On Basilisk Station

Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Basilisk Station
David Weber, 1993
(Free at the Baen Free Library)

Just reread On Basilisk Station, first of the Honor Harrington series.  I have to say that I respect Weber's extremely prolific career.  I also must say that while I have enjoyed most of what I've read by him, I've read so MANY pieces, that I have become somewhat sensitive to his personal favorite narrative crutches.  (For example, six legged aliens, evil zealots along with guys on the other side just doing their jobs, letting the reader in on at least some of the antagonist's plan way before the protagonists know, stupid bureaucrats getting in the way of honest military folk, many characters with complicated naming structures.)

As one of his earlier works, this book is good, but not great.  It takes a while to get going, and the exposition is crammed in awkwardly.   There are some things he's setting up quite far in advance, characters and things he has to then reintroduce in later books.  I can't decide whether it's better to be thinking that far ahead or better to leave out the excessive detail until it's needed.  I don't think I remembered any of this setup when the characters reappeared the first time I read through the series.

Overall, I still thought it was plenty of fun, but I liked it less well this time around than I did a few years back.

The fact that the first few pages of chapter one mostly introduce the main character's empathic space-cat is not a point in the book's favor.  Once we get into the day-to-day of Honor and her crew, it picks up in interest. There isn't a big space battle until the end.  I like Weber's style on spaceship battles, though.  He treats spaceships like a cross between submarines and a ship-of-the-line.  Ships (ideally) maneuver together to get into a position to target the enemy's weakest point.  There is an awful lot of geometry involved, and long chases while ships try to outmaneuver each other, while still out of range.  The battle in this book ends up being based more on attrition and clashing technologies, but I enjoy the theory overall.  As fun as it is to see ships pummel each other close up or flash by in a hurry, I overall prefer the tactical approach to space battle.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Side Note: Awesome space battle:

The Balance of Terror

Historical Girls: Quote-tastic!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

As I'm coming to the end of this cycle of books, I'd like to leave with a (lengthy) selection of quotes I found interesting and entertaining.

I present the following for your consideration and amusement, without commentary.

I'm off to wash my brain out with something containing spaceships and explosions.  Enjoy!

On Dress:

Anne of Green Gables:
"Pretty!" Marilla sniffed. "I didn't trouble my head about getting pretty dresses for you. I don't believe in pampering vanity, Anne, I'll tell you that right off. Those dresses are good, sensible, serviceable dresses, without any frills or furbelows about them, and they're all you'll get this summer. The brown gingham and the blue print will do you for school when you begin to go. The sateen is for church and Sunday school. I'll expect you to keep them neat and clean and not to tear them. I should think you'd be grateful to get most anything after those skimpy wincey things you've been wearing."

"Oh, I AM grateful," protested Anne. "But I'd be ever so much gratefuller if—if you'd made just one of them with puffed sleeves. Puffed sleeves are so fashionable now. It would give me such a thrill, Marilla, just to wear a dress with puffed sleeves."

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
Sissy went shopping with Francie and helped her buy a grown-up dress and her first pair of high-heeled pumps. When she tried on her new outfit, mama and Sissy swore that she looked sixteen except for her hair. Her braids made her look very kiddish.
"Mama, please let me get it bobbed," begged Francie.
"It took you fourteen years to grow that hair," said mama, "and I'll not let you have it cut off."
"Gee, Mama, you're way behind the time."
"Why do you want short hair like a boy?"
"It would be easier to care for."
"Taking care of her hair should be a woman's pleasure.....A woman's hair is her mystery. Daytimes, it's pinned up. But at night, alone with her man, the pins come out and it hangs loose like a shining cape."

Little Women:  
Amy suffered deeply at having to wear a red instead of a blue bonnet, unbecoming gowns, and fussy aprons that did not fit. Everything was good, well made, and little worn, but Amy's artistic eyes were much afflicted, especially this winter, when her school dress was a dull purple with yellow dots and no trimming.

On the Banks of Plum Creek: First day of school, the girls
"...put on their Sunday dresses. Mary's was a blue-sprigged calico, and Laura's was red-sprigged. Ma braided their hair very tightly and bound the ends with thread. They could not wear their Sunday hair ribbons because they might lose them. .... Laura wanted to sink down and hide her legs. Her dress was too short, it was much shorter than the town girls' dresses. So was Mary's. Before they came to Plum Creek, Ma had said they were outgrowing those dresses."
 [Side Note: Only one girl in town, whose family is wealthy, is described as wearing shoes]

Island of the Blue Dolphins:
During the time that I was taming the birds, I made another skirt. This one I also made of yucca fibers softened in water and braided into twine. I made it just like the others, with folds running lengthwise. It was open on both sides and fell to my knees. The belt I made of sealskin, which could be tied in a knot. I also made a pair of sandals from sealskin for walking over the duns when the sun was hot, or just to be dressed up when I wore my new skirt of yucca twine.

On Church:

On the Banks of Plum Creek: Sunday School begins:
"Now I'm going to tell you a story!" Laura was very pleased. But Mrs. Tower began, "It is all about a little baby, born long ago in Egypt. His name was Moses." So Laura did not listen any more. She knew all about Moses in the bullrushes. Even Carrie knew that...

After that everyone stood up. They all opened their mouths and tried to sing "Jerusalem, the Golden." Not many of them knew the words or the tune. Miserable squiggles went up Laura's backbone and the insides of her ears crinkled. She was glad when they all sat down again.

Anne of Green Gables:
"I went into the church, with a lot of other little girls, and I sat in the corner of a pew by the window while the opening exercises went on. Mr. Bell made an awfully long prayer. I would have been dreadfully tired before he got through if I hadn't been sitting by that window. But it looked right out on the Lake of Shining Waters, so I just gazed at that and imagined all sorts of splendid things."

"You shouldn't have done anything of the sort. You should have listened to Mr. Bell."

"But he wasn't talking to me," protested Anne. "He was talking to God and he didn't seem to be very much interested in it, either. I think he thought God was too far off though. "

Caddie Woodlawn: On the traveling minister:
Weddings and christenings were put off until his arrival, and sometimes he found new-made graves awaiting his benediction. The settlers always opened their homes to him, and it was a great occasion when they could entertain the circuit rider. Everyone stood in awe of him. He was not only a man of God who could wrestle in spiritual battle with angels and spirits of evil, but it was said that there was not a man on his circuit who could show a strength of muscle equal to his. When, in his deep voice, he spoke of punishment for sinners, the little schoolhouse seemed to be filled with the crackling roar of the fires of hell.

On Enemies:

On the Banks of Plum Creek:
"Don't you touch her!" Nellie screeched.  You keep your hands off my doll, Laura Ingalls!"
She snatched the doll against her and turned her back so Laura could not see her putting her back in the box.  Laura's face burned hot and the other girls did not know what to do...

When they were out of the store, Christy said to Laura, "I wish you'd slapped that mean Nellie Oleson."
"Oh no! I couldn't" Laura said.  "But I'm going to get even with her. Sh! Don't let Mary know I said that."

Anne of Green Gables:
As for Gilbert Blythe, she would not even look at him. She would NEVER look at him again! She would never speak to him!!

When school was dismissed Anne marched out with her red head held high. Gilbert Blythe tried to intercept her at the porch door.

"I'm awfully sorry I made fun of your hair, Anne," he whispered contritely. "Honest I am. Don't be mad for keeps, now."

Anne swept by disdainfully, without look or sign of hearing.

Little Women:
Jenny Snow, a satirical young lady, who had basely twitted Amy upon her limeless state, promptly buried the hatchet and offered to furnish answers to certain appalling sums. But Amy had not forgotten Miss Snow's cutting remarks about 'some persons whose noses were not too flat to smell other people's limes, and stuck-up people who were not too proud to ask for them', and she instantly crushed 'that Snow girl's' hopes by the withering telegram, "You needn't be so polite all of a sudden, for you won't get any."

On Heroism:

On the Banks of Plum Creek:
"We've got to bring in wood before the storm gets here," Laura told her. "Hurry!"
... The wind was colder than icicles. Laura ran to the woodpile, piled up a big armful of wood, and ran back...She could not open the door while she held the wood. Mary opened it for her. Then they did not know what to do. The cloud was coming swiftly, and they must bring in wood before the storm got there....Laura and Mary hurried fast, bringing in wood. Carrie opened the door when they came to it, and shut it behind them..."

Anne of Green Gables:
"Minnie May has croup all right; she's pretty bad, but I've seen them worse. First we must have lots of hot water. I declare, Diana, there isn't more than a cupful in the kettle! There, I've filled it up, and, Mary Joe, you may put some wood in the stove. I don't want to hurt your feelings but it seems to me you might have thought of this before if you'd any imagination. Now, I'll undress Minnie May and put her to bed and you try to find some soft flannel cloths, Diana. I'm going to give her a dose of ipecac first of all."

Caddie Woodlawn: Caddie overhears:
"Wipe the Indians out, is what I say. Don't wait for them to come and scalp us. Are you with me?"
White and trembling, Caddie slipped past them....to the barn and into the stalls....Caddie slipped a bridle over Betsy's head. She was trembling all over. There was something she must do now, and she was afraid. She must warn John and his Indians.

I enjoyed this blast from the past, but I'm done with girl's books for a while.

Expect a few short pieces on sci-fi novels soon, followed by my next thematic group: Anthropomorphic Animals.

Thanks for reading!

On the Banks of Plum Creek

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On the Banks of Plum Creek
Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1937

After talking about the style of the series as a whole, I don't have a ton to say about the third book about Laura in the Little House Series.  I did want to post about it because I had a strong memory from reading it as a child.  I remember the terrifying bugs.  I completely forgot that they lived in a dugout; read "hobbit-hole with less nice furniture".  Also, it's a departure from the first two as the Ingalls move closer to other settlers.  Ma is adamant that her daughters attend school, and so they settle on the outskirts of a town in Minnesota.

There are dangerous moments in the previous Little House books, but it felt like Laura skirts death more often in this one.  I was somewhat surprised by the frequency of potential catastrophe. Near-drowning, almost trampled by cows, prairie fire, days-long blizzards, and an ox almost falling through the roof are among the dangers encountered by Laura and her family.

About that last one: as I said, for the first section of this book, they live in a hobbit-hole of a house, dug into the side of the creek bank. Eventually they build a 'proper American' house, mostly on credit based on their expected harvest. Unfortunately for them, next comes the part of this book that I remembered strongly: Locusts!

(Grashopppers, technically)

Without being too melodramatic, Wilder portrays both the atavistic horror of the plague of bugs, and the subtler horror of the loss of the Ingalls' food and income. Seriously creepy and totally matter-of-fact.  Probably because the facts are creepy.

The other main thread of this book is the influence of the nearby town. The girls go to school, to church, and make friends and enemies.

At one point, Nellie Olson, the "rich girl", makes fun of the Ingalls girls for being poor and plain, and on the occasion of being invited to a party at the Ingalls house, says "Of course I didn't wear my best dress to just a country party."

Laura later tricks her into wading into the muddy part of the creek by claiming that a crayfish in the water is dangerous, and Nellie gets leeches on her feet. The adults don't realize that Laura did it on purpose, and tell Nellie not to cry over a couple of leeches. Laura is quite satisfied in her revenge, and never gets caught.  Ha!  I enjoy that the only moral here is that some rich kids are jerks.

The most moving part of this book is near the end, Pa is gone and Ma and the girls are snowed in for several days in a terrible blizzard.  Each chapter is a day, and you can follow Ma struggling to distract the girls and keep hope that Pa is alright and that they'll be okay until the snow stops, etc.

I have enjoyed retouching on the Little House books, but I'm not in a hurry to read the rest.  According to the preview in the back of this one, they all catch scarlet fever in the next book.  What fun!  I know I read these as a child.  Why the hell did I romanticize pioneer life at the same time?

3 Stars - A Good Book

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith, 1943

Note: Some spoiler-ish stuff follows.  Also, I'm not going to talk about the tree.  It's a great symbol, but I'd just be restating others' commentary.

When I started reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I knew it was a coming of age story set in New York in the early 1900's. I didn't know that it is also a book about the American Dream, in the most classic sense. Francie is the grandchild of immigrants, and her parents are insistent that each generation will, must, have more than the last.

Also, unlike the other girls books I've been reading and enjoying, this is modern literature, published in 1943. This gives it a separate tone, and it's probably the best written of the bunch by any literary standard.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn doesn't try to romanticize the poverty of living in the then-slum of Williamsburg in the early 1900's, but it rides that line well. By that I mean that it doesn't paint a picture of unremitting bleakness (we are able to share in the small pleasures the characters have), but is still clear on how badly off they are. Francie, for her part, is opinionated and stubborn in the best ways, and wisely observes the world around her.

One late scene I found particularly effective is when Francie's teacher objects to her writing, when she begin to write about her real life. Francie's internal objections to her teacher's well-meaning but completely class-blinded arguments read, well, kind of like my objection to the depiction of "poverty" in Little Women.

"Now I'm not a snob," stated Miss Gardner. "I do not come from a wealthy family. My father was a minister with a very small salary."
(But it was a salary, Miss Gardner.)
"And the only help my mother had was a succession of untrained maids, mostly girls from the country."
(I see. You were poor, Miss Gardner, poor with a maid.)
My father had to send me to a small denominational college."
(But admit you had no trouble going to college.)

The reality of the life is extremely vivid, the characters strongly drawn.

It also dwells on the simplicity of aspects of their life. The kids sell scrap tin foil for penny candy money, and it is relatively easy for Francie and her father to forge documents allowing her to go to a better school, and for both her and her brother to lie about their ages to get work. This stands as a interesting contrast to our current germ-phobic and heavily documented childhood.

Part of why this book is timeless (despite, or because, it is so completely grounded in its period) is its very modern thesis: Poor people are people, and everyone deserves access to a good education and modern life.

The book consistently promotes education explicitly, as well as other new technology implicitly. Francie's Aunt Sissy has had many stillborn babies, until finally she insists on going to a doctor for a birth. (Her family thinks she's crazy.) When the child is born, she looks at it and thinks that it is dead. The doctor, however, gives it oxygen, and the child is fine. It's not stated that Sissy realizes what this means about her previous births, but the reader can connect the dots.

The final aspect I want to touch on is the style of the telling of the parents' stories. Francie is the main protagonist, but plenty of time (more than I expected) is given to developing her parents and everyone in her world. Her parents' lives are described after Francie has been established.  Liberal foreshadowing is used while telling the stories of Francie's grandparents and how they shaped the lives of her parents. This gives me the heavy sense that her parent's lives are, to some extent, predestined. They are each the end point of their families, have the traits of their culture and their line, both merits and faults.

Francie is the synthesis. She has elements of both her parents, but she is unique, 'American', not one culture or another, her position in time is the present, her life is happening now as it is read, and so she is free to create her own destiny. 

5 Stars - An Awesome Book