‘The World of M. C. Escher’ Review

5-star rating

I’ve been fascinated by the work of 20th Century Dutch artist M. C. Escher since I first encountered it in college. His impossible constructions and transformation tilings in particular drew my eye and brain as I tried to figure out how he was able to create them. Somewhere along the way I picked up this book but have only now, years later, gotten around to reading it.

The essays at the front include one by Escher himself, but the first one, by museum curator J. L. Locher is the most enlightening. It describes how the artist used mathematical principles (without getting deep into the math itself) to structure many of his works, and how he used ambiguous shades of gray to smoothly turn a floor into a wall or a ceiling in a work like “Relativity” or create the closed loop staircase in “Ascending and Descending.”

If the book falls short anywhere, it’s in the limited attention it gives to Escher’s work in color. Many of his tilings, where he experimented with ways to divide up a flat surface with interlocking figures, were done in watercolor, for example. The book, however, shows only eight works in color, perhaps for cost reasons.

And while the book reproduces over 250 of his prints, a quick tour through the Escher Foundation web site’s gallery reveals many more.

The thing about Escher’s art in the latter half of his career is that while it’s mind-bending in so many ways, it’s still approachable. Viewers don’t need seven degrees in art appreciation to be enthralled by the work. While revealing how he did what he did, The World of M. C. Escher only increases that enchantment. Highly recommended.

“The Six” Review

3-star rating

This is actually a 3.5-star review but I don’t have an image for it.

Contrary to author Mark Alpert’s claim in his note at the end of the book, The Six is most definitely science fiction. Its essential premise and technologies are based on the states of science and technology in the mid-2010s, and it relies heavily on projections of the science and tech into the future, making it “hard” SF.

There are two core story-lines: the ability of doctors to map all of the synaptic connections in a human brain—the “connectome,” although Alpert never uses the term—and artificial intelligence. In this story, technology has advanced enough that it is not only possible to map a person’s connectome, it’s possible to copy it into a vast array of “neuromorphic” computer circuits which, like the brain, can rearrange themselves at will as the computer (or computerized person) learns and experiences new things. That technology is now ready for trial. Unfortunately, the test will kill the person whose brain is scanned and mapped. To get around that major ethical problem, six volunteer teenagers, all suffering from terminal illnesses—mainly cancer or Duchenne muscular dystrophy—are chosen to be the “Pioneers.” If successful, their minds will be recreated inside hulking, 600 pound robots whose shells protect the computer/brain inside.

At the same time, the father of protagonist Adam Armstrong (no symbolism in that name, is there?) has developed a fully-conscious artificial intelligence. He’s not alone: the Russians are doing it too. Unfortunately (of course), the AI, called “Sigma,” escapes its lab and goes on a rampage against all of humanity, whom it views as its competition. The Pioneers are (of course) the only ones who can defeat Sigma.

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“In the Palm of Your Hand” Review

4-star rating

I dabble in writing poetry, so years ago a now-deceased poet-acquaintance recommended I pick up a copy of Steve Kowit’s book. At the time, I couldn’t get more than a few chapters into Palm because I wasn’t ready for it. It went back on the shelf.

Since then, my poems have been well received, even sweeping the poetry awards at a local writers’ conference last year. So a few months ago, I decided it was time to give the book another try. Four chapters in, I stalled out again, but after a few weeks away from it, I decided to keep going. I’m glad I did.

The book’s two subtitles, “The poet’s portable workshop,” and “A lively and illuminating guide for the practicing poet” turned out to be accurate. Chapters 2 to 27 (of 30) end with exercises to encourage the reader to practice the topics discussed, and it was the exercises in chapters 2-4 that caused me to put the book down. Kowit was asking me to do things I wasn’t comfortable doing, dredging up old, perhaps unhappy memories. While this sort of material can certainly produce powerful poetry, this demand this early in the book is one of my few major complaints. Perhaps for the “practicing poet,” this kind of work is less challenging, but for the novice, particularly someone uninterested in revisiting those times, this can be intimidating enough to cause him or her to stop reading and stop trying. It would have been better, for this reader anyway, if these chapters had been placed later in the book.

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“Creating Fiction” Review

3-star rating

My first contact with Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway, was in one of my “Writing the Novel” classes while I was earning my master’s degree in English. As so often happens in an academic setting, we did not read all of the essays in the book, so I thought that, over 10 years later, it would be a good idea to reread the ones I had read before and read the rest for the first time.

While I’m not sorry I did, some things became clear as I read it.

The most important point is that the book is not really written for the working writer. The nearly two dozen essays were written by writers who also teach at colleges or universities around the country, all of which are members of the Associated Writing Programs. As a result, most of the essays are directed at other college writing teachers, particularly those teaching undergraduates. This reduces the book’s value for the working writer.

Second, while all of the authors are published, many are award winners or New York Times best-sellers, and a few are big names in literary fiction (John Barth, Alberto Ríos, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley), because of their literary backgrounds, they pay scant attention to the genres besides “literary.” Further, the essayists assume that readers will be familiar with the predominantly literary stories and novels they refer to. Academics likely are, but writers in other-than-literary genres may not be, which makes the references less valuable.

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The Lady of the Lake Review

3-star rating

“The Lady of the Lake” is Sir Walter Scott’s epic poetic tale of two, or possibly three, men who seek the hand of Ellen Douglas, the beautiful daughter of a Scottish nobleman (?). She lives with her father and retainers on a remote island on Loch Katrine, a lake in southwestern Scotland. One of the men, Malcolm Graeme, has been wooing her for a while; the second, James Fitz-James, is presented as a hunter who discovers Ellen and the isle after getting lost while chasing a deer; and the possible third suitor, Roderick Dhu, is the chief of a rebellious Scottish clan.

Conflict ensues between the men, of course, while at the same time Dhu is making trouble for the English king at Stirling Castle, not far away. The end of the tale is more or less happy (depending on your point of view), with the rebellious clan defeated, the hunter’s true identity revealed, and the long-time suitor winning the fair maiden’s hand.

I’m not used to reading long-form poetry. The combination of the sing-songy iambic quadrameter of the rhyming paired couplets that make up most of the poem, the turns of phrase needed to make the words fit into the lines, and the archaic and foreign terms, made the story hard for me to follow. For that reason, it’s hard for me to give a fair or complete evaluation of the poem, which is one of Scott’s most popular.

On top of that, my copy is a 1915 book for students. (That explains the odd cover image above.) The pages are fragile, the binding failing, and many pages at the end, containing explanatory notes and instructions for those students, are missing. I’m not even sure which side of my family originally owned the book. There’s no student name written inside it—although whoever had it certainly scribbled all over many of the pages—and it was printed the year my late mother was born. Perhaps if I’d had a more complete edition that was in better shape, I would have been able to concentrate more on the story.

“The Lady of the Lake” is considered a classic, so if long-form poetry written in the 1800s is your thing, I suppose this is one you have to check out.

“Seven Arrows” Review

4-star rating

Hyemeyohsts Storm’s 1972 book Seven Arrows is a very unusual work, a cross between historical fiction and an exegesis of the religious beliefs of the Native American people we now think of as being the tribes of the northern high plains of the United States, specifically the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Crow. Storm takes pains at the beginning to provide the names these tribes used for themselves: the Painted Arrow, the Brother People, and the Little Black Eagle. (These names may not be in the same order as the first list.) The only book in my experience that similarly combines a historical record with religious philosophy is the Judeo-Christian Bible. However, Seven Arrows weaves the two together, while the Bible’s historical parts are largely in the Old Testament.

Seven Arrows begins with a series of short pieces which introduce the reader to essential religious concepts: the Medicine Wheel, the Circle, and the Seven Arrows. “Medicine,” in the usage of the Native peoples, means far more than the limited way it’s used among whitepeople, as Storm calls those of European descent. I admit I have not even begun to really grasp the full depth and meaning of the term.

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Russka Review

3-star rating
Russka novel cover

I have mixed feelings about this book. Certainly, Edward Rutherfurd’s 760 page doorstop of a novel has its good points, but ultimately I came away unsatisfied.

“Ambitious” is a good way to describe the effort. After all, in order to tell “The Novel of Russia,” as the book is subtitled, Rutherfurd chose to cover the period from 180 A.D. to 1990. To make this Michener-esque task manageable, he follows generations of the Bobrov family (and a few others) through each major historical period of this vast country. Of course, that means that he also ends up with a vast, Game of Thrones-size cast. Generally, he handles this well: the major characters are all well developed and distinctive, which is no small task. More on the characters later.

The book starts slowly, and by the end of the first chapter, about a small village located at the edge of the Russian steppe, and the future site of one of two towns named Russka, I almost put the book down. I simply wasn’t interested in the characters or their subsistence farming life. The quality of the writing was just good enough for me to be willing to continue.

For the next several chapters, Rutherfurd follows the development of Russia through the eras of the fall of the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the rise of Constantinople and the Orthodox Church. He clearly did a lot of research on these eras, and wants to make sure readers see the full result of all of it. I could have done with less. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, who was just as terrible as Ivan in his own ways, get their turns on stage.

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“Close Enough for Jazz” Review

4-star rating
"Close Enough for Jazz" cover

When last we left our hero, author Steven Smith, he had just escaped the fell clutches of a tyrannical Staff Sergeant for the idyllic life of a trumpeter in the Kitzingen Area Band.

And at first, life was indeed idyllic. The band was, in a word, untouchable. No morning PT (physical training), no onerous details, no inspections. All the band members had to do was practice and play, welcoming the 5th Artillery Division’s Commanding General when he arrived on post each morning, conducting a “rouser march” to get the other soldiers’ day going, and playing gigs off post to keep up good relations with the local community.

The band had been formed at the General’s insistence, and one of the junior members of the band had grown up next door to then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farm. That caused more than a little excitement at Flak Kaserne when a card from the White House arrived, congratulating the band member on his latest birthday.

Life was good. Until it wasn’t.

Like in any military organization, long-time members depart when their tours of duty are up, and new ones come in. The band, being a small unit, was more susceptible than most to the changes in personality those departures and arrivals bring. As the original band members departed without being replaced right away, the band’s performance suffered. After one particularly poor unit parade, the General threatened to disband the band.

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“The Everything Screenwriting Book” Review

Of all the books out there on screenwriting, this on one not to waste your money on.

"The Everything Screenwriting Book" cover

Because it was published in 2003, it contains a lot of unavoidable “errors.” For example, author Robert Pollock could not have foreseen the death of the video rental store or the rise of video streaming or social media. We can forgive and ignore these and other things and move on to the more serious problems with the book.

First, it’s easy to wonder why Pollock was hired to write the book in the first place. He has only one screenplay that was turned into a movie to his credit, a generally panned 1981 film called “Loophole.” At the time the book was written, he was a professor at a community college in Connecticut, and while he “had connections” with the Hollywood film industry, they do not appear to have been deep. (In a made-for-Hollywood irony, the book was published eight days after the author’s death.)

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“Faeries” Review

5-star rating

I don’t remember when I got this book, probably not many years after its 1978 publication, yet until recently I’d hardly ever cracked it, much less sat down to read it. My loss, absolutely.

The book has two components: the artwork and the prose. The prose is surprisingly academic, very readable but a straight-up discussion of the various stories and legends about the many varieties of faeries. Most come from the British Isles, but there are a few from northwestern Europe: Iceland, Scandinavia, and Germany. Authors Brian Froud and Alan Lee relate some of these legends without themselves becoming too mystical or too analytical. They even kindly provide pronunciation guides to the Gaelic terms sprinkled throughout the work. (If you’ve never learned Gaelic, you wouldn’t know that “sidhe” is pronounced “shee.”)

The real strength of the book, however is Froud’s and Lee’s artwork. There are nearly 200 pen, pencil, and charcoal drawings and watercolor paintings, and many are simply spectacular. While a few of the beings portrayed are beautiful (but dangerous) and a few are whimsical, many are grotesque, even disturbing, yet the artists make each distinct.

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