again, there are no new problems.  It also  seemed to me at the time to be something that every single person should be required to study and debate at an early enough age to – just possibly – make a difference across the years of one’s life.

All of us move through life manifesting – often unconsciously – learned behaviors – both constructive and destructive.  While these six don’t – by any stretch of the imagination – encompass the totality of negative prejudices and attitudes that we all too frequently fall victim to – they’re likely not even the worst that you might call out – I can tell you that I see all six of these far too often – both in my own thoughts and behaviors as well as in those of others.  As a result, I’ve always tried to keep these warnings in mind as a guardrail around my own thought processes, my decision-making process and my own interactions with others.   I also tend to use them as a screen through which I evaluate and adapt to the behaviors of those around me.

While I run across all six of these in everyday life – in attitude, conversation and interaction – I find that an awareness of these warnings is most valuable in the professional parts of my life.  I’ve had the opportunity to work in both the public and private sector – in both small and large organizations – at both for and non-profit organizations – in jobs with both minimal and significant responsibilities.  The setting or circumstances do not matter – these warnings inevitably go unheeded – and many of them can all too often stand out as the source – in one form or another – of individual or organizational failure.  It’s not hard to restate them in a way that makes them relevant to the work environment:

  • No one wins a fight at work – anyone who frames obstacles at work as conflicts that will have a winner and loser has already lost – both professionally and with respect to his responsibility to the employer and his or her colleagues.
  • No employer or supervisor or co-worker is perfect.  There are things about any of these that you’ll like and appreciate and things you won’t.  With respect to the things that you don’t like or appreciate, there will be things about each that you can influence or change and things you can’t.  Learn to distinguish between the two and throw your energy into areas where positive change is possible.  If that’s not enough for you or it leaves you disgruntled or dissatisfied – focused on the negatives that you can’t change – you’re in the wrong place and a decision to stay will only end badly for you – and possibly for others.
  • Don’t limit yourself based on past experience or your own skill set – you’re surrounded by others with skills, capabilities and experiences that only magnify what you’re capable of doing.  So many things become possible that once weren’t when you reach out and pull those around you into the process of solving a problem.  I’ve found – over and over – that I’m almost never the smartest or most capable person in the room.
  • Learn to distinguish between what is and is not truly important.  There will always be things that you believe to be important – critically important – worth fighting for – but by stepping outside yourself and thinking more broadly and inclusively – you’ll often find that they don’t carry the weight you originally thought.  All too often, they spring from personal pride, arrogance or a desire to put yourself at the center of a process.  More projects have died and more deadlines have not been met because one or more of those working on the project simply isn’t capable of letting go of those things that simply aren’t critical to the final outcome.
  • You’ll always be busy, you’ll always have work to do, you’ll never feel like you have the time – but if you don’t carve out opportunities to improve yourself, to learn, to listen, to study – you’ll never be more capable that you are at any given moment – and don’t disregard opportunities to learn from those around you.  As a supervisor, I’ve learned more from my direct reports and from those in organizations that I’ve led than any other source available to me.
  • Forcing a solution based on authority or assuming that a solution imposed over the objections of those impacted will lead to a good outcome usually leads instead either to outright failure or to a lack of adherence and support – slow, gradual failure.  There’s a time for any supervisor to exercise unbridled authority but I find that it’s almost always limited to time-sensitive, crisis situations – where the alternative to making a decision and compelling action is disaster.  Otherwise, take the time to understand concerns and objections, listen to those who will have to either implement or be impacted by a decision, accommodate those concerns or uncertainties to the greatest degree possible and then be open and honest about why everyone is not getting everything they believe they need.

It may seem like I’ve trivialized Cicero’s warnings by focusing on professional considerations.  I do so only because this is where they come to life most vividly for me.  I can assure you that I see far too many instances where these principles are disregarded outside of the workplace – by friends and acquaintances, by educators, by politicians – all too often leading to the same disappointing or damaging outcomes – at times on a mammoth scale.  I’d suggest that failure to heed any one of these warnings has the potential to damage a friendship, a family relationship (spouse, parent, child or sibling) or a reputation in the community.  Still, the purpose of my Pillars is to guide me in the day to day – and all too much of my day to day involves what I do at work.  This is where it usually becomes real for me.

Posted in On My Mind | 3 Comments

Scribbles – Two Tables – 8/4/2018

**Here’s a partial piece I’ve been playing with – hope you enjoy and always open to suggestions or criticisms**

Chapter One – Two Tables

Thinking back on the week, it was hard for her to identify that specific point in time when she’d decided to leave.  Gorion had neither said nor done anything, at least overtly, to communicate his intentions in this regard.  Still, for someone who knew the old man as well as her, the signs had been there.  Understanding had slowly crept up on her, stalked her..transformed itself from suspicion to certitude in such a gradual way that there had been no real moment of realization.  When Gorion had broached the subject last night, it had come to her almost as old news.

After their conversation, despite the lateness of the hour, she had insisted on making the hike out to Cullyn’s lodge.  When she arrived, she had found him gone.  Not surprising.  He often hunted at night – sometimes with her, sometimes alone.  No less painful, however, for it’s predictability.  His absence tonight meant that far too many things would go unsaid.  If Gorion had become the father of her she mind, Cullyn had been the teacher that most are never so lucky to find – the one tending to the health of her soul.  Stepping into his home, letting herself fall into a seat at his table, she couldn’t help but think back on her time with the two of them and forward to a time when they would no longer be part of her days.

Gorion had found her at a very early age, about the time she had begun work in the Keep’s kitchens.  She had been one of the many young girls charged with delivering meals to the scholars in residence.  He had been one of those she’d called on.  His was a small suite in one of the older and more remote sections of the Keep.  He had no furniture to speak of – a table, two chairs, an old pallet – everything piled high with books, maps, scrolls, inks and quills.

He had always been pleasant with her, greeting her, acknowledging her presence in a way so many of the other scholars had not.  It had unnerved her at first.  Over time, however, his pleasantries and good-natured questions about life in the kitchens came to be expected and the two of them drifted into a comfortable and amiable pattern.

So much so that she had eventually found herself asking questions in return.  In later years, they had laughed about her first simple inquiries into the state of the world outside the walls of the Keep, so full of misconception and half-truth.  He would have had every right to meet these tangled queries with arrogant disdain, with pomposity or with amused patronizing silence.  Instead, she remembered him responding with a gentle enthusiasm and a perpetual patience, always working to clear away misunderstandings, to disabuse her of suspicion and to move her towards a more active mental life.

And oh…how he had succeeded.  Every scrap of information he managed to communicate and every silly notion he’d managed to disabuse had only created a greater awareness of her ignorance.  Her visits became lengthier, her questions more focused, their dialogue more interactive.  In the end, she left him with little alternative but to take responsibility for the process he’d started and he sought out Cook with the proposal that she learn to read and write.  The request had been an unprecedented one for Cook, so totally outside of her experience that she assumed Gorion must be having a joke at someone else’s expense, most likely hers.  He persisted, however, and, in the end, she had been given to Gorion as a student.

It was a day that stood out in her memory as a bright, shining line between all that had gone before and all that would come to be.  She passed out of Cook’s world and into Gorion’s.  He had had a corner of the suite cleared and a second small desk brought in.  She had moved from the kitchens to the Apprentices’ Dormitory.  She was still expected to fetch his meals.  In addition, she took responsibility not only for cleaning the suite but for maintaining some semblance of order within his quarters.  In return, he would devote the second half of the day to her instruction.  Her evenings were spent with his books and maps and inks and quills.

For many years, this arrangement worked well for both of them.  While she could lay no claim to brilliance, she did possess a lively intellect and an inquiring and adventurous spirit.  She threw herself into the study of geography, history, literature and languages with a commitment that sometimes amazed her teacher.  For his part, Gorion responded in kind and performed admirably as a teacher.  He nurtured and supported her natural interests while pushing her to acquire a command of those subjects she found less engaging.  At times she struggled…with his help she somehow, always overcame.  Over time, he had helped her to understand that what he was giving her was not just knowledge but control…over herself…her surroundings…those around her.  On the eve of her departure, she was sure that she would be walking into the world with an education superior to most others that she might encounter.

It was the first, but not the most important, of the two gifts he had given her.  More valuable to her by far was the sense of belonging, of proper place, that had gradually come to her during their twenty odd years together.  His world had been a familiar and stable place.  It had also been one steeped in purpose and in principle.  Wrapped within it, she grew, explored her capabilities and limitations, and developed a true sense of self.

Not that she had ever, at least according to Gorion, had much work to do in this regard.  He often commented on the fact that, even as a young one, she had seemed complete, centered to an almost unnatural degree.  It had always been an article of faith for Gorion that people were always either more or less than what they seemed, that what shone through to the outside world was somehow not representative of what lay at the core, within the heart and soul.  With her, he claimed, it was different; that she reflected a consistency, a unique balance between thought, feeling and deed.  It had prompted Gorion to nickname her “Harmony” and to suggest from time to time that hers was one of the oldest souls he had ever touched.

Her relationship with Cullyn, though it had come to be every bit as important, was of an entirely different nature.  No man for unnecessary sentiment, he had never referred to her as anything but “Nubbin”.  She had met him for the first time when he had visited Gorion in his suite, to discuss Gorion’s request for assistance with a line of research he’d been pursuing.  She’d sat at her desk and watched, observing him as he listened impassively to Gorion discuss the nature of his need.  He wasn’t old but he was worn, like a good pair of leather boots that hadn’t been properly cared for, still serviceable and with many good years remaining but scuffed, dried and cracked.  He had said almost nothing, asked no questions, but had ended the conversation with a brief statement of willingness to help, then quickly excused himself.

Several days afterwards, she and Gorion had walked out to his lodge, a solid but unassuming place he had built for himself about an hour’s walk from the walls of the Keep.  Cullyn had met them at the door but had not asked them in.  Gorion attempted to strike up a conversation but had not been able to push past Cullyn’s first few grudging pleasantries.  Gorion eventually handed Cullyn a leather pouch – one she assumed had been filled with coin.  As part of an equally forced farewell, Gorion had explained to Cullyn that she would thereafter be calling on him in his stead.

It had started simply, weekly visits at age seven to pick up parcels for Gorion.  Now at 17, sitting in his chair and thinking back, she grinned at the memories of those initial visits.  He would always be waiting for her, sitting on his stoop, usually at work on a shaft or repairing one of his bows.  Always met with that simple greeting, “Hello Nubbin, what have you for me today?”  She would pay him, thank him for whatever parcel he had prepared and be on her way.  He would return to his work with a nod and a quick “Next week then, Nubbin.”

And so it had gone on for over six months, until she had arrived one afternoon to find him gone.  She had walked around the lodge, looking for him but also allowing herself for the first time to examine the drying stands, the smoker, the racks of antlers hung under the eaves.  To the rear of his lodge, she had found a covered work area.  While it was currently open to the weather on all sides, she noticed that it had been constructed so as to allow wood panels to be hung as protection against inclement weather.  Under the roof she found racks of tools for working wood, a number of oak and ash staves which had been laid out for curing, several bows in various stages of construction or repair.  The scene somehow resonated with her and she couldn’t help but reach out to one of the bows.  Not ornate, not by any stretch of the imagination, but beautiful nonetheless.  The wood was smooth, carefully carved and formed, almost warm to the touch…and then he was there, a hand on her shoulder and a quick, “Careful Nubbin, not quite ready for that one yet.”

That was all.  They had walked around to the front together, she had paid him and he had surrendered another wrapped bundle.  She thanked him, as she always had and turned to begin the trip home.  This time, however, he surprised her by saying “Tomorrow then, Nubbin.”  She chose not to turn or acknowledge the break in their pattern but on her way home, but for the first time in over six months, chose to open the pouch he had provided.  It was filled with sand…nothing more.  That evening, Gorion had informed her that he would not be available for lessons the following afternoon and that she was free to use the time as she would.  It was all he’d needed to say.  She had understood and been delighted.

A new routine quickly developed that would bind them all for the better part of ten years.  For the first four days of the week, she would work with Gorion, delving ever deeper into the realms of languages, geography, history, mathematics and alchemy.  The final three days of the week were spent with Cullyn.  It had started simply with short walks in the woods at his side.  There had always been an objective…to harvest mushrooms, nuts, wild honey or tubers…to choose and cut the staves Cullyn used in his work…to clear and reset traps…to check trout lines.  It was warm, wonderful, sunny work that she reveled in…seeming at first like a carefree vacation from her time laboring away at the desk in Gorion’s chamber.  As her first days with Cullyn stretched into months, however, she grew to realize that he had become every bit as much a teacher as Gorion…the only difference being the classroom over which he presided and the style by which he shared what he knew.

His classroom was every part of the world not bound by walls.  She went out with him every day…no matter the season or the weather…moving quietly at his side…struggling at times to stay apace…always alert and ready to receive those bits of woodcraft that he so casually dispensed.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Posted in Scribbles | 8 Comments

On My Mind – Principiis – Live A Good Life – 7/31/2018

Live A Good Life

If there are Gods and they are just, they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.

If there are Gods but unjust, then you should not want to worship them.

If there are no Gods, then you will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

Marcus Aurelius

 

This is the second of my pillars but before I go too far, I thought I’d link to the post that started this series:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-my-mind-principiis-7-28-2018/

I followed that post with some thoughts on my 1st Pillar – IF by Rudyard Kipling:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-my-mind-principiis-if-7-28-2018/

I’ll start by saying that this one may not land well with some.  It may lead some to see me in a negative light.  Faith in God is – for many – a defining characteristic that is simply not negotiable.  I can accept and understand that belief.  I’m just not able to unconditionally accept it.

This one actually came to me from my Father – a second, critically important person in my life.  So much of who I am today can be traced back to both Dad and Grandpop – the two of them modeled the roles that I’ve tried very hard to emulate – the two people who have always helped me define the man and person I want to be.  When I look around for heroes, I never feel the need to look much further than my family.

My father has always been a collector of wisdom – he finds and keeps quotes and sayings that speak to him – that capture some element of his personal philosophy or world view.  He has a three ring binder where he keeps his copies of these things.  I can’t remember when I picked this one up from him but it stuck with me because it reflected so perfectly something I’ve always admired about him.  My father has never been a religious man – he’s never really spent much time in a church – we’ve never discussed this but I don’t think he spends much time thinking about God or Religion.  When we were growing up, the Sunday paper was far more important to my Dad than Church or the Bible.

I’ve never seen that as a negative or a shortcoming, however; because what my Dad does spend an enormous amount of time thinking about is right and wrong – honesty and fairness and personal responsibility and honorable behavior – that and baseball – and he does his best to make sure that the principles he’s chosen as a result are reflected in his daily life.  Like my Grandpop, he’s not a perfect man – none of us are – but he’s one of the two best I’ve ever known – and he manages to be a very good man without feeling the need to serve anyone’s code but his own.  It’s all him and his belief in the need to live a virtuous life.

For me, the quote captures this part of him – something that I’ve come to believe as well – that the ability to live a good and just life can be independent of everything but a personal and very imperfect, human commitment to doing so.  This doesn’t in any way devalue or delegitimize any person’s belief in God or the goodness that I’ve seen flow from that commitment on the part of so many people I’ve known over the years.  Virtuous and just behavior can just as easily find its source in that type of devotion.  For me, though, I prefer to do my very best – knowing that I’ll often fail – to find it in myself – independent of any higher power or any promise of eternal reward.  That’s the foundation upon which I’ve tried to build a life and this quote has always served to reinforce my commitment.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always worked for me.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes and I’m just as capable of slipping below the line as any man.  I can remember plenty of times in my life when I’ve behaved in a selfish or unkind or or dishonest or unethical manner – but keeping this principle in front of me every day does – I believe – help me to stay on the high side of the bar far more often than not.  What’s more, the commitment to doing so is one I can completely own – just as I try to completely own and make amends for my failures.  At the end of the day – for me – this is an internal process based on my own code – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Short to long – this principle doesn’t help me with specific choices.  It doesn’t lay down any ground rules  Instead, it reminds me every day of the need – to the very best of my imperfect abilities – to live a good life – for no reason other than a belief in the importance of doing so.

Now – time to get back to “Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom”.  I have a review to write this weekend. 🙂

Posted in On My Mind | 5 Comments

On The Nightstand – The Sacrifice – 7/29/2018

Interesting how things work out – in defiance of all expectations.  I’ve been deep in a book about the Taiping Rebellion in 19th century China – “Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom” by Stephen R. Platt – a very good book but a very slow read – leaving me with nothing to review.  I’d started a new “On My Mind” series to provide an outlet for my writing and had planned to work through that series until I’d finished “Autumn”, allowing me to transition back to less weighty fare.

At the start of the day, I’d planned to put my free time into a second “Principiis” post on “Cowboy Values” until I received an email from a representative of Indrajit Garai.  It seems she’d read my “Principiis” post on “IF’ by Rudyard Kipling, wanted to know if I’d be willing to review the author’s first work of fiction – “The Sacrifice”.  As part of that request, she offered to send a free copy of the book.

It came as a complete but welcome surprise.  I responded by pointing out that I was a very new blogger / reviewer – having begun writing less than a year ago, that I had a style some might consider idiosyncratic, that at this point I only had 309 subscribers to my Blog and could in no way claim to be an influencer, that I did insist on writing balanced reviews and would likely comment on those aspects of the stories that I felt could be improved as well as those that delighted me but that I’d be more than happy to read and review “The Sacrifice”.  I also let her know that there would be no need to forward a free copy – that I preferred to purchase a copy so that the author could benefit from the transaction – something I promptly did on the Kindle Store for a price of $3.00 – and spent several hours reading through the three short stories contained therein.

Let me start by saying that both the plotting and the writing are raw and a bit unpolished, the narrative in all three stories sometimes feels choppy or disconnected, the grammar is not perfect and the book could have used some additional editing prior to release.  Those would, however, be my only real criticisms and they were easy enough to overlook for the sake of the messages these stories contain.  While I’m not blind to the fact that life in this world has never always been kind, I can’t help but escape a nostalgic notion that constant change, complexity, efficiency, size, a lack of personal connection and caring and an intangible loss of basic decency and dignity has infiltrated our lives today.  These stories attempt to spotlight the ramifications of those changes by bringing them down to a very personal level – forcing simple but honorable and deserving protagonists to struggle against the painful, impersonal and all too often dehumanizing aspects of this new world we’ve allowed to emerge and accept.

Two things kept me reading and ultimately led me to enjoy the work.  First, each of these three protagonists are truly worthy – they’re simple yet strong individuals facing almost impossible circumstances – willing to fight for principles that they’ve held and defended throughout their lives despite the increasingly implacable and ultimately devastating challenges served up by impersonal and too often uncaring world.  Each of these three individuals were honorable and worth my time – their principles and their choices captured my imagination and demanded my sympathy and support.

Secondly, in each case, there is a measure of redemption – a salvation that may not have been consistent with the outcome they so doggedly pursued but that still offered a measure of hope for a second chance or a new chapter – none of them got what they wanted but all of them got – to some extent – what they needed.  Furthermore, in each case, this salvation came about as the result of a simple act of human kindness extended by someone who’d been exposed to and recognized the worthy nature of each of the protagonists – someone who’d come to appreciate the value inherent in the choices they’d made or the way they’d chosen to live – a former business associate, a mother, a wealthy fan of a formerly successful author.

I can be a stickler when it comes to the technical aspects of writing and I’ve been harsher in the past in my criticism of some of the shortcomings I find in this writing.  I’m also mindful of the fact that I might have wanted to like this more just by virtue of the fact that someone associated with the author reached out and asked for my opinion.  Having said that, I can’t deny that each of the stories had a strong enough emotional impact that I enjoyed and appreciated them all – regardless of the weaknesses and flaws.  These were unusual but valuable reads – the kind that force you to think about your conduct and your place in the world well beyond the final page of the book.

Thanks to the author’s representative for bringing this book to my attention and for providing me with the opportunity to express my opinion.  You gifted me an enjoyable and re-affirming afternoon.

Posted in On The Nightstand | 6 Comments

On My Mind – Principiis – If – 7/28/2018

IF

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If  you can think – and not make thoughts your aim,

if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you,

Except the Will which says to them:  “Hold On!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

This is the first of the six that came to me – back when I was around 12 years old – passed down to me by my Grandpop.  He wasn’t a tall man – I remember him being around 5’8″ but he was a solid, thick, boulder of a man – strong hands that were capable of delivering a punishing handshake – and a powerful upper body.  He was Southern to the bone – old Mississippi family – began his college education at VMI – finished it at Ole Miss.  He served in the Pacific during WWII as an officer in the U.S. Navy and went to work for Mississippi’s version of the IRS after the war – he was running that organization by the time he retired.  He loved to laugh and he had a way of making himself the center of attention – always able to fill up a room – no matter the size of the room.

When he retired, he and Grandmomma bought a lot on the Alabama Gulf Coast – sitting on a bayou that emptied out onto the Gulf of Mexico – well before all the development you see today.  I used to go down there every summer and spend several weeks with the two of them – mostly great days and great memories.  We had a predictable routine – up early every weekday – Grandpop always cooked a huge breakfast – then we spent the entire morning on the boat – out in the Gulf fishing.  We’d get back around noon – clean and secure the boat – then clean whatever we caught – usually for dinner that night.  Grandmomma would make us another huge midday meal – she was an incredible cook who used to write cooking columns for Southern Living.  After that, Grandmomma and Grandpop would retire for a nap and I’d settle in to read.  We’d finish the afternoon with chores, usually followed by an hour of double solitaire with Grandmomma – I don’t know that I ever beat her in all those years – and one of her chocolate malts.

Around 5:00, Grandpop would resume control of the day and declare that it was about time for “a toot”.  He would mix a drink for the two of them and Grandmomma would head to the kitchen where she’d work her magic one more time – fixing up the fish we’d caught that morning – finally calling us in for dinner – one last, final huge meal for the day.  Grandpop would usually end the day sitting on the screen porch enjoying the evening breeze and – more often than not – Grandmomma and I would go back to our books.  Their house was my summer camp.

On one of those summer afternoons, Grandpop came up to me and offered me a small, bound pamphlet – which I still have – containing this poem – and a note to me written on the inside cover.  He offered it up as pretty decent guide for any young man trying to figure out who he was going to be and how we was going to live.  While it didn’t mean to me then what it means to me now, I’ve kept this one with me in one form or another since that day and I’ve come back to it more times than I can remember.

It’s not one that’s ever helped me solve a specific problem or address a particular issue but it has always provided a framework for how to approach the day – any day – a set of suggestions that on more than one occasion have guided me with respect to attitude and perspective.  It’s helped me find confidence , balance, perspective, courage, persistence, humility and grace – or just a willingness to pick myself up and dust myself off – at times when I’ve needed it most.  As time has passed and I’ve developed a more realistic appreciation for my place in the world, it’s come to mean more to me and spoken more powerfully to me.  I keep it in my head, try to let it guide me – all too often falling short in my attempts to apply it – but usually not so short as I would have had it not been given to me in the first place.  I would recommend these words to anyone.

Two years ago – before my son and step-daughter headed off to college – I had my chance to do for them what Grandpop had done for me.  My wife and I had two copies printed with photos from our time with both of them and passed it on – my own words written on the inside cover.  I can only hope that it proves as useful to them as it has to me.

Posted in On My Mind | 4 Comments

On My Mind – Principiis – 7/28/2018

**Warning – This Post and those that follow in what I hope to make an occasional series is not going to be of interest to many – likely most of you.  I’m taking the opportunity to write for an audience of One – Myself – for a change and see where it goes.  This is more along the lines of a journal entry than anything else but hey – my Blog – my Rules.  I hope those of you who have continued to read and follow won’t be put off by something a bit more personal.  I’ll get back to the fun stuff soon enough 🙂**

I’ve found myself at a bit of an impasse with respect to my reading and writing this week.  I’ve finished and reviewed “Imperial Twilight” – an exceptional book – and moved on to “Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom” – also an excellent book but a more challenging read – the reasons for which I’ll speak to once I’m finally done and ready to review.  The fact that I’m still less than halfway through “Autumn” lies at the root of this problem – the weekend is here and I don’t yet have a finished book to serve as the subject of a review.  I’ve filled the gap a bit with the post on “Annihilation”.  I could cobble together an “On The Shelf” post but – to be honest – my TBR pile has been growing at a ridiculously fast pace since I decided to put my time into these two Stephen R. Platt books and I wouldn’t know where to start.  I could try to do something creative for a “Scribbles” post but I don’t have anything struggling to make its way onto the page right now.  I’m a bit dead-ended when it comes to content but I still feel the need to write.

As a result, I’m going to do something a bit unusual and – potentially – a bit risky.  I’m going to try and write a column or two about something that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about – a challenge that I would hope most people struggle with in a constructive way on a day to day basis – how to lead an ethical life in this all too often overwhelmingly chaotic time.

At 57, I almost certainly have more time to look back on than I have ahead of me.  That’s not a source of sadness – my hope is that I have many fun, fulfilling, rewarding years ahead.  Nevertheless, as I’ve started to creep towards that 7th decade, I’ve found it almost impossible not to think back across the years and all the decisions and all the life changes that came before.  I wind up taking inventory of all the things I’ve done that bring satisfaction as well as those that leave me with regrets.  Overall, this has been a reasonably positive exercise for me.  I’ve made some colossal mistakes over the years but none of them have been fatal, all of them have been instructive and I feel like I’ve grown from each and every one.  I’ve been fortunate in my tendency to fall forward.  Thankfully, I feel like the credit side of my ledger is a whole lot longer than the debit side.

I don’t think that’s coincidental.  I credit it – to some extent – to the fact that I do, on most occasions – think as deeply and as critically as I can about the decisions I’m asked or required to make.  That wasn’t always the case – my approach to life and the challenge of living a decent life was far less clearly defined in my 20s and 30s – at times in my 40s.  Gradually, however – over the course of all those years – I’ve found that things have become a bit clearer – better paths have become a bit easier to find – decisions have become just a bit less challenging – and while I’m completely capable of proving myself wrong about this on any given day – the results seem to indicate that I’m getting better at it.

One of the many things that’s helped along the way has been my ability to build up a set of guiding principles – rules of the road – reference material that I can always go to at a time of challenge – things that help to provide clarity.  Over the years, I’ve boiled this stuff down into a pretty condensed nugget.  I’ve also found work done by others that helps to embody those principles and that helps me to keep them top of mind.  For the last 10 – 15 years – no matter where I’ve worked – whenever I find myself occupying a new space – the first thing I’ve always done is to hang a series of six texts / documents / quotes on my new wall – my rule book.  I do it both because I always want that material present as a reminder but also because it helps to define me for those who I’ve had the privilege of leading.  They’re also with me at home.

Strangely enough, as important as each of those six references has become to me over time – I’ve never put pen to paper and organized my thoughts around the question of why.  So…in order to clarify and codify my thoughts and in order to serve as an outlet for my urge to write at those times when I’m at a loss for a subject or for inspiration, I’m going to take some time to explore each one in a dedicated post.  I’m going to fill that blank scroll at the top of the page with words that have always been with me but which I’ve never written down.

Here’s the list of my six – my guide book:

  • IF by Rudyard Kipling
  • Cowboy Values from The Center For Cowboy Ethics and Leadership
  • The Man In The Arena from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt on April 23, 1910
  • The Six Mistakes Of Man by Cicero
  • Feed The Right Wolf, a native American parable
  • Live A Good Life, a quote from Marcus Aurelius

Over the course of the next few months, when time permits, I’m going to try and tackle each one in a post – to finally put into words why these six have always been so important to me and why they somehow always seem to provide the guidance I need.  My hope is to start with If tomorrow.  I’ll always be clear at the beginning what’s coming so that you won’t waste time on something that I’m doing primarily for myself.

PS:  The title of the post – Principiis – is Latin and translates roughly to principles.  If I’m wrong on that, I know that either my son or my step daughter – both of whom have developed a decent familiarity with Latin over the last 6 years – will be all too happy to let me know.

Posted in On My Mind | 2 Comments

On The Screen – Annihilation – 7/26/2018

This is kind of a rubber band post – it bounces me back to books I read and posts I published around the end of February.  Over the course of about two weeks, I read all three of the “Southern Reach” books in anticipation of seeing the movie.  By the end of that marathon, I was relatively ambivalent about seeing the film – something reflected in my posts – a partial review about halfway through the series:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-the-nightstand-the-southern-reach-trilogy-2-18-2018/

And an Epilogue – after finishing the series:

http://booksofbrian.com/on-the-nightstand-the-southern-reach-trilogy-epilogue-2-24-2018/

I was impressed with the books – found them to be well worth the time even if they were challenging and exhausting reads.  I was skeptical about the decision to turn the first book in the series – “Annihilation” – into a movie.  I just didn’t see how it could be done and assumed that any attempt to do so would never capture the aspects of the books that – in my mind – gave them merit.

Well – fast forward to the evening of July 25 – my wife and step daughter are traveling – the dogs and I are home alone – I could be reading but – for some reason – I turn on the TV and check the New Movies list on Xfinity.  There it is – almost begging me to watch – so I do.

I’m not going to leave anyone in suspense on this and I will go back to what I wrote in the my Epilogue post:

“In my first post on the Trilogy, I mentioned that I wanted to finish the books before the release of “Annihilation” as well as my concern about how anyone could turn this body of work into a movie.  I’m doubling down on that after finishing all three books.  THERE…IS…NO…WAY!!  I like Natalie Portman and I’m sure they’ve made an entertaining movie but I’m also pretty sure that it bears only a passing resemblance to the book and to what Jeff VanderMeer has managed to accomplish with it.”

I was right – there was no way – and I wish I’d never wasted the time – two hours that I’ll never get back – far worse than reading a bad book.  I hope VanderMeer was well paid for the rights to the story because I believe the movie – in large part – robs the books of the legitimacy they deserve.  I have two primary complaints.

First and foremost – there was very little about the movie that captured the spirit or the story or the characters that Jeff VanderMeer made so compelling in his books.  The only things the book and the movie have in common:  the main character, the existence of a facility called The Southern Reach, the existence of an area called The Shimmer, the Lighthouse, a narrative based on a final excursion into The Shimmer and the concept of an alien presence that’s radically altering the biology of our world.  Other than that, the movie bears little resemblance to the book – it radically reinterprets the personality of the Biologist, it posits a relationship with her husband that never existed in the books, it completely reimagines the details of the final excursion, it offers up an alien presence that bears no real resemblance to the one you encounter in the book, and the climax and ending are wrecked.  I do believe what I’d originally written – there was no way to turn this book into a movie that did the story justice.  To make it marketable or understandable, it was necessary to tell a completely different story.

That – in and of itself – would not be enough to leave me so dissatisfied.  It’s often the case that a truly original work like “Annihilation” has to be re-interpreted in order to make it accessible to TV and movie audiences but that doesn’t necessarily mean the reinterpretation loses its entertainment value.  “Altered Carbon” is a good example – that was an extremely complex story that required significant changes to make it viable for television.  In so doing, the producers departed in significant ways from the story contained in the book.  They were nevertheless able to make an extremely entertaining, visually striking TV serial that I truly enjoyed.

Not the case here.  On top of all the deviations, I feel like they made a decidedly mediocre movie.  The acting was uninspired and the cinematography was mundane.  In the face of the radical liberties they took with characters and a story that I found fascinating, I might still have enjoyed the movie if they’d made a good movie.  By the final thirty minutes, I was struggling to stay awake.  I was wrong when I expressed any confidence in the likelihood that they’d give us something entertaining.

My last word – the final scene in the movie very subtly hints at the possibility of more to come.  Jeff – please don’t let that happen.

Posted in On The Screen | 4 Comments