"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Review: Steven Brust: To Reign in Hell

Another Epinions orphan. There is another version at Green Man Review.

Fantasy literature as a genre seldom strays into the consideration of such literary criteria as "style." This is not to say that fantasy writers are generic – one can easily differentiate someone like C. J. Cherryh, with her lush, dense, highly colored prose and gift for dialogue from, for example, Charles de Lint, whose writing is equally lush, often equally dense, and just as captivating, but very different. But there are vanishingly few writers of fantasy who play with style the way Steven Brust does, and in Brust's hands, this means not only the quality and focus of his abilities as a wordsmith, but the assumption of style as a formal consideration that involves structure and theme. In Brokedown Palace, for example, he took the basic form and feel of a folktale and built a captivating novel of fantasy. The Taltos Cycle, a series of stories about a combination Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (Vlad Taltos does a lot of the legwork and most of the thinking – he loves good food, but does not grow orchids) has a decidedly noir cast that brings it firmly into the camp of the classic American detective novel. His newest series, the Viscount of Adrilankha, began as an affectionate spoof of Alexandre Dumas in The Phoenix Guard and Five Hundred Years After. Throughout, Brust has displayed an ease and confidence that are truly awe-inspiring.

To Reign In Hell definitely fits the parameters. Brust's own idiosyncratic retelling of the War in Heaven and the casting down of Satan, it is in many ways a tribute to Roger Zelazny, with Dumas one of Brust's literary heroes. Zelazny wrote a glowing introduction to this book, and within a couple of paragraphs it is easy to see why he identified with it so strongly. Brust has used an episodic structure that is almost cinematic, borrowing devices that Zelazny made his own: the particular combinations of exposition and inference, direct narrative and ellipsis, become the literary equivalent of cuts and slow fades, moving the story along as though we were seeing it on the big screen. (If one has read such classic Zelazny as Creatures of Light and Darkness or his penultimate novel, Donnerjack, one can easily see the likeness.)

Brust also has a gift for characterization. His people are deftly and subtly drawn. Yaweh, in particular, moves from primus inter pares to omnipotent creator in a series of small, inevitable steps; far from being the all-knowing and all-powerful deity of Judaeo-Christian tradition, he is all too human, sometimes doubting his own rightness but ultimately acquiescing to what, he is told and comes to believe, is "necessary." This same subtlety and poignancy comes into play with most of the characters, and, while there is indeed a villain in the book, he is not the one the reader would expect – and even then, he can’t really be characterized as “evil,” merely ambitious and given to temporizing. In fact, there are really only a couple of characters who are not in some way sympathetic – the majority are all too human.

Perhaps not strangely in Brust's hands, this is not a story about "good" and "evil" – at least, not in our usual understanding of black/white, either/or, right/wrong – but is really a study of means and ends and the way that letting decisions make themselves is really a way of making decisions without the responsibility for their consequences. And, in this shades-of-gray viewpoint, integrity is not a marketable commodity. And so Satan, while trying to decide if he can wholeheartedly support Yaweh’s plan to create a completely safe realm for the inhabitants of Heaven (which is subject to periodic Waves from the surrounding flux, from which angels are created and by which they are destroyed while they battle to push the flux back outside their boundaries) in spite of its costs, is able to say to Yaweh: “I have never lied about who I was, what I was doing, or why I was doing it. You have done all of these.” Brust very neatly turns the traditional story and the traditional take on who are the heroes and villains on their heads. Both Yaweh and Satan are isolated, subject to counsel that is not necessarily bad in itself, but one-sided, leaving them vulnerable to the expectations generated by rumor on the one hand and the need for leadership on the other; the machinations of someone whose only guide is his own ambition provide the telling blow.

This is a book that can be read many ways, and there are many themes that reside in what is really a very concise, almost terse presentation of a age-old story: the ease with which we are corrupted by power, the easy perversion of sanctity by authority, the disease of fanaticism and its stomach for atrocities in the service of a "higher law,” the vulnerability of good will and tolerance. To Reign In Hell has that protean quality that is characteristic of all significant works of art – and I have no reservations about calling it just that.

Another point of comparison with Zelazny is that, while dealing with serious matters, both are known for the expert and almost surgically precise application of irony and a light touch. One senses the distance that each maintains from the heavy freight they are conveying, a stance that lets them set the issues out very clearly without ever letting them become ponderous.

The only complaint I have about To Reign In Hell seems to be built in: it's a known story, with a known outcome (although in Brust's hands, the means are something of a surprise), and even in this rendering, this known outcome is the logical outgrowth of character and events. The result from the reader's standpoint is that the climax is more than a little anticlimactic. Even with all the givens, I really had hoped for something a little grander, even while realizing that would have subverted and cheapened the book.

I don't mean, by all these comparisons with other writers, to imply that Brust is in any way lacking. Indeed, as I have read more of his work, I have come to realize that he is undoubtedly one of the finest writers in fantasy today. Even a relatively early novel such as this one (it was originally published in 1984) has a maturity and depth that many writers never achieve. I think it's axiomatic that an author can only be successful at parody if he is operating from a strong base of his own, and Brust seems to prove my point.

(Tom Doherty Associates; originally published by SteelDragon Press, 1984)

What's New at Green Man Review

The usual mix of various goodies:

Pickled Eggs, Brideshead Revisited, Maxx and Bad Apple, A Scree on Author Politics and Other Matters

And it's all there just waiting for you.

Friday, May 17, 2019

A Little Ditty

Trump, Trump, Trump,
I'm so sick of Trump
I get Trump all day through
First from him, then from you
Is that all you blighters can do?

(In case you don't recognize the source, think My Fair Lady.)

That's one reason blogging has been so light lately -- Trump overload. It's inevitable when the media is focused on ratings rather than news and analysis, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

The other reason is that I'm moving, and I'm completely disorganized. That's a first for me.

Today in Disgusting People: Drug Wars

Not the kind you might think. There are hearings in the House Oversight Committee on drug prices. They got a little heated. As a lead-in, get this statement from the CEO of Gilead:

“We have taken the disease from a death sentence to a manageable clinical condition, but we’re not done yet,” Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day told committee members. “We have to be sure that Americans get our medicines at a price that allows us to invest in research.’’

The specific topic was Truvada, the key component of PReP, the most effective AIDS prevention yet discovered. It costs, according to the article, between $1600 and $2000 a month in the U.S. And the kicker is, Gilead didn't develop the drug:

Thomas Folks spent years in his U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab developing a treatment to block deadly HIV in monkeys. Then San Francisco AIDS researcher Robert Grant, using $50 million in federal grants, proved the treatment worked in people who engaged in risky sex.

Their work — almost fully funded by U.S. taxpayers — created a new use for an older prescription drug called Truvada: preventing HIV infection. But the U.S. government, which patented the treatment in 2015, is not receiving a penny for that use of the drug from Gilead Sciences, ­Truvada’s maker, which earned $3 billion in Truvada sales last year.

The divine AOC wasn't having his bullshit:

It's worth noting, regarding O'Day's explanation of the price difference, that Gilead has reportedly stymied efforts to bring out a generic version of Truvada in the United States.

And of course, it's the GOP to the rescue. First to sound off is Rep. Chip Roy of Texas (natch):

Congressman Roy called it "offensive" – not that companies are exponentially raising prices on life-saving drugs they sell in other countries for a fraction of the cost, but over Americans criticizing the drug manufacturers for making out-of-control profits while people are literally dying because they can't afford the high cost of their prescriptions. . . .

"But to sit here and attack the capitalistic system that produces and distributes medicine that saves lives here and around the world?" Roy said, exploding in a rant that seemed to be designed for the cameras. Roy, no political novice, has worked for numerous high-profile Texas Republicans, including Rick Perry, John Cornyn, Ted Cruz, and Ken Paxton.

"I mean, it is just offensive," Rep. Roy proclaimed, pounding his fists on the desk. "I mean, I just cannot possibly understand, listening, lecturing companies about making money!"

And then Rep. "Gym" Jordan:

“Rather than applaud Gilead for manufacturing this miracle drug, they wish to demonize the company for making a profit,” Rep. Jim Jordan said Thursday. “The reality is that while Gilead has made money on this drug there doesn’t seem to be genuine issues with access.”

Of course, there's no problem with access for those who can afford $2,000 a month.

This is just one facet of a much larger problem: drug companies have been jacking up prices on prescription drugs over the past few years; many of those drugs were developed by researchers working under grants from the CDC, if not working at the CDC itself.

We're dealing with the newest incarnation of robber barons.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Review: Alan Taylor: Thor: The Dark World

Another Epinions foundling.

In spite of what you may have heard, sequels aren’t always bad. Indeed, sometimes they are better than the originals. Case in point: Alan Taylor’s take on the Thor franchise for Marvel, The Dark World.

Once, before the time of the Nine Realms, Dark Elves held sway in a dark Universe under their lord, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Then came the Universe we know, and the creatures of Light, and the Dark Elves were defeated and their deadliest weapon, the Aether, taken from them and hidden in the darkest, deepest dungeon of Asgard by King Bor.

The next Convergence approaches, and astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is falling behind the curve: she’s mooning over Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who has disappeared for two years. He has an excuse – the peace of the Nine Realms has been shattered and he’s been fighting to restore it. (And somehow, that makes perfect sense to an Asgardian.) Thor’s father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), has also started dropping very broad hints that it’s time Thor stopped mooning over this very same Jane Foster and think about insuring the succession – humans don’t really last very long, by Asgardian standards. (That discussion didn’t go well.) Jane’s intern, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) has finally persuaded her that she needs to pay attention to the weird readings that her instruments are giving off. Of course she gets sucked into an anomaly she’s investigating – and just happens to wind up next to the Aether’s prison. The Aether is not about to miss this opportunity, and takes up residence in Jane. The die is cast.

I think the thing that has impressed me most favorably about the Avengers-related films coming out over the past several years is that they don’t take themselves too seriously – there are elements of humor, from snappy dialogue to near slapstick, that contribute to the general lightness of tone, no matter how dire the circumstances. The Dark World is no different.

Alan Taylor’s directorial credits seem to be mostly in television, including work on The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. He’s put that experience to good use here -- The Dark World is a good, tight blend of adventure, drama, action, and humor, and every element, every scene, drives the momentum. Even the funeral scene (yes, there’s a funeral scene), which could have brought everything to a screeching halt, maintains the flow.

The Dark World leaves the realm of comic book superhero flicks thanks to the cast. There’s a good strong human story here, and the actors bring in a good amount of depth and a fair degree of subtlety – we’re getting subtext, loud and clear. The cast is superb -- even Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has a human dimension. We’re treated to some excellent ensemble work, too, and there are places the dialogue takes on a real edge.

Visually, The Dark World is remarkable. Aside from the visual effects and the tight control of action sequences, there are scenes that are so perfectly composed that they could easily stand alone as stills. Particularly striking are some of the panorama shots on Svartalfheim, the realm of the Dark Elves. Shot on location in Iceland, it’s an eerie landscape, and one is often stumped in trying to determine where the actual scenery leaves off and the effects begin. It’s also very beautiful.

If you’ve somehow managed to miss this one, I urge you to rectify that error as soon as possible.

(Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Pictures,, 2013) Rated PG 13, 112 minutes. For full credits, see the listing at IMDb.

What's New at Green Man Review

All sorts of neat stuff, actually:

Another Thirteenth Doctor Figure, A Tanya Huff trilogy, Recordings by Molly Mason & Jay Ungar, A Conversation with Charles de Lint, Lots of Chocolate, ‘Saturday in the Park’ by Chicago and Other Tasty Matters

Check it out.

Trump's America Vs. The Environment, Part ?

The Trump regime >strikes yet again:

Almost every country in the world has agreed on a legally binding framework for reducing polluting plastic waste, with the United States a notable exception, United Nations environmental officials said Friday.

An agreement on tracking thousands of types of plastic waste emerged at the end of a two-week meeting of U.N.-backed conventions on plastic waste and toxic, hazardous chemicals. Discarded plastic clutters pristine land, floats in huge masses in oceans and entangles wildlife, sometimes with deadly results.

Rolph Payet of the United Nations Environment Program said the “historic” agreement linked to the 186-country, U.N.-supported Basel Convention means countries will have to monitor and track movements of plastic waste outside their borders.

I'm sure you've heard of the continent-sized plastic island in the North Pacific; there's one in the North Atlantic as well.

It's symptomatic of the Trump regime -- and the Republican ruling class -- that we would not adhere to this agreement: a) It's the UN, which the Republicans have hated since its inception, and b) it's the environment, for which the Republicans have never had any concern.

Here's the Pacific plastic island in all its glory:

It's not the only one: there are five oceanic gyres, and each one has an island of plastic:

And the stuff can be recycled: I'm sure I've mentioned before that the Nature Boardwalk at South Pond, administered by Lincoln Park Zoo, is made of recycled plastics. And more an more park benches are the same.

Of course, the real solution is not to use plastic to begin with.

Via Joe.My.God.

Music and Me, Addendum

And Moby. Don't forget Moby.

Image result for Moby, 18: the B Sides

Friday, May 10, 2019

Music and Me

You may have noticed that my "Culture Break" posts include a wide range of music. I don't know how to explain that, except that my attitude is "It's all music". I grew up in a musical household, largely thanks to my mother, who played guitar and piano (self-taught, largely) and always insisted that we watch TV programs like "You Hit Parade". I also grew up in that period when music became context rather than an event -- I still remember my first transistor radio. (This was in the days before MP3 players and iPods.) I had my first exposure to classical music when my dad brought home a surplus recording of the Brahms D Minor piano concerto from the school where he was based. (I don't remember whether he was a teacher at the time or had moved into administration.) I went nuts, aged eight or nine, and would pretend to be the conductor.

And, as I grew older, I ran into all kinds of music. My first boyfriend was a Wagner nut, and I caught the fever -- along with Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and then Mahler, the Russians. On my own I moved into the twentieth century and the really hard-core avant-garde: Subotnick, Varese, and the like, and then, when I was at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Philip Glass (still in his early strict serial minimalist phase; it was much easier to watch his ensemble in concert than to listen to the recordings), Steve Reich, Terry Riley.

Green Man Review, with its emphasis on traditional folk music, reinforced and broadened my taste in that area. I had been enthusiastic about artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Buffy St. Marie, and there discovered Fairport Convention and others in the Anglo-Celtic-Nordic tradition.

About the only kind of music that I can't relate to is "cool" jazz -- there's something to inwardly focused about it -- not the usual reaching out that a performer does with an audience -- that I have trouble connecting. This is not to dismiss jazz entirely -- I'm quite fond of several Scandinavian jazz artists.

I should also note that, because I became GMR's "weird music guy", due in large part to my willingness to say "Sure, I can do that", that I developed an acquaintance and fondness for such things as gamelan, classical raga, and various things that fit into the "world music" category (such as Aziz Herawi, Master of the Afghani Lute; yes, that's one of the albums in my collection).

This all comes about while thinking of my playlists. My computer claims that I have over 700 albums on it (although sometimes it says it's closer to 900); I've also assembled a few playlists that I play in the morning while I'm surfing for the news. The one that's up now starts of with Sharon Isbin's rendering of "Andecy", which I pulled off of this album. It goes on to include such artists as Nickelback (which I've termed "the band everybody loves to hate", Dead Can Dance, New Order (because of "True Faith - 94", a song I kept hearing while shopping and finally found out what it was), Fleetwood Mac, Depeche Mode, Linkin Park, Red, R.E.M., Carl Orff, and Oysterband (British folk rock).

My second playlist is three complete albums, starting with the soundtrack to Hell or High Water by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, with appearances by several country and western artists. (That's where I discovered Colter Wall.) That's follow by Last Leaf and album of traditional Nordic tunes by the Danish String Quartet, and Skikt, an album by Johan Hedin and Harald Petterson that is pretty much unclassifiable. (And I have no idea where that one came from.)

All of which leads, inevitably, to my first playlist, which I put together several years ago. This one, for some reason, is heavily weighted toward boy bands (with others, of course), starting with 98 Degrees, a band based in Florida. There are, of course, several songs from Backstreet Boys, and a few from not-boy bands: Real Life and Icehouse (both Australian bands), Foreigner, and again, Red, New Order, Dead Can Dance and Nickelback.

And so that's the story of music and me -- accumulated experience, some by chance, some by design (at one point I had a habit of walking into music stores and browsing, and would wind up thinking "That looks interesting" and walk out with a new CD).

I shudder to think what life would be like without music.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Culture Break: Fleetwood Mac: The Chain

In my humble opinion, this is one of their best songs:

Sunday, May 05, 2019

This Week at Green Man Review

It's spring (finally), and there's lots of goodies, as usual:

It’s Spring, Beatrix Potter’s Garden, Time Travel, Candy, Jazz, and more

So off you go, and enjoy!

Irony du Jour

This one had me scratching my head:

A Colorado building owner who was recorded telling her tenant to find an “American person” to sublease her property instead of a Muslim father and son, now has to pay the men $675,000.

The men sued last year and the landlord agreed after she was threatened with a lawsuit for religious discrimination.

“It’s my community, it’s my neighborhood,” said Rashad Khan, co-owner of Curry & Kabob. “I have friends who live there. I lived down there since 2008.”

Khan and his father run their restaurant up in Boulder, CO.

and the punchline:

"American person,” Katina said. "American person I need. Good American person like you and me."

. . .

"These kind, type, they are very dangerous, extremely dangerous," Katina continued.

"American person" -- from someone who apparently can barely speak "American".