Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Jul 27, 2006

The Force of Reason

The title of this book was frankly, intriguing, although I've heard Oriana Fallaci described as a "Leftist" correspondant in the past. (She denies belonging to either the Left or the Right politically, which in today's world roughly means that she's SANE.) The Force of Reason is a follow-up to The Rage and the Pride and is terribly referential, a flaw even in works of fiction. It is a tirade against the Muslim takeover of Europe, a phenomenon that Oriana refers to as "Eurabia" (a term she did not invent). I'm sorry to say that there really wasn't much to the book; it very much left me asking "what reason?"

This is because Ms. Fallaci's writing is extremely emotionalistic and overwrought, precisely what you would not expect in a book purporting to be about reason. She dwells lengthily on issues such as the method of preparing halal meat; I appreciate that draining the blood of an animal may seem gruesome to some people, but since I cut up humans for a living I'm not terribly concerned by it, myself. I'm also not terribly in favor of catering to people with weak stomachs and fine sensibilities; if you can't stand the sight of blood, have the grace to faint in private. Don't pretend that it adds weight to your argument.

Her self-translation to English from Italian is awkward at best, making the book difficult and sometimes unpleasant to read. It's nice that she tried to put her words into English on her own, certainly it's difficult for a translator, no matter how skilled, to convey the essence of someone else's words. However, she could have at least given the manuscript to a native English-speaker for polishing after she'd translated the essence. The errors of usage make her seem hurried, unprofessional, and too hysterical to be taken seriously.

While she does make some interesting points about such issues as the collusion of the Catholic Church with the Muslim invasion, her points are detached from any underlying principles. Why is Islam bad? They kill people! They castrate women! They defame Oriana in the press! They don't allow free speech! They bomb stuff!

And why are those things bad? No answer. This is sad, because that is precisely the question that must be addressed if one is to make a consistent, compelling, reasoned case against Islam. Anything else is just flailing around in the dark--blind screaming in an uncaring universe.

Rating: 2.0

Jul 24, 2006

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest

My literary blog appears to have been taken over by movies for the past few days. I hope no one minds, we'll get back to books soon, I promise. I actually have a backlog still to review before I read anything new.

Anyway, I went to see Disney's new Pirates of the Carribean movie, and I have to say that it was very enjoyable. It wasn't profound, mind you . . . in fact, it swung violently between melodrama and slapstick to the point where I developed this vision of Charlie Chaplin twirling his mustache evilly as he drops a pie onto the face of the heroine he's just tied to the railroad tracks.

Needless to say, that's a little . . . weird, a term that more than adequately describes this movie. You have your dastardly plot. You have poor honor-bound Orlando Bloom (I can't remember his character's name, but is it important? It's Orlando Bloom! Just call him Legolas) searching the seven seas to redeem his imprisoned love. You have the female lead (what's her name?) proving to be much more practical and effective than her absent lover (Orlando Bloom, just in case you forgot, anyway it bears repeating), except on the one occasion when she tries to use her "feminine wiles". You have the wise-cracking sidekicks (although it's not readily apparent whose side they are on), and you have the Giant Squid/Octopus Thingy with Incredibly Bad Breath.

And you have Johnny Depp, as the perpetually less than masculine Captain Jack Sparrow in a (possibly) final showdown with . . . The Terminator.

No, no, wait, that would be David Jones of the David Jones' Locker fame, although having Ahnold show up in this movie would probably not have been completely beyond the pale. It was a fun way to start off a weekend.

Jul 22, 2006

Superman Returns

Although I've heard several reviews of this movie, none of them better than mediocre, I decided to go see it for myself because I (generally) like superhero movies and I also like to form my own opinion. Well, I have.

It was dull.

Brandon Routh is a very handsome young man, and would make a fantastic Superman in a movie with some sort of conflict. As it was, he portrayed the worst characteristics of the Man of Steel: with his powers, he's invincible. Without them, he's nothing. His activities reminded me of Ayn Rand's discussion on the invincible, immortal robot: such a thing could have no values, because nothing could make any difference to it whatsoever. Nothing could be either for or against it. Everything Superman does is strangely purposeless. It's possible that it makes a difference to the people he saves, or even to the curiously zombie-like hordes that watch his activities, but it can't make any difference to him whatsoever.

Why does Superman fly around saving people? The question is not addressed in the movie, but it seemed very much that he'd picked up the idea that he ought to: from his father, with his noble speechmaking that was nevertheless detached from reality, and from his human family, that encouraged the deathless demi-god to think that human things somehow applied to him. This was especially apparent in his relationship with Lois, which he could not even approach in any sensible manner, much less sort out. He couldn't decide whether it really applied to him or not; whether he could be human or not.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor was even worse: he couldn't even manage to be really evil in any horrifying sense, instead he projected an aura of pathetic degeneracy, like a prison-yard thug. (In fact, his one confrontation with Superman was about as titanic as a prison-yard knifing.)

In addition, he was stupid. There is something mortally indecent about hearing a stupid villian utter the words "mind over muscle" in a tone of righteous self-satisfaction. What mind? Are you talking about the alien technology that you stole (and could never have come up with on your own), the kryptonite rock (also stolen) that fell out of the sky, or the boat that you schmoozed out of some befuddled old lady? What a fountain of cognitive superiority. I'm awed. *sarcasm* Carmen and Vivaldi playing in the background do not turn a man into an intellectual; they make him a ridiculous second-hander who has latched onto the supposed trappings of the intellect as a showpiece.

Between Luthor's sham intellect and Superman's sham humanity, there wasn't much left of this movie to make it at all interesting. Oo, special effects. Yay.

Jul 18, 2006

What Would the Founders Do?

I noticed some time ago that Alexander Marriott had reviewed this book, so when I saw it at the bookstore I decided to pick up a copy for my own interest. Brookhiser does a fair job of covering his subject matter, which is a list of questions modern Americans would ask the Founders, if that were possible, of course. The book is not great, but it is interesting in a vague sort of way.

The title, however, is somewhat misleading; Brookhiser doesn't attempt to project what the Founders would do about modern situations in modern context (an impossibility that would only make him look foolish). Instead, he draws parallels between modern situations and theoretically similar ones that occured during the Founders' time. A more accurate title, then, would be: "What Did the Founders Do?" As a side note, Brookhiser deserves significant credit for being able to think in terms of essentials: his identification of the principles at work behind different questions (and thus what historical situations corresponded to them) is uniformly accurate.

Marriott accurately notes, however, that even this skillful reduction to essential problems doesn't help us much: the Founders were far from philosophically uniform and many of them were inconsistent, meaning that the answer often becomes a matter of: which founder? Not to mention that it's not always clear why they did what they did, so you never do know whether to emulate their example.

Rating: 3.0

Jul 17, 2006

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Dreamfall is the sequel to The Longest Journey, an adventure game that followed the travels of April Ryan, a young girl who discovered she could travel between the real world and a magical fantasy realm. She had some very fun, quirky, enjoyable adventures, and the game wound up fairly well at the end with a solid victory for the good guys.

I'm not normally a fan of adventure games because I have limited patience for the "Use Toothpaste on Frog" phenomenon: that is, some extremely non-intuitive, non-logical step you have to take in order to solve a puzzle so you can progress. However, The Longest Journey had only one instance of this problem that I noticed, so I liked it.

In Dreamfall, you return to the magic/science dual worlds of Stark and Arcadia (with the addition of another unexplained realm called Winter) as Zoe, and again, strange events unfold.

The game was a series of somewhat unpleasant shocks from the moment I bought it, starting with the amount of hard drive space it required just to install it on my computer: 7 GB. It also ran right up against the Number of Disks rule, having six CD's in the box. (The Number of Disks Rule is a computer-game standard I made up: once you have more disks than you have fingers, it's time to convert to a new medium with more storage space. Sadly, this rule only applies to computer games.)

The beginning of the actual game, however, was extremely enjoyable, with the expected tutorial-like setting where you explore the various actions available to you. There are simple puzzles and tasks to complete along with exposition for the overall story. There is a new combat system, not present in the original game, which took some trial-and-error to learn. Quick and easy fun.

Unfortunately, as the game progressed the puzzles didn't get any harder. In fact, they required very little thinking of any kind; usually you were told exactly what you had to do and how to do it; the only exception was the lock-picking mini-game, which came with no instructions. It was very easy to figure out, though. I also had to sit through interminable conversations between characters that often made little sense, the conversations and cut scenes often lasting two or even three times as long as the independant action sequences. It's a very "in" game, too, in that you'd be very, very lost if you had not played the first one. The combat system is essentially pointless as well; it is not an RPG element, it is yet another mini-game.

That, and it ends on a cliffhanger. I can almost understand cliffhangers in books, but in a video game? What happened, the budget ran out and you shipped whatever you had? Come on.

Despite its many serious faults, however, the game was as distracting and attention-sucking as a good book, and it takes maybe 8 hours to play, so I'll definitely be getting the next one to find out what happens. However, I think I'll be waiting for it to hit the cheap shelves this time.

Jul 12, 2006

World Without End

I find, not infrequently, that the more I read, the more I enjoy what I read, and Sean Russell's book is a definite demonstration of this fact. I probably wouldn't have enjoyed reading it at all if I hadn't first read The Lunar Men; many of the circumstances illustrated in the book would have escaped me entirely.

World Without End follows the travels of Tristram Flattery, a somewhat naive young man with ambitions to be an Empiricist . . . in modern parlance, a natural philosopher, one step down from being a scientist. He is thrown into a world of adventure, politics, and ancient mysteries when he is tasked with reviving a plant vital to his king's health.

His world is not unlike our own; it's so similar, in fact, that I found myself occasionally playing the "what does this correspond to in the real world?" game more than once. The only striking difference is that, shortly before the rise of this new Empiricism, there were magicians. No one really knows anything about them, and when the last of them died he took pains to see that this should be so. Somehow, the king's illness, the plant, and the magicians are intertwined in ways that Flattery cannot comprehend; involving himself with one has seemingly involved him with them all.

The pace of the book is very slow and stately, almost British in its understatement; the relationships between characters are both reserved and complex. I very much enjoyed it, but it's no thriller.

Rating: 3.5

Jul 10, 2006

Hepps on Parade

Last Wednesday through Friday I went to the Hepp-Ewers family reunion at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana, which turned out to be highly enjoyable. Events included:
  • Receipt by yours truly of nine (count them) mosquito bites on my left foot within thirty minutes of arriving at the park. These are all the bug bites I got during my stay. The park REALLY needs to get a new welcoming committee. It reminds me of this song by the Scared Weird Little Guys.
  • Breakfast Buffet that included: Fried Biscuits. No, seriously. I didn't know biscuits could get any less healthy. Apparently they can. Live and learn.
  • A hike through the park, where, assisted by some less-than-stellar navigational attempts on the part of my mother (hey, it wasn't my fault, I was just following her) we ended up taking a completely different trail than the one we intended to take. It was all right, because the trail was still cool, however it led into (don't ask me how, I don't know) a Very Rugged Trail. My mom decided to bail, however my dad and my brother Gareth showed up as I was attempting to estimate just how rugged, exactly, this Very Rugged was, and I wound up walking the ENTIRE TRAIL (after already doing another one!) and climbing more stairs than I EVER WANT TO SEE AGAIN FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. Why, you ask? Because I was NOT going to let my dad and my brother think that I couldn't climb some piddly stairs just because I happen to be fat and out of shape, thank you very much. My brother Gareth does Cross Country and he RAN up the stairs, leaving me at the bottom gasping for air and exclaiming: "I'll be along soon!" However, I got to see the chipmunks and he missed them, so I'm not miffed.
  • Philly Cheese Steak. Mm mm talk about your health food here!
  • Watching my male family members try to get the wireless internet working.
  • Swimming. Well, I say Swimming, but the pool never got deeper than three feet so it was more like Dunking My Brothers Repeatedly. They, of course, returned the favor. They're taller and more tenacious than I am, but I'm bigger and meaner so I think it was more or less a draw.
  • Smothered Grilled Chicken while I attempt to explain to Madeline and Lily what the difference between "second cousin" and "first cousin once removed" is. For those of you that, like myself, have enormous extended families and might want to have some method for keeping track of them, it's a fairly simple distinction: Your parents' brothers and sisters are your aunts and uncles. The children of your aunts and uncles are your first cousins. Your grandparents' brothers and sisters are your great aunts and uncles, their grandchildren are your second cousins. The children of your grandparents' brothers and sisters are one generation removed from you, hence they're your second cousins once removed. Got that?
  • Gathering with family to take photos and look at other photos.
  • Attempt by yours truly at teaching my dad, brothers, cousin-once-removed Ollie and his girlfriend, whose name I hope was actually Julie because that's what I remember, to play contract Bridge. Attempt was mostly successful, or at least fun.
  • Breakfast Buffet.
  • Canoeing down Sugar Creek. Ooo rocks! Trees! Tire! The creek was, how shall I put it, less than deep, and since I was in a canoe with my dad, we scraped the bottom several times and decided to go right OVER the submerged log instead of maybe AVOIDING it like some kind of sane people. We also almost swamped the canoe, although I didn't actually see this happening so my response, when my dad was trying to remedy the situation, was, and I quote, "Geez, Dad, don't panic." Neither of us is really bad at steering a canoe, the problem was that Dad has a tendency to steer very forcefully, which meant that I kept trying to correct his over-corrections, and he'd correct my corrections, with the predictable result that at any given time we had little or no idea where we were going. Communicate? And spoil the fun?
  • Hummingbirds. This was sort of a trip-addendum, as I happened upon six or seven of them when I stopped to get gas before leaving the park. The gas station attendants had put out feeders for them, and they were quite used to people. I don't think I've ever seen a hummingbird that closely before.

So, overall, a fun trip. We'll have to do it again some time.

Jul 4, 2006


It drizzled threateningly, but we had fireworks. The Fourth of July has always been a particularly remarkable celebration for me, simply because it changes so much from year to year. The venue is different, the circumstances are different, the fireworks and the people are different, marking stops on the steady progression of my life. I have so many memories.

Eating grapes and fried chicken on a grassy lawn dotted with trees in Chicago. Driving across a bridge in St. Louis and getting out of the car to watch the Arch over the river as they lit up the sky. Sitting on the deck at my grandparents' home and watching five or six different displays all over Seattle with binoculars. Leaning off the roof of the hospital to see around a building that was in exactly the wrong place. Sitting in a parking lot on the post in Bremerhaven less than forty-eight hours from the time I'd finally return to the U.S. Staring up at the Washington Monument as it slowly grew dark. Lying back on a hill at Virginia Tech, feeling like I might fall off into the sky. Even being importuned by some very persistant bugs in Hawaii.

I even remember the times I failed to see the fireworks, like three (was it really three?) years ago when I convinced all my friends to try and get onto Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (which is always really crowded), and we arrived almost exactly when the heavens blasted us with fireworks of their own and, lo, it did hail and rain like some sort of Biblical disaster. We decided it was probably best if we did not try to get out of the car.

Fond moments, all, bright and clear as fire, brief and definite as punctuation.

Happy Birthday, America!

It's a bit rainy here today, but I'm hoping for an opportunity to go see the fireworks, but if that doesn't work out, I'm going to have a black cow. (In case you aren't a Midwesterner, that's a root beer float. I'm not usually very fond of root beer, but it's a tradition in my family to have them on the Fourth of July, and frankly the day just wouldn't seem complete without one.)

Across the country, patriots of every description are celebrating in their own ways. Here's a few that I noticed:

Cox and Forkum have a great cartoon posted, along with links to the Declaration of Independance.

Gus Van Horn does a spiffy roundup, mentioning the Independant Women's Forum. I was intrigued by this link, so I stopped by and found their particularly interesting suggestion for a Fourth of July celebration: don't see Superman Returns.

I was a little surprised at that! Read the article, though, and you may find yourself nodding in agreement. I've added the IWF to my list of links, as I think they have some definite promise. It's nice to see a group for rational women around!