Monday, June 30, 2014

Dead Iron by Devon Monk

 This new series by Devon Monk has a steep learning curve. It seems to me radically different in setting and tone than her Allie Beckstrom series. We begin in the American West, somewhere between the Blue and Wallowa Mountains (an area quite familiar to me) in the fictional town of Hallelujah, where a mysterious yet flamboyant man, Shard LeFel, is bringing the railroad to town, and the hopes of its residents are pinned on the prosperity it will bring. To their chagrin, should they ever find out, it is actually being built for the purpose of providing a channel for The Strange, supernatural, possibly psychotic, and predatory creatures to feed on the nightmares and fears of helpless humans. The near caricature of the false religion practiced by the townsfolk - all the trappings of Christianity but none of the heart - contrasts oddly with the slightly more noble and sometimes altruistic behavior of the werewolves, witches, zombies and seers in their midst. I'd say that there are good, evil, and in-between folks in this story, but the good is awfully hard to find, and not where you'd expect it.

There's a fun bit of tension in the early part of the novel when the reader, of course, can see that the shapeshifter, Cedar Hunt, who is hunting for a missing child, and the witch, Mae Lindson, who beseeches him to help her find the man who killed her husband Jeb (who like James Bond simply refuses to die quietly (and the villain likes to brag about his plans, too)), actually are aiming for the same target, and we wonder how long it will take before they figure it out.

Cedar is wracked with guilt for having murdered his own brother when he first experiences the change, and by some strange coincidence comes into possession of his dead brother's pocket watch in the early stages of the tale. The Madder Brothers, whom we immediately dislike and file away into the "big stupid bad guy" category, turn out to be a bit more of a complex surprise that we bargained for.

The foundling shop girl, Rose Small, seems like a bit part when we first encounter her when Cedar goes into town for some supplies, but her role in the coming conflict is huge, and she may just be the one character in the story who has her head on straight. She has the uncanny ability to see the truth through illusion, as well as the talents of a "deviser" and ambitions far larger than her surname would imply.

LeFel has a more personal motive in kidnapping the boy, capturing a wolf, and sacrificing a witch; to return to the world from which his brother exiled him three centuries ago, and to obtain vengeance for his exile. If he does not return soon, the mortal world will kill him, who was born immortal. He has a sidekick, Mr. Shunt, who is a Strange of a very strange kind, and whose merciless evil makes him the perfect minion, aside from the minor problem that all of his tasks seem to fail in the end.

A great start, and I hope an indication of a long and prosperous series. I this whole Steampunk genre is still finding its way, as each time I've found something under that label, it's been a new adventure. Heaven help us if the themes ever grow old and stale.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Things that Matter by Charles Krauthammer

 I had imagined that this book was going to be an autobiography, but it was not. It is actually a collection of Krauthammer's columns, written over the decades, on subjects as diverse as the utility of a pithy "F" word and its two and three word combinations, "the deuce is the preferred usage when time is short and concision is of the essence" to reminiscences about historical figures as diverse as Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill.

His writing is very much like his speech, carefully considered, in measured breaths, perhaps governed by his difficulty breathing after being paralyzed in his youth.

He covers the "central axiom of partisan politics - Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil." with phrases like this one, "Liberals believe that human nature is fundamentally good. The fact that this is contradicted by, oh, 4,000 years of human history simply tells them how urgent is the need for their next seven-point program for the social reform of everything."

On the marathoning craze of triathlons, decathlons and grueling "mudders", he writes, "Now that everyon can afford status symbols like designer jeans, conspicuous consumption gives way to conspicuous exertion. Sheer exhilarating length becomes a value in itself."

On Bush Derangement Syndrome, "Now, I cannot testify to Howard Dean's sanity before this campaign, but five terms as governor by a man with no visible tics and no history of involuntary confinement is pretty good evidence of a normal mental status. When he avers, however, that 'the most interesting' theory as to why the president is 'suppressing' the Sept. 11 report is that Bush knew about Sept. 11 in advance, it's time to check on Thorazine supplies."

We may be seeing some of that flowing the other way now from partisans who believe the current president to be Satan incarnate.

On Sensitivity Training:
"This project for the inculcation of proper human feelings through behavioral technique is either sinister or idiotic. It is sinister when it works, as in Communist China, where they have learned how to break one's character through the extremes of coercion, deprivation and torture. These means are not yet available to American educators and family therapists. Which explains their low success rate."

One hears of the mob storming the Bastille during the French Revolution. Did you realize that it only held seven prisoners - the Marquis de Sade had already been set free a week earlier.

Krauthammer echoes something I've long thought, "I'm not one of those who see gay marriage or polygamy as a threat to, or assault on, traditional marriage. The assault came from within. Marriage needed no help in managing its own long, slow suicide, thank you."

Congratulations to those homosexuals who are now free to marry...and fight...and divorce...and ruin their children's lives. Bon voyage!

Though many of his essays on Iraq and the wars we fought there were written some time ago, he seems prescient in his cautionary tales here, foretelling the total disaster we are seeing right now as the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal after the Obama administration failed to negotiate a SOFA was filled with Al Qaeda affilliated jihadists wreaking havoc.

On our brief stint as the sole global power:

"American preeminence is based on the fact that it is the only country with the military, diplomatic, political and economic assets to be a decisive player in any conflict in whatever part of the world it chooses to involve itself."

Unfortunately, we have lost our way in determining our national interests and seem to have no coherent or cohesive foreign policy left, not surprising when the likes of Hillary and John Kerry are in charge of State.

And, he says,

"Americans have a healthy aversion to foreign policy. It stems from a sense of thrift. Who needs it? We're protected by two great oceans. We have this continent practically to ourselves. And we share it with just two neighbors, both friendly, one so friendly that its people seem intent on moving in with us."

That's the funniest thing I've heard about our illegal immigration crisis yet.

Educational, and fully worth the time invested in the reading.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Crown of Renewal by Elizabeth Moon

 So, Elizabeth Moon finally brings the Paladin's Legacy series to a close with this book. She borrows a few tricks from David Weber, in maintaining the suspense through telling the story in multiple POVs, but keeps it simple enough for mere mortals to follow.

All of the threads containing our old friends are brought to successful conclusions, and she leaves just enough questions unanswered and notes suspended to make one hope for a return to the saga at some time.

******Spoilers below********

The demon-possessed tyrant, Immer, is on the move, having stolen part of the ancient Regalia, he is driven to possess it all, believing it will let him rule the world. The dark elves, or Iynisin, are on the move, also trying to gain possession of the crown locked in the Treasury. After a nearly successful attempt leaves Camwyn badly wounded, the king sends for Dorrin to take it away from his land to Aare, where it seems to wish to go, anyway.

Kieri and Arian are raising their twins, and his sense of the taig and connection to the Old magic of the humans is growing rapidly. He and Paksennarion work together to cast a spell backwards in time to put the mage lords to sleep in the cavern where they appear in the early books in the series, and then when the dragon instructs him that he is about to destroy that place, Kieri uses the Old magic to bring them forward in time, hoping for their aid in his struggles with evil.

Former thief and assassin, Arvid, grows rapidly in his knowledge of Gird's Laws and ends up promoted far beyond his expectations. The mage hunters have been targeting families and children, and all of the Girdsmen who follow the Marshall-General are trying to stop them. The Marshall-General was wounded in the previous book by a poisoned Iynisin dagger and is not healing well, so Paksennarion must find a Kuoknomen who is willing to travel far from his grove to heal her.

Arcolin leads the mercenaries in the South in the fight against Immer's forces, trying to retake town's lost in the last fighting season.

So, I suppose it's allowed, in a book about magic and gods who speak to mortals, to use a deus ex machina twist at the end to wrap things up, but it just feels a little like cheating to me when Immer is strangled by the magic necklace he's been wearing for months, Dorrin is transformed into a goddess of sorts herself, and the mage hunters are defeated by Gird's power manifesting itself and striking them all down with bolts of lightning.

Bummed that it's over once more, mildly disappointed in the way it all turned out. Still and all, a good read and a marvelous series returning to the world of Sheepfarmer's Daughter.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

 Sequel to Curse of Chalion, this story picks up about three years after those events. The Provincara of Valenda has died, and her daughter, the dowager royina, Ista, finally decides she must throw off the chains that have bound her to that place and go on a pilgrimage. She gathers "by chance" an interesting crew to accompany her - the brothers Foix and Ferda of the Daughter's Order, the Learned dy Cabon, a priest of The Bastard, a young woman courier named Liss, and a miscellaneous troupe of men at arms acccompanying Foix and Ferda. Her path is indeterminate at first, and they wander from holy site to shrine casually, but when they encounter a Jokonan force on a scouting expedition gone astray in one of the northern provinces where war with the Roknari is about to break out, things get hairy in a hurry.

Ista sends Liss off to warn the countryside and summon help, instructs Foix, who was recently "infested" by a demon, and dy Cabon, who will be tortured by the Jokonans for his faith, to hide in a culvert until the force has passed, and flees like a wounded mother bird to lure the force away from her young companions. She is capture by the Jokonans and will be held for ransom, a tasty prize due to her close connection with the ruling couple of Chalion. She is rescued after a short time by Arhys dy Lutez, a bastard son of the same dy Lutez who was her husband Ias' best friend, and who died in a misconceived ritual to rid the kingdom of the curse in the previous book's title.

Arhys rules a small but strong keep called Porifors, which contains an interesting mystery in and of itself, and which turns out to be the key to stopping a Roknari plot to invade Chalion. Ista finds that the gods have plans for her which do not include her settling down and acting the part of an aging spinster, and finds that the work they hold for her has rewards beyond her expectations.

Great stuff, and the only bad thing is that it appears to be the final book in this cycle, aside from the vaguely related The Hallowed Hunt.

I leave you with a marvelous Bujold quote:

"I am too old to start over."

"You have more years ahead of you than Pejar, half your age, whom we buried outside these walls these two days past. Stand before his grave and use your gift of breath to complain of your limited time. If you dare."

Friday, June 20, 2014

Wanted Women by Deborah Scroggins

 I'm afraid that life is far too short to waste time with books that don't grab your attention and hold it. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes me too long to realize that's the case, and I dither around on finishing something until I finally wake up and grab something better.

Wanted Women is the story of two women raised in the Islamic faith, who ended up with diametrically opposed ideas about the role of women in Islam and the role of Islam in the world - Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui. One of them ended as a crusader for women's rights in a moderate version of Islam, while the other seems to have joined the ranks of jihadis promoting violence worldwide in support of creating a global Caliphate.

I'm certain that Deborah Scroggins spent a great deal of time doing extensive and exhaustive research into the lives of both women, as well as the history of their motivations and motives, but I simply could no longer justify spending time reading her work. If you're deeply interested in such things (and I have read Hirsi Ali's writings, so I thought I might be), you'll probably enjoy this.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Shiver of Light by Laurel K. Hamilton

 We rejoin Merry and her band of merry faerie men at the birth of her - Surprise! - triplets. As she catalogs the possible fathers of her babes in post-partum musings, we get the obligatory over the top descriptions of her hunky paramours, who slowly morph, as the novel develops into sexy, hunky perfect daddies. Hamilton does an interesting thing when she twists (in a good way) the fascination all of us seem to have with babies, especially newborns, into something a bit more magical - the ability of daughter Briulen (sp?) to actually project a glamour that fascinates all around her. I had an idea, at this point, that perhaps this glamour would in some way be helpful or responsible, by the time the novel concludes, for neutralizing the evil antagonists, Merry's Aunt Andais and Uncle Taranis. Time will tell whether I'm correct.

And therein lies one of the main plot devices in the book - how Merry and her loyalists will deal with the hostility of the Queen and King of the fae and those of their courts who fear her mortality infecting them. Merry's alliance with the goblin king, Kurag, is also about to run out, and her post-partum condition leaves her in no shape to wield her usual sexual powers to persuade, coerce, and enspell him, or the ambitious brothers, Ash and Holly, who are stirring up trouble of their own in that kingdom. There's also a sub-plot dealing with Maeve's difficulties with her young son, who seems to bond more easily with Merry, her men, and her babies than with his birth mother.

Another subplot is the story of how Bryluen, Merry's newborn daughter, is able to cast a glamour upon anyone who gazes at her face. This makes it difficult to use human nannies to care for her, as they are more easily ensorcelled, and even her fae babysitters can be caught by her spell. It is unusual for one so young to manifest a glamour this powerful, and Merry worries about it quite a bit. It's a fun twist on the baby fever that attacks those of us who have borne our own children, or have fallen deeply in love with our grandchildren - easy to lose yourself in the quietness of their breathing or the smell of their hair.

There are pages and pages "lost" to more of Hamilton's glowing descriptions of Merry's harem of men. We've really seen it all before, but I have never checked to be certain she hasn't just recycled previous descriptions from the other eight books - might be a project for my imaginary intern.

Some problems are solved, and a new tragedy or two introduced, fresh allies gained, and old enemies neutralized, but the forward momentum seems molasses slow to me. It grows more and more difficult to justify the expense of the new volumes in this series, I'm afraid.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Skin Game by Jim Butcher

 Harry is forced to leave Demonreach island when Mab arrives and tells him that the parasite infesting his brain will break free, killing him first, then killing all of the people whom he loves afterwards, in just a few days. But...and it's a big one...if he performs one little task for her, she will be happy to effect its removal without all the nasty side effects. Oh, you just soooo know it's not gonna be a fun chore for poor Harry!

As events unfold, Harry discovers that he must repay a debt Mab owes to Nicodemus, one of the Denarians (those who hold the coins containing fallen angels' spirits), by helping him to rob the treasure house of Hades, greek god of the underworld.

As you might suspect from seeing how things tend to go a bit haywire around Harry, nothing really goes according to plan - even when an evil mastermind is the plotter. When Harry and a warlock named Ascher go to pick up a thief (no, not Bilbo) to help with the robbery of the century, the Fomor show up at the party to disrupt things, and Harry manages to take a bullet through the leg when the thugs attack with machine guns - James Bond he ain't.

Later on, when they are trying to get a tissue or blood sample from a human whom the shifter on the team, Goodman Grey, is going to impersonate, Nicodemus wife, Tessa, another Denarian, and her four ghoul companions try to get to the man first, so Harry has to take them on, too. He ends up with a compound fracture of the radius for his troubles, but manages to accomplish the objective - with a bit of collateral damage, unfortunately.

So Nicodemus gathered his associates slowly, and I kept waiting for them to amass the requisite nine members for the quest. Is it allowed to be a quest if it's evil? or if you intend to steal the powerful magical artifact for yourself instead of destroying it? Can we have a ruling from the committee, please?

Aside from all of the intrigue, double-dealing, and action sequences in the book, there are a few key things that occur in the long view. Harry finally gets the chance to get to know Maggie, his and Susan's daughter, and to bond with her. He and Karen openly acknowledge that there's something more meaningful than just friendship between them. Good old Butters steps up to the plate and joins the fight against evil openly. While it seems that Harry will never really get over being tortured by the possibility that he will turn into a monster, given his position as Winter Knight, his friend and former Knight of the Cross, Michael, does manage to talk a little bit of sense into him. Harry also finds an unexpected ally or two in high places...or maybe low places, and acquires some weapons that may help in the fight against the Outsiders.

As much as I hate waiting, this one was worth the time Butcher spent getting it right.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Around the Web

Some Quickie book reviews from The Caer.

And a very quick book endorsement from The Miller.

Code Red by John Mauldin

 The authors lay out a very thorough history of how the central banks and governments, both in the United States and a number of other countries, such as Japan, the UK, and the Eurozone, have steadily and perhaps recklessly overspent, overborrowed, and overinflated the currency of our respective nations. There's nothing really new to me in all of this, it's pretty standard fare from "gold bugs", most of whom are trying to sell precious metals. For someone who hasn't seen this information before, it serves as a thorough education in finance and history at a level which most people will not get from the public schools.

I even learned a new (to me) term - rentier capitalist - one who no longer works for a living, but makes their living by "clipping coupons", collecting dividends, spending interest on accumulated capital.

The point of all this rhetoric, of course, is to tell a cautionary tale, which can be summarized thusly:

"Since there can actually be no such thing as a government raising revenue at no cost, simple logic tells us that someone has to pay. It is impossible to know in advance who will pay for a central bank's 'free lunch,' only that someone, somewhere will eventually pay."

So enjoy all your free lunches, folks. At some point, the bill will come due, and whatever working stiffs are left in this country (and others) will end up paying the tab. If you think The Rich are going to pay, you haven't been paying attention. The Rich will never pay this bill, they own the bankers and the lawmakers. You need to get over that bit of foolishness and figure out how to make sure paying the bill doesn't break you and your family.

There's a sentence in this book that explains a lot of the semi-recent headlines.

"After the introduction of the euro, capital flowed freely; and countries such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece imported lots of foreign goods, borrowed heavily, and built up very large unsustainable external debts in a currency they could not print or devalue."

One of the "traditional" methods that governments have for paying down their borrowing is to inflate their currency, so as to use less valuable (in terms of goods and services which one can purchase with them) dollars, e.g. When you take away this ability by assigning the "value" of a currency to a central authority, as happened in the Eurozone, governments which behave irresponsibly with their money cannot take advantage of this tactic. And the unrest begins.

What was rather novel about this book was that Mauldin doesn't appear to be selling precious metals, like most inflationary Cassandras. In fact, he doesn't really push buying gold, merely mentions it as part of a balanced portfolio.

I found interesting Harry Browne's Permanent Portfolio, proposed in 1981, which apparently has had a pretty steady, though not spectacular, return over several decades.

  • 25 percent in U.S. equities, which tend to do well when economic times are good.
  • 25 percent in gold and precious metals to protect yourself against inflation.
  • 25 percent in Treasury bonds, which normally do well when the economy is slowing, and in a recession.
  • 25 percent in cash, which adds stability to the portfolio

Worth considering.

Mauldin makes a claim, based on statistics, I'm sure, that,

"With interest rates so low and inflation eroding their income as the cost of living rises, older people cannot afford to retire and are often beating out younger jobseekers in the job market because they have more experience and are willing to work as hard as the young people."

As a person rapidly approaching the "older" worker status, my experience and that of my cohort seems to be that many companies are actually letting older workers go, and replacing them with younger workers, strictly for financial considerations - younger workers will work more cheaply, while older workers have commanded higher salaries. There may be some countercurrents to this in the entry level Wally World jobs, but older workers are being given "early retirement" in droves, and many of them are having serious difficulty finding new jobs comparable to the ones they are leaving. Take it all with a grain of salt.

A good book, with some good strategies for managing your family's nest egg over the coming decades, I believe, but nothing truly revelationary here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

11-22-63 by Stephen King

Back in the day, I read a number of Stephen King's early horror novels, like Salem's Lot, Christine, The Shining, The Long Walk, Carrie, etc. By the time he wrote The Stand I had pretty much given up on horror, and when I tried to read the Gunslinger novels, I was unmoved. For some reason, when I saw that King was writing something new connected to the JFK assassination, I thought it might be interesting, so I put a hold on it at the library. It came in, however, while I was out of town on vacation, and they wouldn't hold it long enough for me to get back to town and pick it up, so it dropped off my radar again for a while. While preparing for my Memorial Day vacation, I saw a "books on tape" CD version of it at the library, and decided to pick it up to listen to on hour ten hour drive to the coast.

The story was interesting, though I knew very quickly that it had to contain some element of time travel, and from some foreshadowing that King did, guessed a great deal of the plot before it happened. It was holding my interest fairly well, except for a couple of things which had nothing to do with Mr. King's skills or the plot, namely the whole format of the thing. First, I read pretty quickly, and a book like this would probably take me three hours, give or take, to devour. We listened to it for at least ten hours in the car, and I suspect we are not even halfway through it. I suppose it is being read at normal read-aloud speed, but it darned near put me to sleep listening to it - not a good idea while driving long distances.

Second, I hated that the reader (who was probably some famous TV personality, if I followed such pop cultural things (update: Actor Craig Wasson from One Life to Live and Body Double) tried to use different voices for each and every character. I'm so used to getting my own idea of what each character sounds like in my head that it was distracting, and even worse when, at times, his characters voices began to slip, and blend. Ick. Just let me hear them in my head, ok?

So, I'm thinking that if I'm going to try the book on tape thing for another trip I'll need to buy something educational that actually requires a bit of thinking and digesting along the way, so I won't mind the slow pace and there will be no need to hear badly done voices.

I'm probably going to have to put the novel on hold at the library so I can finish it and let you know how I liked it. I can jump right in where the CD left off on our car ride (had to keep turning it off when it made me drowsy), and quickly get resolution. King was just beginning to introduce a bit of that dark horrific feeling that he cribbed from earlier writers like Ray Bradbury, filed off the serial numbers, and custom painted to drive like a bat out of hell...or Christine.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright

 I'm always looking for new authors, so when I read some positive things about John C. Wright's work, I thought I'd give him a try. I was able to "try" but not quite to "do".

 This is the oddest thing I've read in a long time. There are five children in an orphanage somewhere in the English countryside: Amelia, Quentin, Colin, Victor, and Vanity. The orphanage may or may not be what it seems, and the children may or
may not be the offspring of old gods and goddesses. Each one of them has individual powers, like bending reality to their will or altering gravity. They are all very bright, and beginning to chafe at their invisible bonds and the rules imposed by the headmaster and staff, who may actually be their evil jailors.

Things really get stirred up when The Protector and the Trustees show up for a meeting with the folks running the school. Amelia, through whose eyes we see most of this story, manages to eavesdrop on the meeting, and we can definitely see that the "children" are merely playing chits, albeit valuable ones, in a greater game that the gods are playing, and that all of the factions have their own agendas. Wright still hasn't come out and said that they are actually gods, until almost immediately afterwards, when the children, after drugging one of their wardens into unconsciousness, gather in the school kitchen and discuss who each of the gods was, blowing their aliases all to heck.

I suppose, as this is billed as YA fiction, that Wright didn't trust the readers to make the necessary connections. I guess kids these days don't grow up with a copy of Bullfinch ready to hand. At that point, the premature reveal and the immature behavior of the captive "children" caused me to give up on the story. I just didn't like them well enough to care how it all ended.

Ah well, back to the quest for a good new author. Wright writes well, and creatively, but his narrative sense just couldn't hold my attention.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Corsican Caper by Peter Mayle

 This is another charming little adventure by Peter Mayle, taking place in Marseilles. Sam and Elena are on holiday for a bit, enjoying the home and company of their good friend, Francis Reboul, Le Pharo. When a ruthless billionaire Russian businessman, Vronsky, decides he absolutely must own Le Pharo, he will stop at nothing to get it, including murder, and it is up to our friends from L.A. to thwart his plots, with a little help from Reboul's other friends, like Philippe and Mimi, and the Corsican brothers Figatelli.

As always, there is plenty of French fare for the bon vivants, with descriptions of meals like "a croissant of such exquisite lightness that it threatened to float off the plate."


"Dinner tonight is a simple affair, but alternative arrangements can be made for anyone who is allergic to foie gras, rack of Sisteron lamb scented with rosemary, fresh goat cheeses, and tarte Tatin."

When Sam and Elena go off shopping for homes in Provence, Reboul has some words of wisdom for them.
"Charm is the great excuse for dark, rooms, tiny window, low ceilings, suspect plumbing, rats in the cellar, bats in the bedroom, and anything else that might be seen as a disadvantage. If the property is really on its last legs and falling to pieces, it has un charme fou - a crazy charm."

This passage sounds all too familiar these days.

"Judging by what I saw, face-to-face conversation is finished...All I saw, everywhere, were groups of people who were together but not talking to each other, nor even looking at each other. They were all staring at their cell phones."

If you're feeling a bit overworked, think of poor Reboul.

"'And now, I must go to the cellar and choose the wines.' He paused, and gave a long, theatrical sigh. 'My work is never done.'"

Mine, however, is.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Brainiac by Ken Jennings

 Ken Jennings' semiautobiographical (Hey! That word ought to be part of a jeopardy question about twenty-letter words!) book works for me on a number of levels. Jennings happens to be my all-time favorite Jeopardy champion, closely followed by Tom Nissely and Colby Burnett, and, like Vanna White's bio, Vanna Speaks, his book evokes pleasant memories of my younger self's post-dinner entertainment.

Ken has been a trivia geek his entire life, and has created a fun an interesting meta-tome of trivia about trivia and the lives and careers of fellow trivia lovers, from the quiz bowl contenders and coaches of the college games to the professional Hollywood writers of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He also takes us on a trip through the factoids of trivia history, where the first book of trivia, published in 1830, was Sir Richard Phillips' A Million of Facts, and into the golden age of radio trivia shows.

 Each chapter title, by the way, is phrased in the form of a question. Every chapter is also a trivia quiz, with answers at the end, for us trivia buffs to test our knowledge.

If you're looking for a guide to how to be a Jeopardy champion, this isn't it. Unless you have made trivia your life, like some of the people Ken meets and gets to know in his story, you probably won't be motivated enough in the first place. In fact, he spends very little time talking about the games, except in an epigrammatic way, as an introduction to each chapter, when he shares out a crumb or two of interest.

I don't know if he invented it himself, but Jennings presents a 9 point classification system for trivia questions and answers:
  • The Plain Vanilla Recall
  • Plain Vanilla with Hot Fudge
  • The Superlative
  • The Unique One
  • The Huge Number
  • The Meaningless Coincidence
  • The Elusive Everyday Recall
  • The Trick
  • The Puzzler
I think I've run across nearly every one of these types, in various trivial pursuits. Speaking of Trivial Pursuit, he devotes a portion of a chapter to the board game which swept America back in the eighties, and tells us what happened to those intrepid souls who invented it.

My favorite quote:

"Knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing, but they do live in the same neighborhood."

A charming and witty read, in Ken's usual self-deprecating style.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Toys R Y?

Exhibit A
Lest anyone think I'm some sort of Grinch, merely for writing the heresies which are to follow in this post, I have included exhibit A, which shows just one small area of my house, equipped for one small grandchild; there are other rooms similarly littered cluttered equipped.

I contend that the Big Toy retailers have got us all bamboozled and confused, believing that we absolutely must equip our children for their bright futures by buying every new toy and gadget, educational and developmental, that their Big R&D labs can foist inflict bestow upon us. Certainly all the other parents will know why Johnny can't read when they find out you didn't give him the Scan & Shout 9000 to mold his tender little grey cells. And how can little Amy develop a healthy self esteem without her PC CEO Bobbie Doll?

I'm sorry, folks, we're being hornswoggled. Don't succumb to their blandishments, for the love of Pete! Just let the little tykes be creative with the materials ready to hand.

My toddler granddaughter spent the weekend with us recently. With all of the baskets and bushels of toys at her disposal, she:

  • Poked into all the cupboards, finding pots and pans to bang together.
  • Built a powerful laser with a mini flashlight
  • Removed the lint from her clothes with a barbecue brush
  • Created a fashionable necklace from a network cable
  • Annotated every piece of furniture with Post It notes
  • Used my channel locks to hammer her initials in the patio concrete
  • Learned a variant of three card monte, played with beverage coasters
  • Experienced the effects of capillary action on cotton as she sat in a puddle
  • Mud-daubed the Hand of Saruman on her forehead
  • Re-created the Marine Corps' Crucible obstacle course with formerly neatly shelved books
  • Conducted a research project on the root systems of potted plants
  • Discovered the Archimedes Principle while filling my watering can with rocks
  • Got a hands on taste of plant taxonomy picking Granny's flowerbeds bare
How much more educational can you get?

I rest my case.