Of Interest Only...

July 21st, 2009

We got doorbell ditched at our home in Pleasant Hill last night; 2:30 am or so, some white Trans-Am with various giggling high-school or college students. Dunno what it was in reference to. More T.P. has been showing up in various neighborhood trees in the last week or so. Perhaps it's just prank season.

Review: Matter

July 17th, 2009

Matter by Iain Banks - 7.5/10

I really enjoy Iain Banks novels, and I particularly enjoy his Culture sci-fi novels. He's an awesome writer and conveys a powerful and interesting imagination. I'll recommend his books to anyone interested in interesting, well-written sci-fi. I would have given Matter an easy 8.5 had it ended about 40 pages before it did.

But the ending really ticked me off. It gave me the feeling that the book had been wasting my time.

The following is semi-spoiler territory, so if you're going to read the book, you may want to finish here.

A certain level of "good lord, did that just happen?" is fine and even good, but Matter left me feeling "so then why did I bother with all of that?" It's sufficient to reply "because you enjoy reading good writing with strong characters, crisp and erudite language, and clever imagination." But... only sufficient. There is a reason that we use the term "investment" when it comes to books and the characters therein, and at the end of Matter I felt like a Lehman Brothers shareholder in October of 2008. It had been fun while it lasted but I came out with nothing.

Followup: I am pleased to discover that the majority of reviewers over at Amazon say very similar things to my above statements. So it isn't just me.

Reviews: Star Trek, Up, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

July 17th, 2009

Star Trek - 8/10

Star Trek was fun. Where it really excelled was, I think, the characters - the actors really captured the essence of these long-familiar characters without in any way aping or attempting to channel the actors who portrayed them originally. The special effects were excellent, the story... well, the story was non-remarkable.

The one thing that really bothered me, though (spoiler hidden in white text) was the cavalier way in which they destroyed Vulcan. It seemed frivolous, and worse yet, unnecessary. It cut off all sorts of possibilities for a cheap grease-pencil underline of how dangerous the bad guys were. Certainly the largest major failure of the film for me.

Up - 7/10

Up has a terribly ironic name, because it's really very depressing. Oh, the story was good, the animation was Pixar, and I enjoyed seeing tepuis in a film. But to get there, to start the film, we had to set the stage, and that left a grim pall over the entire movie that I don't really go to a Pixar film to experience.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - 7.5/10

Also a rather depressing film, at least here I knew what I was getting into. The world of Hogwarts looks as spot-on perfect as always, the magic is still enthralling, the film still flies by at Shinkansen speed to try and deliver the plot of an 800 page book in just a couple of hours. In no other films I know do they remain as true to the source material as in the Harry Potter movies, and I daresay this is entirely due to Rowling herself.

Of course, I would rather have had a more fun movie, but I would also have had a more fun book.

Review: Lords of Finance

July 17th, 2009

Almost forgot about this one!

Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed - 8.5/10

A very readable tale of four central bankers, who oversaw the world financial system from World War One through the Great Depression - and how their adherence to an orthodoxy that the world had rendered obsolete set the stage for that very Depression. The book really gets into the character of these men and the men they worked with and moved among. The origin of the Federal Reserve System, the agonizing decades of struggle over the fiscal fallout from World War One, the religious belief in the gold standard and what that did to the world's major economies... all here, all told in a very readable and interesting style.

Reviews: Newton and the Counterfeiter, Battle Cry of Freedom

July 16th, 2009

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson - 8/10

An excellent smallish book about Isaac Newton. During the course of the book I learned more not only about Newton but about counterfeiting in the 17th century, the general state of the English economy of the time, and life in period London in general. As it turns out the premise of the book is a bit misleading; it presents itself as a battle between Newton and a criminal mastermind, but in the event it was more like a battle between a bear and a raccoon. Newton was a genius and a man of little compunction in the use of power. The counterfeiter in question was, well, marginally fortunate criminal riff-raff.

So it's a good book about Newton and the period, but hardly an historical battle royale. Still very much worth reading.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson - 9.5/10

I have noticed, over the last several years, that books which have won the Pulitzer Prize tend to be good. This book is a fine example of that principle.

An awesome book. Readable, oh so readable - yet when one is finished one has a clear grasp of the progress of the Civil War, from its antecedents through the battles (in order!) and the progress of the sentiment of the nation. I learned a great deal from this book - learned and retained! - but I think its best gift is that finally I have a sense of the order and the timing and the meaning of the battles, and how the sentiments of everyone in the nation changed and changed again in the crucible of that event. How so much changed during the war, from tactics to technology to goals.

If you ever want to know about the American Civil War, this is your book. More is covered in other books - the Civil War is I daresay one of the most written-about historical topics of all time, and there are excellent books on the topic, many of them trilogies - but for clarity you simply cannot beat Battle Cry.