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Tower of Iron Will

All who enter the Tower regain 100 sanity points.

Currently reading

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die
Randall Munroe, James Foreman, K. Sekelsky, Camron Miller, John Chernega, David Michael Wharton, K.M. Lawrence, Jeffrey C. Wells, Vera Brosgol, Kit Yona, J. Jack Unrau, Jeff Stautz, Aaron Diaz, Matthew Bennardo, Yahtzee Croshaw, Douglas J. Lane, Brian Quinlan, Kate Beaton

Consistent Competence Defeats Unpredictable Genius

The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC - Adrian Goldsworthy

The Punic Wars are a favorite of military history buffs. Rome's three wars with Carthage were the beginnings of its empire extending beyond Italy, also Carthage was the only opponent Rome ever faced that was at the time its military and economic equal. Most of the Punic Wars fascination centers on the Carthaginian commander Hannibal, who is usually ranked as one of the greatest military geniuses of all time. In particular, the Battle of Cannae is singled out as the definitive example of a brilliant commander making perfect use of the terrain and all his resources to defeat a much larger opposing army.

 

Goldsworthy's book is very much a military history. He does touch on the causes of the wars, but I would have appreciated a little more detail in that area, and some more exploration of the cultural and religious differences between Carthage and Rome. Goldsworthy focuses on the commanders and the battles, on Carthage's reliance on mercenaries while Rome's army consisted primarily of citizen soldiers. He relates how Carthage's navy initially dominated the Mediterranean, and how Rome quickly built a navy from scratch that ultimately defeated Carthage's more experienced sailors. I now know more about the differences between triremes and quinqueremes than I ever expected to.

 

Military historians, while popular with lay readers of history, are a minority among professional historians. Academic historians tend to focus on the vast socioeconomic forces that cause wars and ultimately determine the winners and losers. While I tend to agree with the socioeconomic interpretations, there are times when history turned on the unpredictable actions of individuals. Interestingly the Punic Wars can be used to support both arguments. While Rome never found a commander to rival Hannibal, the relentless Roman war machine ultimately destroyed Carthage. In the end consistent competence defeated unpredictable genius.

Some Adventure and A Lot of Science

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea -  Walter James Miller (Translator),  Frederick Paul Walter (Translator), Jules Verne

Twenty Thousand Leagues is science fiction in the sense that it is a work of fiction that is loaded with scientific details. Verne must have done a tremendous amount of research to prepare for this novel. He supplies so many classification details about sea life and underwater plant life and so many technical details about the oceans, seas, and currents that sometimes it starts to bog down the narrative. Verne was a great author of adventure stories, but if you want to read Twenty Thousand Leagues as an adventure you can read the first quarter of the novel and then skip to the last quarter. The middle section is a long scientific expedition, but when the action starts up again it is exciting.

 

The edition I read is an interesting one. Published in 1993 by the Naval Institute Press, the translator states that he restored a quarter of the 1870 French text that had been omitted from previous English translations. He says older editions emphasized the adventure aspects of the novel and edited out a lot of the scientific detail. As stated above, I have mixed feelings about the restoration. Rather than a hack translation, it may have represented some judicious editing of a text that kind of drags in the middle.

The Last (and Least) of Sherlock Holmes

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes -  Arthur Conan Doyle

This volume contains the last two collections of Sherlock Holmes stories by Doyle. The book places Casebook first, followed by His Last Bow, although the Casebook stories were written and published after Bow. The reason for the reversal of order is that the title story of His Last Bow features an older Holmes coming out of retirement to serve as a spy catcher during World War I. It is a fitting ending place for the character, and it would have made a fine place to end the Holmes stories, but Doyle continued on.

 

Doyle admitted in interviews that he considered Holmes his cash cow and anytime he needed quick money he would write another Holmes story for the magazines. The stories in Casebook are not bad, but you can tell Doyle has lost interest and may have grown to dislike the character. The tone of the stories is more melodramatic than Holmes at his best. The villains are more mustache-twirly, and grizzly crime scenes are described in detail rather than being left to the reader's imagination. Two stories in Casebook are actually narrated by Holmes rather than Watson, but the results feel like a wasted opportunity. Watson always described Holmes as unfathomably brilliant, but the stories related directly by him come across almost exactly the same as Watson stories.

 

If you want to read the best of Sherlock Holmes, I would recommend The Adventures, Memoirs, and Return of Sherlock Holmes. Bow and Casebook are for completists.

The Earth-Pig in His Natural Element

High Society (Cerebus, Volume 2) - Dave Sim

Cerebus is an anthropomorphic aardvark who lives in a world that mixes elements of various time periods from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. It is not a world of anthropomorphic animals, all other characters are human, Cerebus is the only one of his kind and no one comments on it. In this collection Cerebus rises through the devious world of politics. High Society is a broad satire of bureaucracy, lobbying, national debt, back room political deals, factions, squabbling political advisers, and massive egos. The overall tone is anti-government libertarian. The satire is rarely funny, but Sim lightens the tone with parody. There is a parody of Elric from the Michael Moorcock fantasy novels, who talks like the Loony Tunes character Foghorn Leghorn for some reason. There is also a parody of the Marvel Comics character Moon Knight who is amazingly out of place in the setting but who is actually a major character in the story. The best scenes feature Lord Julius of Palnu who is written and drawn as Groucho Marx.

 

I put off reading Cerebus for a long time, mainly due to the massive size of the work, consisting of 300 individual issues collected in phone book sized collections. Sim has also become a controversial figure over the years. He was once a hero to many comic creators for his success in self-publishing. Now he is kind of a pariah due to his controversial public statements, particularly regarding his thoughts on women. I think it is important to separate the artist from the work. High Society is a beautifully cartoony collection that can switch from comical to serious and back with ease. It is definitely worth giving a try.

How to Generate Electricity on Mars

How To - Randall Munroe

Munroe takes simple "how to" questions like how to fill a swimming pool or how to how to move a house, and supplies scientifically realistic but completely insane solutions. For example, fusion reactions create water, so could you fill a pool by setting off a hydrogen bomb? Could you strap four jet engines to a house and fly it to another location? Some questions are less commons place, such as how to build a lava moat around your house or how to slow the passage of time.  My favorite piece was on how to generate electricity on Mars by attaching a tether to one of Mars' moons and have it drag a wind turbine through the Martian atmosphere at 530 meters per second.

The Quest for the Bishop's Bird Stump

To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Willis

Part Victorian comedy of manners, part mystery novel, part time travel adventure, this is one of the oddest science fiction novels out there. If your idea of SF starts and ends with space ships shooting lasers at each other, you will be very surprised by To Say Nothing of the Dog, a time travel story inspired by Jerome K. Jerome's novel Two Men in a Boat. The books is at its best when it focuses on the point of view character's attempts to navigate upper class 19th century English society. There are some very funny moments, but the whole tone is a bit on the overly sweet side. A nice change of pace from the grim dystopias that tend to be SF's default mode.

Ominous Roads

Companions on the Road - Tanith Lee

A collection of two short novels by Tanith Lee. These stories are among her earliest published work and reflect the ominous dark tone of most of her Fantasy. The stories are unrelated, but linked by the fact that most of the story of both novels consists of a long journey.

 

Companions on the Road, the title story, follows three men who loot a valuable treasure from a burning city, but the object is cursed and brings doom that stalks them in their dreams. The Winter Players follows the young priestess of a fishing village who pursues a man who has stolen a relic from her shrine, but nothing about her quest is what it appears. If you enjoy light fantasy entertainment with a dark edge to it you will enjoy these stories. I would also recommend Lee's Flat Earth series, which has a similar tone on a bigger scale.

Sluggo is Lit

Nancy: A Comic Collection - Jaimes,  Olivia

When I read newspaper comics as a kid, Nancy seemed like the laziest of all the comics. The art was extremely simple, the characters were stuck in 1930's, and it was never funny. Later versions played up the cheesecake appeal of Aunt Fritzi, but did not add any humor. I was surprised to learn that in 2018 a new creator took over Nancy and made it a cult favorite.

 

The humor of the new Nancy strip is very meta. The characters directly reference the fact that they are in a comic strip and are being written and drawn. The characters now live in a world with smart phones and the internet, but still dress like extras from an Our Gang short. The biggest change is that the creator is clearly trying to be funny, and succeeds quite frequently. This is not Calvin & Hobbes, but it hits at least 1 in 6, which is way higher than the average for contemporary comic strips.

At War with the Trees

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

A young woman named Agnieszka grows up in the village of Dvernik in the kingdom of Polnya. Her village is on the edge of a corrupted forest full of tree creatures that kidnap people and turn them into monsters. The valley is protected by a wizard called The Dragon, who once every 10 years selects a 17 year old girl and carries her back to his tower. Agnieszka has always assumed that when the time came her beautiful best friend Kasia would be chosen. She is of course wrong.

 

Uprooted belongs to the tradition of sorcerer's apprentice stories. If you are one of those people who was upset by how fast Rey went from zero to Jedi Master, you will be equally bothered by how fast Agnieszka becomes an extremely powerful witch. Like many similar stories, the pupil has no aptitude for formal magic until she discovers her own way of doing magic and quickly surpasses her shocked and stuck-up teachers. The author has some fun with the country girl in the big city trope, but the plot moves quickly enough to get past the worst of that.

 

One of the most unique elements of the story is how the force of evil in this world is the forest. Modern fiction takes it as a given that the wilderness is pure and healthy, while civilization is corrupt and sickening. In old fables the wilderness is full of darkness and supernatural danger. Novik makes the surprising choice to embrace that old tradition, although all corruption has a cause and can be cleansed with the right kind of magic.

Eberron: Rising From the Last Edition

Eberron: Rising from the Last War - Wizards RPG Team

Eberron is one of the most interesting of the D&D campaign settings. Most fantasy worlds are stalled in a permanent Middle Ages. Eberron is a world that has had a magical industrial revolution. There are magic powered trains and airships. There are big cities with universities, newspapers, hotels and restaurants. The tone is post-WWI Europe meets steampunk, which is a bit unique as steampunk tends to be a bit more Victorian.

 

As a campaign setting Eberron is very rich in mysteries and potential threats. The authors are going for a Noir feel with lots of criminal organizations and political conspiracies, but retaining the traditional D&D elements such as mad cults and demonic incursions from other dimensions. There is even a slightly woke touch to Eberron in that Orcs and Goblins are not automatically assumed to be evil and Elves and Halflings are not assumed to be good. Overall, a useful supplement if you are looking to launch a new campaign in a fairly unique setting.

How to Cope with the Inevitable

The Denial of Death - Ernest Becker, Sam Keen, Daniel Goleman

An unfortunate side effect of a species survival strategy based on a big brain is that humans are capable of understanding that at some point in the future our individual consciousness will come to an end. If that thought does not frighten you then you are not thinking about it hard enough. If you think about your own death too much you descend into neurosis, therefore it is necessary to repress the fear of death. Normally when psychologists talk about repression it is as a negative thing, but Becker makes it clear that failing to repress the fear of death makes it impossible to live.

 

So how do you repress the idea of death? You can anesthetize yourself with the trivial. Becker refers to individuals who can lead an unexamined life absorbed by sports and entertainment as Philistines. You can join your culture's immortality project, whether that means building the worker's state like a good Communist or sacrificing yourself for God like a good Christian. You can try to achieve your own unique work of genius that will leave a legacy for all time, and while many people try to follow the heroic path only a few geniuses are born in any generation.

 

It seems that as civilization grows more complex it becomes harder to justify your own existence enough to face death without fear. At one time if you married, raised your children, built a successful farm or trade, participated in your local religion, and fought if your country went to war, then you could face death with equanimity. Now people can do all those things and still feel like a failure or a fraud because they achieve their true dream of becoming a famous actor or musician or author. Every neurotic is at heart a failed artist.

 

Kierkegaard argued that the only escape from the fear of death is placing your faith in the divine. Freud rejected the consolations of religion as delusion, but did not really offer a substitute other than self knowledge. Becker points out the irony that whether you follow religion or psychology in either case you are putting your faith in someone else's ideas to show you a path away from fear and dread. Whether you confess your sins to a priest or to a therapist, it amounts to the same behavior of seeking justification and forgiveness.

 

Individuals who cannot repress their fear of death ultimately retreat from life. They have no ground of safety and any action could result in humiliating failure or actual annihilation. I personally find my comfort in the teaching of stoicism. It is irrational to fear something you cannot change. Allowing yourself to be consumed by fear of the end results in you being too afraid to start. Not exactly a rousing banner to follow into battle, but we all make do with what we have.

Artificial Alliteration Causes Continual Confusion

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo - J.R.R. Tolkien

First a few facts to get out of the way. This is not an original work by Tolkien, but rather his translation of three poems written in Middle English in the 13th century. The poems are all taken from the same Medieval document and are written in the same hand writing, but it is likely a copyist's handwriting and the poems likely all have different authors, but the authors' names are lost to history.

 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian adventure. The poem's style is alliterative, with multiple words in each sentence starting with the same letter. The effect is distracting and at times makes it challenging to follow the narrative as the reader gets a bit bogged down in the artificiality and oddness of the language. The story follows a knight of King Arthur's court who accepts a bizarre challenge to cut off a stranger's head and then one year later have his own head chopped off by the same man. It turns out to be an elaborate test of his knightly virtues, in turn testing his courage, honesty, generosity, chastity, and honor. I may reread this in a different translation as it is a fascinating narrative, but I feel I did not get everything out of it on a first read.

 

Pearl is a vision narrative in which a father mourns for his young daughter who has passed away. He is comforted by his Christian faith and has an elaborate vision in which he sees his daughter again in an afterlife inspired by the Book of Revelations.

 

Sir Orfeo was my favorite section of the book, although it is the shortest. Orfeo is a king whose wife is snatched away by the fairy folk. He abandons his kingdom to live in the woods and pursue his lost wife all the way to the other world of Faerie. The story seems to be an adaptation of the myth of Orpheus, with fairy land substituting for Hades. The ending also has elements of the homecoming of Odysseus from the Odyssey, with much less murder.

 

I decided to take a Christmas break from reading the very heavy Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, only to find that all of these stories are very much about death.

Psycho-social Development in Fantasyland

Graceling - Kristin Cashore

Graceling is a YA Fantasy novel, but the fantasy elements are extremely underplayed. Besides the pseudo-medieval setting, the only fantastical element is that certain rare individuals possess graces that give them special abilities. Gracelings are feared and hated for their powers. The tone is less Harry Potter and more Mutants from Marvel Comics.

 

Graceling is prime example of the contradictions of YA fiction. Its vocabulary and storytelling is so simple it could be aimed at younger teens, but it includes scenes of violence and deals frankly with sexuality in a way you would expect to be reserved for an older audience. Katsa, the main character, ticks off all the boxes of young adult psycho-social development in the course of the novel, achieving identity, independence, intimacy, and responsibility one step at a time. The author clearly feels that plot exists for the sake of character development, not as an end unto itself.

 

Despite the fact that its YA fiction scaffolding is very visible, I enjoyed Graceling. Katsa is an engaging character and I enjoyed watching her evolve from a feared thug into someone who genuinely cared about other people.

Pop Star Superhero vs Space Nazis

Zenith: Phase 1 - 'Grant Morrison',  'Steve Yeowell'

Nazis from another dimension are trying to take over the world and only a British pop star can stop them.

 

Zenith was one of Grant Morrison's earliest published works. You can see here several of the ideas that recur throughout Morrison's career. The concept of higher dimensional beings attempting to enslave or destroy the Earth, which ran all through his Invisibles series, provides the core plot here. The idea of superheroes as pop culture celebrities, which he revisited in Final Crisis and Multiversity, shows up here for the first time. The story moves very quickly and is surprisingly violent for Morrison, but it was originally published in 2000 AD, home to Judge Dredd and other ultra-violent British comics.

 

I have wanted to read Zenith since becoming a fan of Morrison in the 90's. Unfortunately this edition was published without the consent of the creators due to a long running dispute over the rights to the material. Purchasing this edition was a choice between violating the wishes of the creators or probably never getting to read the series in my lifetime. It is a sad commentary on the comics industry that so much material, including the classic Watchmen series, is only available in additions that rip-off the creators.

Could Use More Story

Sock Monkey: A Children's Book - Tony Millionaire

A little girl's Granny makes her a sock monkey for her birthday. At first her other dolls are afraid of it but eventually they become good friends.

 

Tony Millionaire has a remarkable art style. He has captured the look of an early 20th century newspaper strip. I can easily imagine Sock Monkey appearing beside Little Nemo and Flash Gordon, back when the Funny Pages were filled with beautiful art. Here he attempts to take his unique style, which has mostly appeared in graphic novels and some TV cartoons, and uses it to illustrate a children's book. It is only a mixed success. The story sort of meanders around and then just stops. I wish he had worked with another writer to create a more focused story to go with his beautiful illustrations.

Holmes & Watson Have an Abusive Relationship

The Return of Sherlock Holmes  -  Arthur Conan Doyle

After killing off Holmes at the end of Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle left the character alone for 10 years before giving in to public pressure and bringing him back in Return of Sherlock Holmes. The long break seems to have benefited Doyle as the stories in the collection are not at all repetitive and the mysteries are all clever. I enjoyed the fact that the stakes of the stories varied greatly, from an international incident that could plunge all of Europe into war in The Second Stain, to identifying the student who sneaked a peak at the Greek final exam in The Three Students. Doyle introduces some great opponents for Holmes, including the blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, the assassin Colonel Sebastian Moran, and Dr. Leslie Armstrong who seems to anticipate Holmes' every move.

 

The Holmes stories are a product of the Victorian Age, and unfortunately carry all the negative baggage of those times. Any character described as a Gypsy or Italian is almost guaranteed to be a criminal. Women are fragile and illogical, either needing to be rescued or endangering others on a whim. Aristocrats and high level government officials are noble and stoic, even when compromised.

 

Dr. Watson is the narrator of all these stories and I am beginning feel he is in an abusive relationship with Holmes. Back in the Adventures collection, Watson was happily married and had a successful medical practice. Holmes had to stop by Watson's house and ask him for help. In Return, Watson is living with Holmes, has sold his practice, and makes his living writing accounts of Holmes' adventures. Holmes treats him alternatively like hired muscle or like a butler, sending him to answer the door and deliver messages, or come along on investigations with his pistol at the ready. He often slips in little insults at Watson's intelligence. If they were a couple I knew in real life I would advise Watson to move on for his own mental and emotional health.