I've watched a lot of zombie movies and read more than a few zombie-themed horror stories over the past ten years or so. Out of them all, only two rea...moreI've watched a lot of zombie movies and read more than a few zombie-themed horror stories over the past ten years or so. Out of them all, only two really stand out.
The first was the short story A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned in Book of the Dead for a particularly gross paragraph that likened castration to opening an over-stuffed Zip-Lock bag of ravioli; the second was The Night Boat, which didn't have any single passage that was a visceral as that, but collectively was every bit as descriptive and terrifying. This book gave me nightmares, which is no easy task.
If anyone has ever seen the old Peter Cushing movie about nazi zombies (or is it zombie nazis?), The Night Boat is going to be a turn-off at first glance; how many ways can you serve up undead fascists in the Bahamas?
The biggest difference between the two - and the book's primary advantage over the movie - is the power of the reader's imagination to conjure-up a good scare and the author's ability to invoke it through building a sense of foreboding and dread with repetitive descriptions of mundane things. Early on in the book, before the zombies begin running amok, the author describes the sound of something heavy thudding dully against the interior of the recovered German U-Boat, over-and-over, from the point-of-view of several different characters.
In an of itself there's nothing particularly scary about it, but given the reader's omniscience, it's very effective in evoking the image of cursed, undead sailors hammering futilely against the rusted metal walls of their maritime crypt.
The ending was a bit of a disappointment, and without giving too much away all I will say is "Deus Ex Machina." It made sense in the overall context of the story, but given that the actors involved didn't really appear at any point earlier in the story, it didn't wrap things up neatly so much as just end them.
I picked up Red Mars at an airport bookstore on a layover in Kentucky. It's a good read in that it presents a plausible story of traveling to and colo...moreI picked up Red Mars at an airport bookstore on a layover in Kentucky. It's a good read in that it presents a plausible story of traveling to and colonizing Mars that isn't grounded in science that hasn't been invented yet (or that will never be invented, based on everything we think we know to be true today). While the science is sound as far as I can tell, it is the characters who drive the story and there is an enormous and diverse cast of them.
"Red Mars" presents characters that start out as human archtypes, but once you get to know them they turn out to be much more nuanced and three-dimensional; their archtype is just a mask that hides what makes them tick - qualities that are exposed over the course of the book (and, I assume, its sequels). If this sounds like a set-up for several hundred pages of psychoanalysis and social commentary, it is. One of the things that I am getting from this book is that if there is nothing more in the universe than what we know right now, we will still find that there are monsters out there - and they are us. Likewise, there are deep and satisfying answers to big and vexing questions to be found in the universe - but we won't recognize them anymore than we do already in the here-and-now.
If I have one complaint about the book so far it is this: I don't like the characterization of religious people, even if it turns out that some of them aren't really as stereotypically obnoxious as they first appear. While I'm not exactly a fan of fundamentalists of any stripe, I've learned that not all born-again Christians are overtly homophobic, creationist, anti-environmentalist, closet racist douche bags (though a disproportionate number of them certainly seem to be). Likewise, not all Muslims are Jew-hating terrorists, and not all atheists are environmental crusaders who are easily imagined running around naked at home, practicing clandestine bisexuality.
I don't know if the author threw these types of characters into the mix to make his main characters look better by comparison or what, but taken as a whole they dumb-down what is an otherwise excellent portrayal of human beings dealing realistically with extraordinary situations. When all is said and done that is what "Red Mars" is really about, and if the book doesn't get any better than it is (I'm 3/4 through it), it will have succeeded in telling an interesting - if less than thrilling - story of these characters interacting with one another.
Update (February 4, 2011): I finished this book over a year ago, but never got around to updating my review. I'm leaving it with three stars and my comments above about the characters starting out as charactures that are slowly rounded-out through the narrative. Unfortunately, that process didn't work out so well, as many of these two-dimensions characters evolved into three-dimensional douches.
Some additional thoughts:
There's nothing worse, IMO, than a genre writer who tries and fails to write a scene from outside of his genre because the results are usually just sad. One of the faults with earlier sections of Red Mars is that Mr. Robinson doesn't write particularly prurient prose, but insists on going there repeatedly as the crew of the Ares bed-hop and experiment with coitis in micro-gravity. Odd as it sounds, the author's description of the Tharsis Bulge was more exotic than Frank and Maya and John's zero-gravity love triangle, or Hiroko's implied Yoko Ono-esque sexual hold over the entire crew of the Ares.
Likewise, profundities attributed to his characters often sound kind of dumb. For example, the first words spoken by John Boone when he - the first human being on Mars - exited his lander was "Well, here we are." That is not the sort of eloquence for which great orators are known, yet Boone is described repeatedly as a great speaker who is naturally likeable and charismatic. Mr. Robinson would have done better to have decided early on to either show or tell us how scrumtrulescent Boone is, but not attempt both.
Of all the characters presented in the book, only seven or eight are really memorable enough that I can recall their names off the top of my head, and of these only two really stand out on their own merits and not just because the author insisted through his narrative that they're important.
That having been said, I thought the climax of the story - the ill-fated Martian Revolution and the ruthlessness with which it was put down by the transnationals - was very well written for a book that seems to have been intended as 1) a "hard" sci-fi guide to terraforming the Red Planet, 2) a character study of the sorts of people who might be willing to take on such an endeavor and how they'd interact, and 3) ultimately had trouble showing me how great/flawed/brilliant/compelling it kept telling me its protagonists are.
Consequently, I was very pleasantly surprised at how well the build-up to the revolution, its execution, and its aftermath was written. While not "technothriller" material by any stretch, it's an accessible and envisionable description of the strategy, tactics, and even logistics employed by the revolutionaries in their afforts to free themselves from their Earth-bound benefactors-turned-oppressors.
The only downside is that when the innevitable body count began in the aftermath, there was only one character whose passing I lamented. Frankly, there were quite a few surviving characters who I found myself wishing were dead - the disconnect between what the author wanted me, the reader, to think of them and what I actually thought of them at the end of the story was just too great.(less)
It's been a while since I read this, and it's one thick book that is overflowing with characters. What else can you expect from Colleen McCullough? Wh...moreIt's been a while since I read this, and it's one thick book that is overflowing with characters. What else can you expect from Colleen McCullough? What else can you expect from a book about Rome on the eve of the fall of the Republic?
The book is primarily about Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the political fortunes of both being major links in the chain of events that lead to the eventual fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the empire under the Caesars.
If you like "swords and sandals" movies or lament the passing of "Rome" on HBO, you'll love this book. If you like political skulduggery against the backdrop of war, you'll love this book. If you like your drama on the soapy side with bed-hopping characters, you'll love this book. I firmly believe that there is nothing going on today that the ancient Romans and Greeks haven't already dealt with, be it social, religious, political, or economic, and McCullough's detailed explanations of Roman society and mores drives this point home better, more eloquently, and far more entertainingly than most books or movies could ever hope to.
It's not perfect, however. McCullough indulges in a good deal of fiction to move the story along: she creates a fictitious great-aunt of Julius Caesar for Sulla to marry; she's refers to the proletariat as "the head count" for fear of the Marxist-Leninist baggage the word carries today, which is, in fact, little different from the baggage it carried back then; she describes acts of physical and sexual violence and depravity in lurid detail, but puts grammar school slang into the mouths of hardened soldiers and cunning politicians who were also brutal killers.
Men who thought nothing of pillaging a city and raping its women and children in front of their husbands and fathers before putting everyone to the sword wouldn't call their sworn enemies "piggle-wiggle" to their backs or to their faces. It's extremely jarring to read a passage about Sulla - with his hands still stained with the blood of his mistress whom he had just murdered after seducing her and her sister - plotting the deaths of his enemies and referring to them with the equivalent of "poo-poo-head." It just doesn't work, and is made worse when juxtaposed with the terrible things that these characters do in the name of love, hate, and the acquisition of wealth, power, and dignitas.
That having been said, the book is nearly 1,200 pages and I read it in two extended sittings over a weekend - it's that good!(less)
This is the second book in McCullough's series of books on the fall of the Roman Republic and rise of the empire under the Caesars. In terms of style...moreThis is the second book in McCullough's series of books on the fall of the Roman Republic and rise of the empire under the Caesars. In terms of style and substance, it's similar to The First Man in Rome, dealing with the same characters and themes, albeit later in their lives.
Where as Marius was the primary character and Sulla was secondary in the first book of the series, the two trade places here. Marius is older and will soon be sidelined by a younger generation - and a stroke. Moreover, his unprecedented series of consulships has earned him nothing but enemies among the upper-crust of Roman society. While he has built his reputation by earning the love of the people, Marius world is the world of the senatorial class, and they fear him and the mob that loves him.
Sulla, who despises the masses that he lived among for so long, is driven to distraction by their preoccupation with Marius. Oddly enough, he is also jealous of the negative attention that Marius draws from the senatorial class. Although a master of manipulation and deceit, it becomes painfully clear that Sulla does not feel insecure because he fears losing power; he has been driven to attain power in a futile attempt to quell his feelings of insecurity. Sulla is a real mess, and no amount of power or dignitas seems to help. In fact, the more he attains, the more transparent he becomes.
I don't care much for pop psychology, but I think that McCullough's Sulla is essentially a gay man who really just wants to shack-up with his on-again/off-again Greek lover, Metrobius, but is too hounded by society's expectations of the nobility to do so. The sad thing is that Sulla, at least in McCullough's imagination, is a creature of his own making; when he was poor and able to love Metrobius openly no one suspected he was of noble blood; when he murdered his patrons and used their wealth to claim his birthright, the senatorial class hardly believed he was anything but a new man.
Then you have Marius, a man who degenerates politically, physically, and spiritually over the course of the novel. Apart from trying to shore up his legacy, Marius just doesn't do much in this book except try to stick it to his prepubescent nephew, Julius Caesar (yes, that Julius Caesar) who was prophesied at birth to be known to history as "The First Man in Rome," a title that Marius spent the whole previous book earning.
The corruption and degradation of the two main characters over the course of this book, while probably accurate, were a real downer. McCullough, who controlled their inner dialog, gave them absolutely no sympathetic or otherwise redeeming qualities. Coupled with a lack-luster villain, the pants-crapping King of Pontus, The Grass Crown succeeds as a window on the ancient world for contemporary readers, but robs fans of the first book of their emotional investment in the main protagonists.
Yes, Marius and Sulla were ruthless, conniving assholes in the first book, but they were ruthless, conniving assholes in a world of ruthless, conniving assholes - it was kill or be killed. In The Grass Crown they're just as ruthless and conniving, but in a sad, petty sort of way that has everything to do with their personal shortcomings, and little or nothing to do with the machinations of those around them.
A little background on why I read this book, since I don't work anywhere remotely near the gaming industry:
A month ago I picked-up a copy of this book...moreA little background on why I read this book, since I don't work anywhere remotely near the gaming industry:
A month ago I picked-up a copy of this book from the clearance rack at the local CompUSA near my house. If you have checked my writing link, you'll see that I have an interest in 3D animation and storytelling, so I figured for $6.99 this book was close enough to my new hobby to be worth purchasing.
As I flipped through it and began to read the first couple of chapters it dawned on me: the underpinnings of a computer role-playing game are very applicable to the ehealth.
Exactly how deep I'll end up digging into this concept I'm not sure, but I'm thinking a practical application would end-up looking a lot like "The Sims 2" and would deal a lot with individual self-perception, especially body-image.
I've always believed that the games we play say a lot about ourselves and how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world around us. If I'm right, a CRPG approach to ehealth might be one of many things that could help stem the rising tide of obesity and chronic healthcare problems afflicting my fellow 30somethings and our younger siblings and children.
Of course, no virtual experience is going to be anywhere near as useful as getting up off one's dead ass and turning off the TV/PlayStation/PC, but you have to play the hand you're dealt, and the thirty-and-under crowd responds best to immersive, virtual experiences; I know this because I'm part of that thirty-something group of couch potatoes that would just as soon "party" online as go out on a Friday night (sad, I know). Why not leverage that to help people - myself included - live a little more fulfilling life in the real world?(less)
The Official Blender 2.3 Guide is actually an online book as well as an actual soft-backed volume. It is the result of the Blender Foundation's earnes...moreThe Official Blender 2.3 Guide is actually an online book as well as an actual soft-backed volume. It is the result of the Blender Foundation's earnest efforts at creating a how-to guide for the most robust and versatile piece of 3D imaging software ever released into the open source community (and certainly comparable, if not on par, with commercial applications).
As a Blender noob, I found the book difficult to follow and understand, however. While its readable, it is not the work of people whose first language is English, and it shows in several places. This isn't much of an issue, but it does make understanding totally new technical concepts by way of comparison and example difficult.
Blender also evolves quite frequently, and while most of these changes are "under the hood," some really impact the UI. Unfortunately, version 2.4 (which is the version I first discovered) and version 2.3 (which the book covers) marked one of these periods of UI changes in addition to "under the hood" changes, which has made the book that much less useful as an introduction to Blender.
Now that I've vented my spleen, let me say that I will never part with this book (and not just because copies of it are currently going for $140+ on Amazon.com right now, either). Just because this isn't a good beginner's book doesn't mean it isn't an excellent manual for people who are more proficient with the application. The Official Blender 2.3 Guide is hard-core after the first 100 pages or so (and it's nearly 800 pages long), and covers all sorts of intermediate and advanced topics in excruciating detail: advanced mesh modeling, skinning curves and surfaces, specular reflection and "glassblowing" materials and textures, animation, lighting, and python scripting to name just a few.
Who knows? Maybe one day I'll be able to actually understand and apply these concepts. Even if the English isn't perfect, the illustrations and examples are copious and the book does come with Blender v 2.3, so for the very patient and well-grounded aspiring 3D modeler and animator, The Official Blender 2.3 Guide is an end-to-end how-to guide that is more than worth its original $49.95 cost.
The idea that an omnipotent, conscious entity would will the universe into existence and populate it with free-willed beings only to fixate on their h...moreThe idea that an omnipotent, conscious entity would will the universe into existence and populate it with free-willed beings only to fixate on their hygienic and sexual proclivities and punish offenses with death and damnation is ridiculous on its face, and yet in the United States (the "most Christian" country on Earth) this is what God has largely been reduced to.
Meanwhile, Jesus the Nazarene has morphed from a rabble-rousing proto-socialist Jew into Jesus the Christ, an eroticized, fetishized Aryan Übermensch eunuch masochist (don't take my word for it, just go see The Passion of the Christ).
What Fox does in his books is return these two figures to their roots. God is first and foremost the Creator, and as beings cast in God's image, so, too, are we. Life and everything that makes it worth living are gifts from God, they are God's creations, conceived by God and given freely to mankind.
Jesus is exemplary, not because he is God willingly "reduced" to human stature, but because he embodies the fullness and completeness of virtuous human potential by embracing and experiencing and contributing to God's creation rather than withdrawing from it and condemning it, as so many "religious" people would have us believe is what’s required to live a virtuous life.
Because Jesus is of the God-head (a term that Fox uses throughout his works to describe not only the Trinitarian concept of God, but also the male/female dichotomy of God that is well-documented historically, but has been denied and obfuscated by the chauvinism of neo-platonist Church leaders), his life is the good life; that he lived and how he lived is as important as his death and resurrection.
Fox asserts that Jesus crucifiction was a reaction by those whose hold on temporal power was threatened by a divine example that contradicted so many assumptions about what God wants and expects from human beings (i.e.: those things that the powers-that-be would have people believe so that they can remain in power).
Jesus was a man, living in a theocracy, being called rabbi without the formal religious training and political stamp of approval required. He was a man stating with authority that the whole of the law - voluminous texts attributed directly to God and centuries worth of dissertations expounding on them by the greatest minds the ancient Israelites had produced - could be summed up in a single sentence: Treat other people exactly as you would like to be treated by them - this is the essence of all true religion. (Matthew 7:12).
We all know what happened to Jesus for his efforts.
In The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Fox asserts that this same dynamic is at work again on a global scale: an elite who claim to speak for God hold power by imposing an overwrought and largely artificial morality that is not what God wants (i.e.: is not the natural order of things), but what they want and maintaining their hold on power through legalistic machinations. And just as this situation had lead to the exploitation of the Israeli people and the rape of their country by the Romans and their puppets in the Israeli leadership 2,000 years ago, so to has it lead to the exploitation of the masses and the rape of the planet today. Just as Jesus Christ set an example for a more authentic and righteous way to live then, so, too does he today, writ large as the "Cosmic Christ."
It's not hard to figure out where Fox goes with this, and what its implications are for modern-day sadducees, pharisees, and other hypocrites. Fox illustrates quite clearly that the Jesus of the gospels is not the patron of an elite few who are to rule in his name, but an everyman whose example anyone can follow.
I give The Coming of the Cosmic Christ - and most of Fox's other works five stars.(less)
I started this book because I had to, not because I wanted to. But before I was half-way through it, I was reading it and recommending it because I lo...moreI started this book because I had to, not because I wanted to. But before I was half-way through it, I was reading it and recommending it because I loved it, and felt very close to the three women chronicled in it.
It's been a long time since I was a political science undergraduate studying constitutional formation in transitional totalitarian societies, so a lot of the detail about this book escape me. Nevertheless, there's a lot that still stands out and makes me mention this book to anyone and everyone I meet with the least bit of interest in China.
"Wild Swans" is the story of three women, the author (a naturalized American citizen whose whose life is the last one chronicled in the book), he mother (a Maoist revolutionary whose life is the the second chronicled in the book), and the author's grandmother (born before the Chinese Revolution, and raised to be a foot-bound concubine of any Imperial aristocrat who would take her).
If these women and the lives they lived sound exotic, and even a bit erotic by Western standards, its because they are. If one were to imagine their life and the lives of one's parents and grandparents juxtaposed against an historical tapestry of revolution, invasion, civil war, and Bob Jones/David Koresh-style cults dictating everything from styles of dress to national policy for generations at a time, then you'll begin to understand and appreciate the women in this book and the incredible lives that they lived.
I haven't read "Wild Swans" in fifteen years, so I'm not going to attempt to describe the highs and lows that these women experienced in detail. Instead, I will offer a bullet-list of things that I can still recall from the book, along with a hearty encouragement for anyone who is interested in surviving what is sure to the the "Chinese Century" to read the book!
* Although it involves a lot of pain, dead skin, and odor, 19th and early-20th Century Chinese men thought foot-binding was sexy. * Despite claims to the contrary, the Revolution was still run by a bunch of chauvinist assholes. * Mao wasn't gay, but any port in a storm would do. * "Landscape paintings" aren't things you hang in your living room; they're what you do to political enemies with a straight razor! * Muslims and Republicans don't have a monopoly on chauvinism; try living in a country where parents either murder their female offspring or raise them to be whores! * In Maoist China, grass was "bourgeois." * During the "Great Leap Forward," China destroyed much of its industrial capacity in the name of building it! * It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice! (less)
"Using Microsoft Expression Web" by Jim Cheshire has the sentence "The ONLY Expressino Web Book You Need" on the cover.
Boy, they weren't kidding. This...more"Using Microsoft Expression Web" by Jim Cheshire has the sentence "The ONLY Expressino Web Book You Need" on the cover.
Boy, they weren't kidding. This book is terrific!
The book was written assuming that the end-user would be using Microsoft's free Visual Studio Express and SQL Server 2005 Lite tools in conjunction with Expression Web's self-contained Web server. As I alluded to before, this works against readers who are using IIS, not to mention Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server 2005 (I have all three).
Considering the book's heft and target audience, I don't think it would have killed the author or the publisher to have included an appendix for configuring a full-blown development environment. In fact, given Microsoft's desire to push it's application development tool's and the author's relationship with the company, I am more surprised than disappointed that this didn't happen. It might seem petty, but I can't give the book five stars because of this; there's just too much buzz and interest inside the Microsoft development community over the Expression tool set to not discuss what's involved in integrating it with Visual Studio in a production environment.
I could go on at length singing the praises of Microsoft Expression Web itself, but that's not the purpose of this review. Suffice it to say, for developers looking for an industrial-grade, standards-compliant development tool that isn't doesn't compromise to accommodate Browser Wars-era crap-code, both Microsoft Expression Web and this book are a must - and reasonably priced, too. (less)
I was given a copy of this book while I was working as a contractor for Carlson Marketing, which in turn was contracted by Chrysler to manage its Pent...moreI was given a copy of this book while I was working as a contractor for Carlson Marketing, which in turn was contracted by Chrysler to manage its Penta-Star dealership certification program. I never knew Carlson was involved in this sort of business; I thought the entire company was one big travel agency. In any case, they really lived the philosophy presented in The Customer Driven Company, as did Chrysler at the time.
The Customer Driven Company presents the usual mix of anecdotal stories about companies that are both famous and infamous for their customer service prowess, but it stands apart from most other business books issued during the early 1990s for two very important reasons:
1) It doesn't resort to Japan-bashing to make its point. 2)It doesn't throw customer service into the dustbin of history in favor of total quality management techniques, as was so often done in business books from this period.
I can't underestimate the importance of these two points for a book from this period. Business books, business magazines, political and business pundits, and - especially - the local media in Detroit were convinced that the the Japanese possessed a "hive mentality," and that the "normal" rules of business did not - indeed, could not be applied to them.
In addition to being racist, this is particularly ironic considering that the cornerstone of Japan's ascent between the end of World War II and the late 1980s was due to their acceptance of the twin gospels of BPM and TQM (whose prophet, Dr. W Edwards Demming was, in fact, a round-eyed American).
Another issue that sets The Customer Driven Company apart from the bulk of the business literature that was published in the early 1990s is that it didn't relegate the entire concept of customer service to some sort of secondary status in the world of business ideas.
Even Reengineering the Corporation, if I recall, belabored the (not totally invalid) point that the Xerox Corporation's repair crews, who set the standard for customer service excellence in their day, were more symptomatic of the company's liabilities (copy machines that broke down too often) than an asset to it.
For anyone whose ever had to deal with offshore technical support or surly minimum-wage customer service staff, I'd argue that you have Hammer & Champy to thank for convincing corporate America that quality is something for widgets, but not necessarily for people. While I don't believe this was their intention, I do believe it was definitely a consequence of their work.
While Whitely never discusses the topic in so many words, his book both predicts and provides ideas about surviving the situation that so many companies find themselves in today: trying to differentiate on customer service when differentiating on price is no longer an option in a world where almost everything is a commodity (or, at least, made in Chinese sweatshops by workers with few rights and protections).
The thing that sets The Customer Driven Company apart from the other customer service-focused books from this period (as well as too many today, in my opinion), is that it presents tools for fostering the sort of customer service excellence that it preaches. At the end of each chapter, Whitely not only summarizes his main points in a bullet-list, he also presents a set of action items and related forms for achieving them. This sets The Customer Driven Company head-and-shoulders above "fun" reads like Raving Fans, which are big on feel-good stories and stingy with the "crunchy bits."
The best part about this book, however, has to be the Golden Rule it puts forward:
The Customer isn't always right, but the Customer is always the Customer.