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Books and Observations - The Lyorn's Den

Wed Oct. 18th, 2006

05:26 pm - Books and Observations

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My normal biorhythm is gaining on me, which is a bad thing. A normal and stable rhythm for me is waking at 1 pm and getting tired at 4 or 5 am. At least, jet lag provided me with about a week of waking up early and well-rested. I now missed two breakfasts in a row and had lunch in the cafeteria instead. The food is not bad, but every dollar spent there is a dollar that won't buy books.

OK, so I read until 2 am last night. But then, I wasn't tired.

Eating here, both in the hotel and in the company cafeteria, is like having accidentally time-machined back into a 70s garden party, or some time before they invented dishwashing. Everything is disposable: cutlery, plates, cups, everything. Only, other than at a 70s garden party it's not made of cardboard, but instead of some styrofoamy stuff that you can easily cut with even the dullest knife (i.e., the disposable plastic knives). So everything I've been eating lately had been seasoned with styrofoamy crumble. Eating anything tougher than tofu with tiny plastic forks and knifes is not uncomplicated, either. I had already considered simply using my own cutlery (even the cheap aluminium camping cutlery would be a vast improvement), but of course even the spoon would cut through the soft plastic plates and I'd have my porridge all over the table. I'm trying to work up some admiration for a design school that wants everything to be easily damaged or at least appear that way (like the houses which try to look as if they were made of thin wood slats) -- there may be some deep statements about the fleeting nature of human existence here -- but practical difficulties with actually using the darned stuff distract me.

Driving in the US is lots of fun, and I really enjoy it. I even did so when I was a very inexperienced driver, years ago. (I didn't enjoy being back in Germany and finding myself on the Autobahn with the usual assortment of the insane and the suicidal!) Part of the fun is, of course, the beautiful countryside. But it's also that the road system is easy to navigate with its compass point directions, and the generally light traffic, and that you are not allowed to drive fast. Maximum speed on the freeways is generally 65 mph, that's about 105 kph. So you never have to dodge some Audi coming up behind you at 250 kph, and the trucks go the same speed as anyone else instead of being moving roadblocks. Of course, now I have a car that would probably do those 250 kph, and I'd love to try it out... but then, everything about the roads is made for lower speeds. Freeway entrances just merge into the right (occasionally left) lane: no nervous estimating of speeds and distances, wondering if you will manage to squeeze in before something big or fast flattens you: just accelerate a bit and you're on the correct lane without any further fuss. Also, you can drive in any lane you want, you do not have to keep to the right unless you're overtaking another car. Accordingly, you may pass a car that's left of you. All this would be insanely dangerous with the kind of heavy, fast traffic commonly encountered on the A6 on Friday afternoon (or just any day between 6 am and 10 pm) but with the slow speeds and light traffic it's relaxing.

Another strange thing is the "right turn on red", which means exactly what it says. It took me a few days to overcome the automatic response to a red light: Stay where you are! Also, four-way-stops. Those are crossroads which have a stop sign in all directions. You stop, and then you drive in exactly the order you arrived. Again, fighting ingrained reflexes. Again, light traffic makes it not only possible, but easy. I only hope I'll take none of those new habits home, or I'll cause a major pile-up the first time I drive again. (And I have reason to worry. I found myself driving on the left on empty country roads after spending three weeks in Scotland!)

I bought groceries again, this time at a cheaper store which, however, had not much of a selection.

I haven't been writing. The air is all wrong. Or taking in so many new things makes it harder to invent even more new things. I'm not worried, though. Writing always comes back. I only hope my voice will also come back. As I'm rarely talking more than a handful of words to anyone, and I'm not singing, I have only a quarter of a voice right now, and it's breathless and squeaky. I would like to join a choir, but many of the choirs in the area are associated with some church, and as Americans seem to be very serious about religion, I doubt that I could sneak in on the merits of my voice alone. Plus, I'm only here for five months. I guess I'll just have to sing in the shower.

Next, books:

Grave Peril, by Jim Butcher, 2001

Yepp, another one. Better than the werewolf one, IMO, because this one has ghosts and vampires. It also has, quite unexpectedly, a holy knight, and a fairy godmother, who have always been there: it feels as if I missed a volume in the series. (I checked: I didn't).

The hero is still suffering from what I can only believe is a curse: Everyone of his acquaintances who has any trouble with ghoulies or beasties blames him personally for it, and threatens him if he isn't right on time fighting them again. You know, as in, "if the death curse of that necromantic serial killer you helped me dispatch strikes once more, I'll kill you personally." I'm all for misunderstood heroes, but that is starting to get ridiculous. Also, bampfing in and out of the spirit world, yeesh. Done to death, if you ever happened to play "Werewolf: The Apocalypse". Still, the spirit world has its moments, the characters, unless voicing their opinion about the hero are interesting, and the mystery gets resolved a little early, but holds some surprises nevertheless. Scenes are set remarkably well, easy to imagine with all five senses.

The plot: Something is stirring up the ghosts, hauntings have become nasty and common, and the veil between the spirit world (the "Nevernever") and the real world is fraying. And now a very powerful ghost is out for revenge and won't get stopped by wards, customs or laws of magic. The hero has to get the ghost before it gets him, and find out who controls it. Lots of flashy wind and fire magic.

Unfortunately, the author shies away from consequences. Things are never as bad as they look, and nearly any damage gets healed, which felt a little hollow. I'll still buy the next book.

The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner, 2006

That one kept me up until 2 am this night. It's a swashbuckling fantasy without magic but with all the romance, intrigue, sword fighting and wit one can hope for. The events in the book happen about 15 or 20 years after the ones in "Swordspoint", the story is also set in "the city", which is never named, and many of the characters from the previous book make an appearance, but it can well stand alone.

Alec Campion has succeeded his grandmother as Duke Tremontaine, one of the richest and without doubt the most outrageous of the nobles in the city. They call them the "Mad Duke", and he sponsors disreputable artists, street kids (despite hating kids, but he feels its still wrong to let them starve), a spy network, urban renewal in the slum where he used to live with his lover (a legendary duelist). He holds orgies, is drunk or drugged half of the time, sabotages the government, drives his political enemies to distraction with his bad manners, and his sister and her family into ruin with lawsuits. He's not cute and admirable, but sharp and unpredictable, and, actually, really, quite mad.

Now he offers his sister that he'll stop the lawsuits and restore her fortune, if she sends her only daughter, fifteen year old Katherine, into his care. The sister is shocked, while Katherine feels that living in the city with her uncle and get the family out of debt is both her duty to her family and a great chance for adventure, pretty clothes, balls, admirers and a good marriage. Of course, her uncle has other plans for her, and the first morning in his house she finds all her dresses replaced by men's clothing tailored to her short size, and a sword instructor waiting for her. Nobles are allowed to duel other nobles, even to the death, but as no noble of the city would touch a sword, they have retainers fighting their duels for them, and the Mad Duke informs his shocked niece that he needs a duelist, and she is to be it.

No way out, and with her family's fortune held hostage, Katherine grinds her teeth and adapts. Of course, where Duke Tremontaine is, intrigue is not far -- being rude, outrageous and powerful is a great way to make enemies. Yet, when Katherine finds herself unexpectedly pitted against one of the Dukes old enemies, it is about an entirely personal matter.

The villain is entertaining, clever and evil, he only forgets that it's unwise to threaten a madman. The end of the book, as everything involving the Mad Duke, is unexpected and a little abrupt, but mostly happy.

Parts of the book are told 1st person from Katherine's POV, who sounds convincingly like a 15 or 16 year old girl. Her narrative inserts a "Bildungsroman" theme into the swashbuckling and slows the story down a lot. IMO it's worth it. The author escapes the first person dilemma -- that the narrator not being where the action is -- by merrily switching between Katherine's parts and short scenes of important things happening elsewhere. Kushner has a way of making her world and her characters likable and having her world run smoothly, that after half of the book one notices that a) not much of relevance seemed to have happened so far, and b) it would be a pity if it did. But, of course, things have happened in the background all the time, and will make themselves known when the time comes.