Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

11.02.2016

For Love of Books

I'm just emerging from a fallow period, where my mind was too full of grief and stress and static to focus on reading, and now I find myself once again in love with books. To celebrate that, here are reviews and quotes from a number of recent books that I've thoroughly enjoyed.


The Eye of Zoltar (The Chronicles of Kazam, #3), by Jasper Fforde

As with the previous two books in the series, this is good fun. Smart, droll, witty, quick, and suspenseful. This story accomplishes more edge and darkness than what's come before without getting too heavy, and is the first to leave the plot unresolved, needing the next entry to fully reveal what happens. It also contains a delightful, ongoing critique of economic markets and the ways they influence--and often control--international politics. Money is everything, behind the scenes. Jennifer remains a strong, resourceful, and brilliant heroine, and is more on her own than ever. I'm anxious for the next installment.

For those who aren't familiar with the series, the first chapter of this book includes a nice summary of what has come before:
In case you're new to my life, I'm sixteen, a girl, and an orphan--hey, no biggie; lots of kids don't have parents here in the Ununited Kingdoms, because so many people have been lost in the endless Troll Wars these past sixty years. With lots of orphans around, there's plenty of cheap labor. I got lucky, Instead of being sold into the garment, fast food, or hotel industry, I get to spend my six years of indentured servitude at Kazam Mystical Arts Management, a registered House of Enchantment run by the Great Zambini. Kazam does what all Houses of Enchantment used to do: rent out wizards to perform magical feats. The problem is that in the past half century, magic has faded, so we are really down to finding lost shoes, rewiring houses, unblocking drains, and getting cats out of trees. It's a bit demeaning for the once-mighty sorcerers who work for us, but at least it's paid work.

At Kazam I found out that magic has not much to do with black cats, cauldrons, wands, pointy hats, and broomsticks. No, those are only in the movies. Real magic is weird and mysterious, a fusion between science and faith. The practical way of looking at it is this: Magic swirls about us like an invisible fog of emotional energy that can be tapped by those skilled in the mystical arts, and then channeled into a concentrated burst of energy from the tips of the index fingers. The technical name for magic is variable electro-gravitational mutable subatomic force, but the usual term is wizidrical energy, or, simply, crackle.

So there I was, assistant to the Great Zambini, learning well and working hard, when Zambini disappeared, quite literally, in a puff of smoke. He didn't return, or at least not for anything but a few minutes at a time and often in random locations, so I took over the running of the company at age fifteen. Okay, that was a biggie, but I coped and, long story short, I saved dragons from extinction, averted war between the nations of Snodd and Brecon, and helped the power of magic begin to reestablish itself.

And that's when the trouble really started. King Snodd thought using the power of magic for corporate profit would be a seriously good scam, something we at Kazam weren't that happy about. Even longer story short, we held a magic contest to decide who controls magic, and after a lot of cheating by the king to try to make us lose, he failed--and we are now a House of Enchantment free from royal meddling and can concentrate on rebuilding magic into a noble craft.

I now manage forty-five barely sane sorcerers at Kazam, only eight of whom have a legal permit to perform magic. If you think wizards are all wise purveyors of the mystical arts and have sparkling wizidrical energy streaming from their fingertips, think again. They are for the most part undisciplined, infantile, argumentative, and infuriating; their magic only works when the really concentrate, which isn't that often, and misspellings are common. But when it works, a well-spelled feat of magic is the most wondrous thing to behold, like your favorite book, painting, music, and movie all at the same time, with chocolate and a meaningful hug from someone you love thrown in for good measure. So despite everything, it's a good business in which to work. Besides, there's rarely a dull moment.

So that's me. I have an orphaned assistant named Tiger Prawns, I am now Dragon Ambassador to the World, and I have a pet Quarkbeast at least nine times as frightening as the most frightening thing you've ever seen.

My name is Jennifer Strange. Welcome to my world.
Quotes:

  • It's somewhat bizarre to learn that many of you think that other humans are somehow different enough to be hated and killed when in reality you're all tiresomely similar in outlook, needs and motivation, and differ only by peculiar habits, generally shaped by geographical circumstances.
  • If we didn't execute bankers and rogue traders found guilty of financial mischief, it might give them the clear signal that it's actually okay, and then where would we be?
  • "What's a Somnubuvorus?"
    "It looks like a cross between a boabab and a turnip, and about the size of a telephone box. It's actually not a plant at all but a fungus that releases puffs of hallucinogenic spores into the breeze. Anyone who inhales them suddenly becomes convinced that being near the Somnubuvorus will enlighten and enrich them with hard-hitting and devastatingly relevant social and political commentary. Then, of course, you are soon overcome with a sense of listlessness and torpidity, and fall fast asleep."
  • All of us are somewhat clairvoyant; any future you can dream up, no matter how bizarre, retains the faint possibility of coming true. Kevin's skill was of dreaming up future events that were not just possible, but likely. He once said, "Being a clairvoyant is ten percent guesswork and ninety percent probability mathematics."


Saga, Volume 6, by Brian K. Vaughan
Hazel finally begins to come a bit closer to the forefront of her story, though much still focuses on the complex storm of characters whirling around her. Another stellar entry in the series.
Quotes:

  • Anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn't read enough books.
  • We're all aliens to someone. Even among our own people, most of us still feel like complete foreigners from time to time.
  • You'll never understand the way the world really works until you surround yourself with people from all sorts of weird backgrounds.
  • Teachers always promise that students are in a "safe place," but most of us figure out that's a lie pretty fast. My very first fire drill was all the confirmation I needed that the worst can happen anywhere, anytime.
Bonus: Quotes from Volume 3:

  • There are only three forms of high art: the symphony, the illustrated children's book and the board game.
  • All good children's stories are the same: young creature breaks rules, has incredible adventure, then returns home with the knowledge that aforementioned rules are there for a reason.
    Of course, the actual message to the careful reader is: break rules as often as you can, because who the hell doesn't want to have an adventure?
  • "There's always money in conflict."
    "Says the diehard peacenik?"
    "Oh, I abhor real violence, but fake violence is fucking brilliant."
  • Here's the thing, everybody loves babies . . . but only in very, VERY small doses.


We Are the Ants, by Shaun David Hutchinson

If you knew the world was going to end, but you had the power to stop it, would you?
A Man Said to the Universe

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

~ Stephen Crane
Does an ant's life matter to you when you step on it?

Does your life matter to the universe when it steps on you?

Henry certainly doesn't think so. He doesn't think anyone's life matters. And he sees no reason to push the button that would save the world from destruction. Our lives are as meaningless as ants' lives, and everyone would be better off not having to put up with the misery that is existence.

Because Henry is most definitely surrounded by misery. A dad who abandoned his family, a mom who has given up, a grandma whose mind is going, a loser older brother who torments him, a first love who committed suicide, a current secret fling who mercilessly mocks him in public, no friends, and a school that makes him the butt of every joke because he keeps getting abducted by aliens.

It's the aliens, by the way, who have shown him the world will soon be destroyed and who have given him the choice to save it.

Henry is crippled by grief and guilt about his true love's death. Everyone--including his human nature--tells him life is worth living. Experience tells him it's not. This book chronicles a period of those experiences and Henry's struggle to decide if he, or anyone else, has any reason to struggle on.

Whether we are ants or not

Whether an ant's life matters or not.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook production of the book, I'm sure I would have quite a few quotes to share here had I read the book, as it offers many elegant--and often harsh--commentaries on life. (Here's one I don't have to hunt to find, the book's first paragraph: Life is bullshit.) Henry embodies those deep insights. His story, while his own, is one that everyone knows. And it's one worth experiencing.

-----

A little appendix for anyone who has read Grasshopper Jungle. One of Henry's imagined scenarios for the end of the world is a hilarious tribute to that book:
. . . The potential new antibiotic is found in the chemical secretions of cockroaches. While attempting to isolate enough of the compounds in the cockroaches, an international consortium of scientists develops revolutionary technologies to increase the size of the cockroaches through genetic manipulation. These novel insects, named Blatella asmithicus after the geneticist responsible for creating them, Dr. Andrew Smith, measure nearly a meter in length, and have astounding resiliency and immunity to all known toxins. Capable, even of withstanding significant exposure to radiation. They are more commonly referred to a CroMS: cockroaches of might size.

The first new successful antibiotic in a decade is tested on 8 January 2016. Within days, the mortality rate from bacterial infections decreases to levels never before achieved.

United by their cause, a new age of peace and prosperity envelops the world. It is the golden age of humanity.

On 29 January 2016 a pair of CroMS escape from a laboratory in Austin, Texas. They begin to breed. As a result of their increased size, CroMS possess a ravenous appetite and devour everything in their path.

Austin is overrun in three days. Texas in two weeks. The United States in less than a year.

When CroMS are the only living creatures remaining on the planet, they consume each other.


The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than a Man, by Tom King
The pursuit of a set purpose by logical means is the way of tyranny; this is the vision of my creator. Of Ultron.

The pursuit of an unobtainable purpose by absurd means is the way of freedom; this is my vision of the future. Of our future.
Whoa. Wow.

On its face, this appears to be a superhero comic. It's certainly a story about a superhero. But it's about a superhero trying not to be super, trying to live a normal life.

More significantly, it's a story about an artificial intelligence trying to live a human life.

Trying to be human.

Trying to become human by living like one.

And failing utterly.

Not at first. The Vision's enterprise starts off well enough. He is an artificial intelligence (and body) made from organic matter--made to live and learn and grow--and he makes himself a wife and twin children in his own mold. Together, they get a house in the suburbs and try to become a family like any other.

But even from the first there are cracks. This book is full of wonderfully ominous foreboding. Darkness looms. On the very first pages, for instance, at the end of the opening scene when the family is welcomed to the neighborhood by a nearby couple, the narrator shares:
So they all said their goodbyes and promised to meet again. Maybe they'd get brunch at that new organic place next to the Italian place.

Later, near the end of our story, one of the Visions will set George and Nora's house on fire.

They will die in the flames.
A bit further into the book, yet still in its first half, one of the teens gets in trouble at school. The parents meet with the principle. At the end of that scene, the narrator offers:
Principal Sam Waxman of Alexander Hamilton High School will remember this moment for the rest of his life. He will wonder what would have happened if he had been firmer with the Visions that day, if he had not retreated from his initial position. Would that have made a difference? If he had acted right then, right at the beginning, maybe he too could have saved the world.
And, nearer the end of this volume, after there has been suburban-scale deception, family conflict, unintentional injury--and death--and a chain of events that threatens to spin out of control:
Thirty-seven times. He saved us all.

Thirty-seven times.

And all of it cannot redeem him from this, this small moment when he crossed to the other side, when he entered into the madness that was soon to come.

This small moment.

This small lie.
Because the darkness foreshadowed throughout is not realized in this story. This is the story of a small failure, an attempt at normalcy that fails utterly with dire consequences--but they are relatively normal, human consequences. At the end it is revealed this story is merely a prelude to what will follow, a disaster of truly epic proportions. Perhaps, even, the end of everything.

All because a not-man wants to be a man.

And though this is a small story about a family trying to live small lives, the telling is super. Far better than most superhero comics I've read.

Despite the Vision's failure to become human, this is a tale of humanity.

A few more quotes (lacking context):
Facts without context are like individuals without society. Just as an individual must find his or her place in society or else they are useless, a fact must find its place in an argument or else it serves no true purpose.

-----

You cannot hate what you do not know. They do not know you, therefore they are incapable of hating you. Perhaps I might concede they hate the idea of you. But if this is true, then your task is a simple one. You merely have to show them that you are not that idea.

-----

To assert as truth that which has no meaning is the core mission of humanity.


Plus, something I shared on Facebook yesterday:

So this is hardly an obscure book or an obscure author and I’m sure plenty of people are already familiar with it, but I just started reading Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here and am quite tickled by the premise. You know how Buffy and Bella and all the other teen protagonists from supernatural stories are in high school? They’re in this book, just in the background. This book is about their classmates:
It was just as bad here as it was for you when the indie kids were battling the undead in our neck of the woods (though that was just after I was born, so I only know about it from my uncle Rick, who doesn’t get invited around very much anymore). We had the same amount of heartache when a new round of indie kids exorcised the sorrow from all those soul-eating ghosts eight years later (that was the year they blew up the high school, a heretofore unknown part of the exorcism ritual, I guess). And don’t even get me started on when the indie kids fell in love with and then defeated all the vampires a few years back. Henna’s older brother Teemu got mixed up with them and pretty much vanished one day. They haven’t seen him since, though he writes the occasional email. Always at night.
And we dream the same in my town as you probably do in a city. We yearn the same, wish the same. We’re just as screwed up and brave and false and loyal and wrong and right as anyone else. And even if there’s no one in my family or my circle of friends who’s going to be the Chosen One or the Beacon of Peace or whatever the hell it’s going to be next time around, I reckon there are a lot more people like me than there are indie kids with unusual names and capital-D Destinies (though I’m being mean here; they’re often quite nice, the indie kids, just . . . they’ve got a clan and they’re sticking to it).

Me, all I want to do is graduate. And have a last summer with my friends. And go away to college. And (more than) kiss Henna (more than) once. And then get on with finding out about the rest of my life.

Don’t you?


And, finally, a link to an article, preceded by a short commentary:
"And what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"
~ Lewis Carroll

I'm very grateful that my career has kept picture books at the center of my reading. Of course, I never really stopped reading picture books, as with age I moved onto the adult version (which you may know as comic books and graphic novels). The interplay of words and pictures is wonderful, and this should never be forgotten. I can't tell you how many picture books I absolutely love--and not for their appeal to children that I might share them with, but for their appeal to me.

“There are only three forms of high art: the symphony, the illustrated children's book and the board game.”
~ Brian K. Vaughan, Saga, Volume 3

Why I Will Never Stop Reading Picture Books with My Kid
 

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