Thursday, March 22, 2018

March's Book: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
Science Fiction (1980 - 166 pp.)

This is my first time reviewing a Douglas Adams book since I reviewed the first in this series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in August 2012. At the rate I'm going, I'll finish the fifth and last book in 2036, just before I turn 50. Suffice to say my five-book set might last me a surprisingly long time.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is filled with laughs, much like all the other Douglas Adams work I know. Arthur Dent is well into his journey now, having heard Vogon poetry and having learned the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. It's rather difficult, though, for him to acquire tea. In the first few pages, Arthur encounters a machine that will tailor a drink to him, which first insists on making him an unidentifiable, horrible-tasting concoction and then saying "Share and Enjoy!" When Arthur requests tea, the machine wonders aloud why anyone would want to drink boiled leaves. When Arthur requests milk, the machine asks, "squirted from a cow?" (154-156)

Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is convinced he is the coolest person in the universe, naturally ends up being the one to be plunged into the Total Perspective Vortex. Anyone else exposed to this nefarious machine/well would be so devastated by the amount of perspective s/he would suddenly have that s/he would nearly perish. It's not so great to be able to see your surroundings - and yourself - in every light, after all. Not for Zaphod, though. His guide, Gargavarr, says, "And you saw the whole infinity of creation?" To which Zaphod replies: "Sure. Really neat place, you know that?" (199)

Much of the second half of the book takes place in the eponymous restaurant, Milliways. Adams includes a charming story on how the restaurant came to be (213), along with the scientific difficulty in ensuring that a restaurant can always be at the end of an ever-expanding universe. The solution helps the characters get there; Milliways must exist in both space and time, so people can make reservations for any past or future time.

This calls into question what the Universe really is. Thankfully, Adams provides an encyclopedia article. In 2018, it'd be a Wikipedia article, but back then it was... Grolier, perhaps? Some of favourites are some of the shortest and tersest.

AREA: Infinite.
EXPORTS: None. (243-244)

Finally, the book ends with Dent being asked to recommend a book. Which one, of course? "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," he said at last. (309) This mirrors Zaphod's comment at the end of the first book, when he says the characters are going to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. (143)

One of Adams's greatest pieces of wisdom is political, which almost feels out of place in the fantastical outer-space land/air/vacuum except that nothing would be out of place. So I leave you with this: "To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are also, ipso facto, least suited to do it." (278)*

Wikipedia has a better plot summary than I can provide here. These are admittedly scattered thoughts, but The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is really just a stream of hilarious highlights.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: 2

*Adams also uses the word "palaver" on the same page. If I ever use it, I don't want to be told it's too obscure a word to appear in literature!

NOTE: In a bizarre similarity to another book I didn't see coming, but that may point to the popularity of Scrabble in the '80s, Dent makes the word EXQUISITE on a triple word score against Trillian, the other Earthling on the voyage. (186) This unlikely sequence of letters (there are only one X and one Q in 100 tiles) is reminiscent of the Scrabble scenes in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, released five years later.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

February's Book: Citizen Canine

Citizen Canine by David Grimm
Journalism (2014 - 289 pp.)

Citizen Canine is a holistic, accessible look at the history, legality and sociology of mankind's relationship with domestic cats and dogs. From the first wolves who presumably huddled around a campfire for scraps, to the pooches we pamper with dog clothing and expensive baths, Citizen Canine tells it all. David Grimm's examples are journalistic case studies: interviews with animal shelter staff, animal detectives, members of the animal rights movement, and others.

Citizen Canine's greatest strength is Grimm's telling of the modern animal welfare movement through the stories of its advocates. Rescuers at organizations like ARNO, which rescued dogs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, are instant heroes whose experiences are directly linked to current events. Hector Sanchez, an LAPD detective who focuses on animal cruelty, is someone who can explain the very real link between animal cruelty and serial killers.

Then there are animal rights. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has bravely taken on winning and losing cases in which animals' voices needed to be heard, yet many of its members ascribe to philosophies, like veganism, that I respect but don't embrace. David Favre, who admittedly makes me think of Brett Favre, is a professor who raises animals, and occasionally slaughters them, realizing that sometimes, slaughter is the most humane option. For example, "fly strike", a fatal disease involving maggots being embedded in an animal, is prevented by killing the animal for food. (277-278)

The question of animal personhood is one that anyone could spend countless hours contemplating. Animal rights activists throughout Citizen Canine compare the advancement of animal rights to women's rights and black rights. The logical conclusion, one line of thinking goes, is that animals could sue each other, vote, and do everything else people do. The problem from my perspective then becomes that animals can't legally enter into contracts. You can let a dog or a cat live in an apartment, but you can't rent to an animal. Is a pawprint a signature? Animals could have litigation guardians,* of course, just like children or the severely disabled. If someone acts as guarantor for Fluffy's bank loan, though, isn't the loan really just made out to the guarantor, with Fluffy inserted into the loan contract superfluously? What, for that matter, is valid as an animal's will? Could Fluffy bequeath his toys to the neighbour's kitten? Grimm does a very good job of describing animals' rights in criminal trials, (179) divorces (140-141) and tort cases. The problems lie in areas of law that no one seems to have explored.

Here's my dog, Ory, demonstrating that he too is a citizen canine:

This review is accidentally very timely. The modern adoration of domestic cats and dogs in Citizen Canine is through an American lens. The winter Olympics are currently in South Korea. According to Humane Society International, and subsequently reported by CNN, 170+ dogs were bound to become meat before they were rescued a mere 2-hour drive from the Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang. A book that focuses so much on the inner workings of the animal welfare movement feels like a fitting subject.

Historical background can be some of the most dangerous educational material because unlike a dedicated history text, which is meant to be the subject of academic grappling, "background" is more or less meant to be taken as fact and then shuffled out of the way so the important material can continue. Grimm states that "[Medieval] Europeans didn't do themselves any favours by eschewing bathing and emptying their chamber pots into the streets." (46) However, the myth that medieval Europeans didn't bathe has been debunked so many times it is inexplicable why Grimm would hold to it. Grimm also makes a blanket statement that cats were ill-treated in the Middle Ages, largely on the strength of Pope Gregory IX's Vox in Rama (1233), yet Vox in Rama was published over two thirds into the Middle Ages, and Grimm doesn't account for the numerous depictions of happy pet cats in art of the supposed anti-cat era. Most of Grimm's information on medieval cats comes from Donald Engels's Classical Cats, which from my brief skim appears to mainly discuss medieval cats when they were involved in paganism rather than on a more wide-reaching basis.

As the pet world expands, people are thinking beyond cats and dogs. Ferrets, rabbits and other small animals have burrowed their ways into our hearts. There's apparently even an emotional support tarantula kicking around. Hopefully someday, there'll need to be a sequel to Citizen Canine covering these less common animals. Patrician Piglet? Inhabitant Ibex? Inquiring eyes would like to read.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 7

*This is also called a "litigation representative" or a "guardian ad litem" depending on your jurisdiction.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scottish Police Confront Plush Tiger Earlier This Week

I don't usually repost news stories, but when I do, I swear there's a good reason for it. (Usually involving wildlife, whether urban or rural.)

This time, police in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, Scotland received the concerning alert that a tiger was in someone's cowshed. (AP) (The Cut)

Here's a picture of the offending tiger, from the Cut story referenced above:

From AP:

Police in Scotland were called by a farmer who thought a big cat had invaded his cow shed. They ended up in a 45-minute standoff with a large stuffed tiger.

Police thought they had the tiger by the tail when they were deployed to a farm in Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, sending in a number of units, including an armed response team. The authorities eventually realized it was a toy.

The police had a 45-minute standoff with a plush tiger.

No one was injured, and I can't imagine the tiger will face trespassing charges.

Friday, January 12, 2018

January's Book: Coraline

More pop culture to open 2018! I swear, I'll read another academic history book soon. This is just too fun.


Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Fantasy (2002 – 163 pp.)

Coraline is a fun, is-it-for-children-or-isn’t-it book that also, probably coincidentally, ended up being Neil Gaiman’s follow-up to the lauded American Gods (2001). The closest comparison for Coraline thematically is either of Lewis Carroll’s classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass, or the oft-cited Chronicles of Narnia comparison. Coraline has fewer characters, settings and plots.

Coraline Jones and her family have moved into a new house, but it contains a portal to a not-so-nice reflection of her world.

Although there are two mothers and two fathers, we only ever see them in their own worlds, connected, of course, by a door in Coraline’s house that only she ever opens. In her family’s new house, the normal side of the door is exactly as one would expect. The other side is one where everyone has buttons for eyes and the other mother wants Coraline to stay forever – with the small details that Coraline will have buttons sewn onto her own eyes and will never see her normal parents again.

Although Coraline is written in third person, the story focuses entirely on Coraline. Her movements, curiosities, emotions and foibles dominate the story to the point that the only times we hear from anyone else are when they speak directly to her. The other mother, who controls the evil make-believe world behind the door, is only evil because Coraline tells us she’s evil. The other father, who at first instance appears to be an accomplice of the other mother, turns out to be another captive when he tells Coraline that. The other world only exists as the other mother requires it to exist in order to ensnare Coraline: “There isn’t anywhere else. This is all she made: the house, the grounds, and the people in the house. She made it and she waited.” (71)

The other house is a bizarre place. Dogs eat chocolate there, (44) even though this is a horrible idea in real life. The cat that trails Coraline in the real world talks in the other world, and becomes a sort of guardian figure for her.  The other house flattens "like a photograph" and Coraline needs the ever-sensing cat to warn her. (124) Coraline embarrassedly eats the breakfast the other mother has made for her, (93) showing that the setting has some control as in the iconic feast scene in Pan's Labyrinth.  Coraline is always the most comfortable when the other mother has a location; when Coraline doesn't know where the other mother is, that's when the other mother's scariest. (95)

Then there's one of my favourite quotations from the whole book, one that calls to mind everything from the scariest Saw scene to Black Mirror's idea of seeing your own fears: “...mirrors are never to be trusted.” (77) It's literal - the other mother - and figurative - Coraline doesn't know what to think of herself after all this.

I enjoyed Coraline, but this was one of those rare cases when the book isn’t as good as the movie. The vivid imagery Gaiman uses fit the 3D glasses era of the movie’s 2009 release perfectly, starting with the sewing needle flying at the viewers’ eyes during the opening credits. The mouse circus also doesn’t conjure up the movie’s grandeur. Coraline succeeds as a story. Gaiman’s images don’t sink into the mind as well in print as they do on the screen, is all.

Fun bonus: Is this one of the few books that can rightfully assume a genre label of Children’s Horror?

Ease of Reading: 10

Educational Content: 1

Sunday, December 31, 2017

December's Book: All Our Wrong Todays

2017's been a great year for reading! Here's hoping 2018's books are just as exciting. I have a feeling they will be.


All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
Science Fiction (2017 - 369 pp.)

In All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai confronts a fun, quirky question with seemingly no real-world application: what if our world were a shimmering utopia, but then someone from that utopia came to our world? The protagonist, Tom Barren, is an unremarkable son of a great scientist, who becomes involved in his father's time travel experiments. Naturally, Tom ends up rocketing back from 2016 to 1965, when the universe diverged, and then boomeranging back to our 2016 as famous architect John Barren. Our world appears as a dystopia, of course, including the fact that we use doorknobs. (They spread germs!) Adding to the fun is that both the utopia and the normal world are set in Toronto.

Tom consistently sells himself short. He passes through the laboratory basement where Lionel Gottreider invented the Gottreider Engine, a device that creates the boundless energy required to create the utopian world. Tom later discovers that he and John were connected all along, and that John's forward-looking architectural designs were channeled by seeing utopia through Tom's eyes. Tom/John's slow realization of how great he can be when combining Tom's magnanimity with John's ambition is the crux of the book, character-wise. On the other hand, Tom obsesses about sex, which takes up far too much of the book's content. The details of Gottreider's personal life stretch the book out too far at the end, so the final product could have been 20-30 pages shorter, but my enjoyment wasn't impaired.

Then, I always like seeing how the settings resolve themselves. I liked the utopian setting more than the real setting. Whether that says anything about me, I'm not sure, but I would have loved to have seen more travel between the two worlds. For Tom to have been surprised by his own utopia at some point would have been fun. The characters are realer in the real world setting, though, including a mother and sister who help bring the Barren family to life.

Mastai is a screenwriter by trade, which shows in the writing style - everything is crisp and conversational. P.D. James-style examination of an entire room is not to be found here, which is good (it moves the story along faster) and bad (the science fiction-y stuff in the alternate world would have been really cool to see in more description). Mastai's style sets the tone from the first page. Whereas a more traditional science fiction writer might have used a opening to set the scene, or to present the cube that reveals itself to be a tesseract, All Our Wrong Todays starts out as cold as possible: "So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have." (1) That sentence immediately makes the reader curious while also not at all revealing that the world we were supposed to have involves space suits.

All Our Wrong Todays has 137 chapters, some as short as a page. This has the psychological impact of helping the reader stick around longer, as it's easy to say "just one more chapter before bed" when that chapter is only a couple pages. Others, like Chapter 43 ("Summary - Chapters 1 to 42") are narrator inserts. Mastai's use of formatting to move along the plot is one of the most fun parts of the book. This is one of 2017's page turners: science fiction enough to stir the imagination, popular enough to read quickly, and with new content constantly on the reader's plate.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

Thursday, November 30, 2017

November's Book: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Science Fantasy (2000 - 623 pp.)

Perdido Street Station is a massive, twisting, fun ride through China Mieville's literary inventions. The darkened city of New Crobuzon hosts terrifying creatures, horrifying lines of work, and even the namesake subway station. The protagonist, the scientist Isaac dan der Grimnebulin, promises to build new wings for a bird-like creature (garuda) named Yagharek who has lost his wings as a criminal sentence. Isaac's girlfriend Lin, who is partially bug thanks to a parasite on her head, uses her artistic talents in the service of Remade mob boss Mr. Motley. Mr. Motley commands a team of other Remade, who have animal parts grafted onto them for various reasons, although there are many more Remade in New Crobuzon. During Isaac's research, he accidentally discovers a slake-moth, which feeds by consuming hallucinogens and then sucking out peoples' consciousnesses. Mr. Motley uses the slake-moths to produce more hallucinogens. Yes, that's the simplest I could explain this plot.

Perdido Street Station's strongest points are the rich, imaginative ways China Mieville draws us into his world, while never sacrificing his characters or plot. The italicized portions, narrated by Yagharek, are disjointed rambles that led credence to the notion that a creature like a garuda would think so much differently from a human, and also show how bizarre New Crobuzon is. Yagharek meant to arrive there from his homeland, but it still feels like he should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. As a wingless outsider, Yagharek doesn't have anywhere else to go.

Who lives in such a place? Our protagonist, of course.

The only greater-than-minuscule problem I have with Perdido Street Station is its length. I'm not against long fantasy books in general - I loved Wizard's First Rule, and still love the A Song of Ice and Fire books that have actually been released - but Perdido Street Station at times feels like a first draft. There are mountains of adverbs and entire paragraphs of 6-plus-letter words. A shorter passage describes a group of quasi-robots who come to the good guys' aid: "In extreme contrast to the anarchic viral flurry that had spawned it, the Construct Council thought with chill exactitude." (552) Much of the writing is extremely flowery. The book is 220,100 words, and it gets exhausting. I could probably edit it down to below 200,000 easily. The length combined with the era and the bleakness make Perdido Street Station into fantasy fiction's Antichrist Superstar: "There's so much life in this dungeon, you'll never want to leave." The upshot of the book's length is the sheer number of fight scenes, against a surprisingly high number of characters. Perdido Street Station feels endless at times, but the plot is never boring.

If there's any part of Perdido Street Station that's realistic, it's this charming line: "Isaac found that trying to explain his work to Yagharek helped him. Not the big theoretical stuff, of course, but the applied science with furthered the half-hidden theory." (191) Even in fantasy worlds, people learn by teaching. China Mieville was a PhD candidate in political science when Perdido Street Station was released, and Mieville has gone to write extensively since then in both fiction and non-fiction. The PhD lends credence to Mieville's fictitious city the same way critics love to cite that Robert Heinlein was an engineer. Perdido Street Station is a dystopia where characters have to apply their learning, whether they are scientists, artists, or Mafiosi. The reader learns with them.

One final question I had while reading Perdido Street Station is whether it would make for a good movie. My first thought was that it would because of the action, the diversity of characters, and the way the book's length could be mitigated by, to use a stock movie phrase, making a picture be worth a thousand words. My next thought was that mob boss Mr. Motley, who is so Remade he is unrecognizable as human, is personified nausea fuel, as are many of the other Remade. It would take CGI far greater than what was available in the Avatar era to make a realistic portrayal of the Remade without grossing out the audience. The story would translate to the big screen great, though.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 3

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Some Pictures from the Guns N' Roses Concert at the Air Canada Centre (October 29, 2017)

I had no idea what to expect, considering Guns N' Roses had their prime 25-30 years ago, they'd broken up and reunited since then, and I am now thinner than Axl Rose. It was incredible, though. I went with a good friend who'd managed to get comped tickets. We were in the lower bowl with a great view. The animations were of a quality I don't think was fathomable in the '80s. (Especially for "Coma" - picture below.)

Axl was on point. Slash had tons of solos. Duff frequently came over to my side of the stage for photo ops, and sang "Attitude" great. Live addition Melissa Reese was sensational. The band played almost all the songs I hoped they would, which I suppose happens when you have relatively few albums that made it big. "It's So Easy" was a surprising opener, but got the crowd's energy up early. "I Used to Love Her" was a nice break from the intensity that peaked with "Rocket Queen", "Coma" and the closer "Paradise City".

For three hours, I stood, jumped around, and took pictures. In true counterculture fashion, I wore my bright blue Carolina Panthers hoodie, which would have looked more fitting at a Rage Against the Machine concert but also made me stand out among all the black shirts. One inebriated patron even gave me a foam middle finger, free of charge.

The opening animation before the show.

Pictorial proof that I was there. Not my finest picture - I blame the lighting.

Slash at my side of the stage. Still just as plaid as in the Use Your Illusion era.

Axl was singing to me here. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Axl and Slash onstage together had been a long time coming.

The light show demanded the use of such a great venue. I... think this one was "Rocket Queen"? One of these pictures was.

Duff took the top of the stage during "Coma", one of the band's most challenging songs, and also an opportunity for a great heart monitor animation.
I've had their set list stuck in my head ever since.

Fun fact: This was not my first time seeing Slash. I went to the Air Canada Centre to see AC/DC with my dad and uncle back in 2000, and the opener was Slash's Snakepit. Weird fact: I am now closer in age to Slash at that 2000 show than Slash when Appetite for Destruction came out. I don't know whether that makes me feel old or not.