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28Sep/07Off

Book Review: Myth Adventures

I wrote a while back about my rediscovery of the Myth books by Robert Asprin, covering the first three books in the series. I recently worked through books 4-6 in the ginormous collection, Myth Adventures, Volume I and thought I'd pause again to review this chunk of the series.

The books are still good fun, but unfortunately the shine is starting to wear off. I think the series worked best in the early days when fledgling magician Skeeve was apprenticed to dimension-traveling Aahz the demon and learning the ropes of the world that Asprin was building. Mainly by being on the run and trying to turn the tide of a lopsided fight. There's something about that formula that just clicked with me, but it only really lasted the first couple of books.

In books 4-6 (and arguably starting in book 3), Asprin changes the formula to what would amount to a series of to a caper stories if you stripped away the dragons, wizards, devils, and other fantasy elements. Aahz, Skeeve, and the rest of the rapidly expanding cast of the books get into some kind of mess, then have to use guile, shrewdness, and smarts to get out of it. The group has a home base of operations in one dimension, but they travel to different worlds. And there's usually some stuff about Aahz and Skeeve realizing that they have each other to depend on, as well as their cadre of friends and enemies-turned-friends. And Skeeve gets out of tight spots not only through quick wits, but by being a really nice guy who treats everyone with kindness and is generous with second chances. And so on.

On the one hand, I don't blame Asprin for mixing it up and evolving the series. It would be tempting to just churn out more of the same instead of, for example, having the two main characters evolve from apprentice/master to equal business partners. But at the same time these subsequent books just aren't as charming or fascinating. The different dimensions the gang traipses through seem less like worlds and more like plot devices that Asprin feels free to kick around any way he wants so that the plot moves along. One novel focuses on a world full of vampires, for example, but it's all just kind of brushed aside to keep with the zany adventures. The imagination on display is wide, but not deep.

Still, each of the books is short, easy to read, and often entertaining. They make excellent breaks between larger reads and I plan on picking up the Volume 2 collection, which includes books 7-12.

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26Sep/07Off

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24Sep/07Off

Week 191: Zombies, Cookies, and Clapping

It's been fun to watch the differences between Sam and Mandy, but sometimes there's also entertaining differences between myself and Geralyn in how we approach even basic parenting tasks. For example, when it's Geralyn's turn to give Sam a bath, she usually ends the ritual by wrapping Sam in a towel, sitting her on her lap, and singing "The Noble Duke of York," complete with knee bouncing and hand motions. Sam loves this.

I, on the other hand, often coerce Sam into getting out of the tub by playing "Towel Zombie" in which I drape a towel over my head, start lurching around the bathroom, and shout "The towel has got me! HELP! It's eating my brains and turning me into a TOWEL ZOMBIE! HELP!" Sam's job is to shriek with laughter, lunge out of the tub, and yank the towel off my head at which time it attacks her own noggin, neatly drying her hair in the process. She also loves this, and I look forward to seeing which bath time ritual has the greater impact on her psychological makeup down the line.

Brain eating towels aside, Sam seems to be doing fine in the smarts department. She has, for example, learned to trick us into leaving her bedroom door open a crack after we put her to bed, so that we don't hear it click open and she can thus creep downstairs to help herself to cookies. But when confronted with this fact she still displayed a decent amount of sensibility.

"Sam, do not take cookies from the pantry without permission."

"Why not?"

"Because you're three and you thus lack the judgment to know how many cookies is enough."

"Hum. I think maybe one cookie is enough."

"...Okay. Fine. You possess the judgment to know how many cookies is enough. But still don't do it, because I say so."

This is, of course, completely unfair but still the prerogative of any parent.

So while Sam is developing her own skills at cookie larceny, her sister Mandy is developing some much more rudimentary ones. For example, last night she spontaneously started clapping. Geralyn exploded glee all over the place as a result, so Mandy seems to have caught on that this simple activity is something to be VERY proud of it. I swear, Mandy clapped for like 18 hours straight. She'd look at us, grin, and start slapping her palms together like "Hey, check this out! WOOOOOOOO!" I peeked in on her before going to bed and she was lying in her crib, clapping in her sleep. Whatever makes her happy, I say.

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21Sep/07Off

Book Review: Breakfast of Champions

I had read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut a while back and liked it well enough, so I thought I'd try something else out. Breakfast of Champions, a story about the fateful meeting between an eccentric science fiction writer and a half (and eventually completely) crazy car salesman, may not have been the best choice.

On the one hand, I like Vonnegut's sense of humor. It's very droll, very piercing, and it often makes you think. He can skewer concepts like patriotism, entertainment, sexuality, and self-absorbed aggrandizement with just a few words, and it's often fun to watch him work. He's a funny guy, even if it's not always in the laugh out loud way. On the other hand, Breakfast of Champions is kind of a mess. It's got next to no structure, so I'm not even sure if I should call it a novel. Vonnegut just kind of ambles from one subject to the next, often breaking off into bizarre summaries of author Kilgore Trout's infamously bad science fiction novels. There's only the barest narrative about Trout's being invited to speak at a awards ceremony where he accidentally nudges car dealer Dwayne Hoover off the last of his sanity.

The whole book really feels like Vonnegut is just doodling, both with words and with an actual felt tip pen. The whole book is sprinkled with crude little illustrations, featuring everything from birds to dinosaurs to "wide open beavers." I'll let your imagination roam over that last one on it's own. So by the end I was kind of bemused by the whole thing, but left feeling like I haven't so much read a novel as sat through an extended session of babbling by Grampa Simpson. I kept expecting Vonnegut to exclaim "We wore an onion on our belt! It was the fashion at the time..."

So, I think there's probably better Vonnegut out there. Breakfast of Champions is pretty self-indulgent, but maybe I'll try something else out before I write him off.

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19Sep/07Off

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18Sep/07Off

Week 190: Birthdays, gravel, and legbones

Sorry, folks, I'm gonna kind of phone it in this week and keep things short. We went to Tulsa, Oklahoma this weekend to participate in a surprise birthday party for my sister, who happened to be in town (from London) on some business. Sam was a charmer during the party, and at one point she got the whole crowd eating out of the palm of her hand by announcing that "this was the best party EVAR!"

We drove it again, and things actually went fine despite the fact that Sam decided not to nap at all during the long trip. It's funny that we stopped at the same place for a pit stop as last time, and Sam recognized it. She insisted, in fact, that we go find the same pile of gravel that she had gotten to play on the last time. It was, to my surprise, still there. So we climbed up and down it and she was happy.

While we were in town we went to the Tulsa zoo, which isn't quite as nice as some of the others that I've been to but still did quite nicely for a day's entertainment. The only low point was that the zoo keepers apparently decided to keep things authentic during feeding time, so that when Sam inquired as to what that cheetah was eating I had to reply "a leg." There was clearly bone, gristle, and a hoof attached to it. I almost expected to happen upon the meerkat exhibit and find them tearing through an antelope's rib cage.

So, good week overall. Sam enjoyed seeing my mom and her aunt and uncle, and Mandy even seemed to get in on the fun.

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13Sep/07Off

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10Sep/07Off

Week 189: Splooshie, Words, and Food

One of my favorite things about having these things called kids is watching them develop and learn like little scientists. Sam has moved on to advanced stuff, but Mandy is doing pretty well herself. Like any good scientistician, she'll formulate theories, perform experiments, analyze data, and try to replicate results. For example, last night she continued to pursue research that I can only assume is related to "Amanda Madigan's Greater Splooshie Sound Theory" which involved testing the following model:

Splooshie

As you can see, the causal relationship between dunking the washcloth and the splooshie sound is moderated by how annoyed the nearest parental unit is. After confirming this model she followed the scientific method by making sure that her results were repeatable. VERY repeatable. Look for her complete paper to be published in an upcoming issue of "Journal of Banging the Ever Living Crap Out of Stuff."

I'm also happy to announce that Mandy's grasp on the English language seems to have finally surpassed that of our cat. She'll now react to specific words. She's paid attention to her name for a while now, but recently she's began to provide predictable reactions to other words, like "kiss" (open mouth, slobber copiously, and lean in towards you) "five" (slap your open palm with her own), "bounce" (flexing legs and either falling over or bouncing, depending on whether or not she's in her bouncie swing), and "boobie" (generally going hysterical with glee). We're also pretty sure that she's said the words Mommy, Daddy, and Duck. These are apparently the three most important things in her world, thought I'm not sure of their rank order.

Sam is doing well. While Mandy is still working on solid foods, Sam has moved on to advanced eating techniques, some of which actually involve not eating. This has always been a tricky subject for Sam, but last night was a pretty typical example of how dinner goes. Sam loaded her plate with hot dog, french fries, melon, cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, string cheese, black beans, ketchup, mustard, and jell-o salad. She then ate one bite of hot dog, one carrot stick and half a cherry tomato before announcing that she had had enough to eat and could we please abandon our newly started meals and come play with her. Meeting with resistance on this front, she looked innocently at us and asked if she had eaten a good dinner, which is her thinly encrypted code for "give me a huge bowl of ice cream."

This is a trickier to deal with than you might think at first. We've never told Sam that she has to clear her plate, since eating when you're not hungry is a terrible habit that leads straight to obesity. So we usually tell her that if she's too full to eat more of her dinner then she's too full for desert. This leads to a potentially endlessly repeating loop of her taking one bite of something, then saying "Did I eat a good dinner now?" and our telling her no, not yet. If I had it to do over again we'd just never introduce the concept of desert in the first place, though it seems something ingrained into the culture of Ger's family. Most nights we usually compromise by letting Sam eat a sugar-free fudgecicle (40 calories, very messy) in the bathtub. You know, during her bath so we can literally just hose her off.

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7Sep/07Off

Book Review: The Running Man

I'm a sucker for near future dystopia stories. Many of you may be familiar with the 1987 film of the same name starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but this book by Stephen King (writing under the pen name of "Richard Bachman") upon which the movie was supposedly based bears only superficial similarities. It's actually much better.

When antisocial working man Ben Richards becomes desperate for money to treat his sick baby and save his wife from a life of prostitution, he turns to the Games Federation. The Federation offers those grasping at straws a chance at riches through competition in one of their sadistic TV game shows. Lesser shows may let contestants (try to) outswim crocodiles or challenge those with heart conditions run on a treadmill until they have a coronary, but Richards's physical and mental abilities land him a spot on The Running Man, the most popular and most deadly show of them all. The rules are simple: Richards will be set loose and then chased across the dystopian U.S. by a group of "hunters" who will murder him on live television when they catch up with him. The longer contestants stay alive, the more money they earn for their next of kin. In order to keep The Running Man from turning into The Hiding in a Hole Man, participants also have to break from cover and use the Postal service to mail in short videotaped diary entries. The balance of the book traces Richard's flight from and eventual fight with the Games Network.

King actually does a pretty good job of pulling together a few different themes here. I liked how instead of using convicts for the games, The Games Network took in a steady stream of volunteers who don't understand that their misery is being propagated by the very forces they support --sometimes zealously. And yet there's an underground movement that sees through all the propaganda and is willing to help out running men like Richards. You can read as much into that as you want, but it does conjure up some intriguing thoughts about our own political, religious, and popular culture institutions. There's also some pointed stuff about class warfare, the blissful ignorance of the wealthy, people's willingness to sacrifice each other for the sake of a scapegoat, and the corrupting influence of power.

I also liked how Richards was a real anti-hero --an antisocial, abrasive, bastard who develops a bit of a social conscience by the grisly end of the book. I further liked him because even though he was a big guy he was a smart one, too, and he relied on his wits to evade his pursuers so long and then to eventually (though perhaps unwillingly) take the fight to them. He's not just a cookie-cutter action hero like Schwartzenegger's character of the same name in the movie.

And, of course, on top of it all The Running Man is a pretty good action story. Once the game starts, things move pretty quickly and they don't let up until the last punctuation mark on the last sentence. Is the book really deep? Did it really connect with me in a personal way? No, on both counts. But it's fun, exciting, and thought provoking in a few places and that makes it worth a read.

You may be interested to read my other reviews of Stephen King books.

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6Sep/07Off

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3Sep/07Off

Week 188: Farm, Toenails, and Immovable Objects

It was Labor Day weekend for us and we spent it in the traditional manner of our people: by going out to "The Farm" in the middle of the country and spending a couple of nights in a double wide trailer. Sam actually loves The Farm, talks about it all the time and came close to throwing a fit when we told her we'd have to leave. She demonstrated her new ability to jump from a diving platform in the lake and to open her mouth as wide as humanly possible when dunking her head under the murky, fish poop filled water.

Sam was also delighted when Geralyn offered to paint her toenails for the first time ever. Ger applied a single coat of candy apple red to Sam's toes, then told her to sit really, really still for half an hour while it dried. It doesn't take anywhere near that much time to dry, but we figured if we could get her to sit still for half an hour that would actually be really great. When other family members came in to visit, Sam would thrust her feet into the air and start shouting "SEE? SEE?" Only she didn't flex her feet so that her toenails were showing, and most people were at best unimpressed and at worst totally confused over what was supposed to be so great about the dirty soles of Sam's bare feet.

The introduction of body paint isn't the only sign that Sam is getting older. The other night I had another one of those sudden shifts in perception about her, when she seemed to lurch from one age category to the next. I had just come home from work and was lying on the floor, talking to Sam. We weren't playing, we were just talking. Sam was telling me all about the visit to a specialty toy train store down the road that she loves to go to, and I suddenly realized how relatively complex the discussion had become. Sam was comparing and contrasting this visit with prior visits, detailing what kinds of people were there, what kinds of toys were out, what she liked playing with, and what was missing between the two times. She wasn't just saying that she liked to play with Cranky the Crane, but why she liked it (it loads stuff, apparently) and how she had demonstrated Cranky's many functions to a smaller boy with brown hair who happened to be there. The whole exchange seemed very different from what I was used to. It seemed much more mature, much more sophisticated than her previous preference for incessant strings of declarative statements and demands. And it really hit me when Sam stopped, looked at me, and said "I like talking about things with you."

And I figured it was all right. No matter what else happened from that point on in time, no matter what calamities may strike us, I'll have always had that one little moment when she looked at me and said that. I mean, I hope to have other things, too, like maybe gigantic, overstuffed sacks with dollar signs on them or maybe the ability to ignite my enemies' brains from the inside just by thinking about it. But even still, I'll always have one out of the three. It's a nice feeling, even if I didn't get to choose.

Despite a brief cold earlier in the week, Mandy is also as happy as ever and doing great. While we were out at The Farm she got to visit with her cousin Claire, who is about the same age but shall we say much more petite than Mandy. At one point the two babies were down on a blanket, with Mandy sitting up and Claire testing out her new crawling skills. Apparently Claire was most comfortable traveling in a straight line, and when that line encountered Mandy the smaller baby tried to give her a shove to get her out of the way. This proved futile, as Mandy just sat there, immovable, and spread her arms as she looked down on her cousin as if to say "Sister, you can't move me. That ain't gonna happen." Hilarity ensued, as did crying.

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