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Sat, 3 Dec 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

— SjG @ 8:06 pm

J. K. Rowling, 2005, Scholastic Press

Christ, I read this back in July, and am only writing about it now.

I’m hoping that JK knows what she’s doing. It seems like Order of the Phoenix was an awfully long book for what it did to advance the plot arc. After reading Half-Blood Prince, it almost feels like Order should have had half the material of Half-Blood, so that the next book won’t be rushed.

So with no further ado, here’re my SPOILER FILLED predictions for the next one:

  • McGonnagle is given the temporary Headmaster position at Hogwarts.
  • We will learn that Regulas Black managed to gather up, and disable pretty much all but one of the outstanding horicruxes (horicruxen?).
  • The remaining horicrux was being kept at the Black Residence at the time of Regulas’ murder. This horicrux is none other than the locket which Harry & co. failed to open during their time at 12 Grimmauld Place.
  • Kreacher manages to get this locket into his “nest” during his artifact rescuing efforts.
  • Mundungus Fletcher, during his wholesale looting of the place, gets the locket, and sells it to someone. It ends up in the hands of the Malfoys.
  • Dobby finds out about this through some house-elf channel or at a SPEW meeting or something, and the news is duly reported to the Order of the Phoenix.
  • Draco Malfoy can’t handle being a Death Eater, and/or the experience with Dumbledore on the Tower gives him severe doubts. Before the senior Malfoys recognize the horicrux for what is, Draco goes to Snape for help/moral support/inspiration. Snape obtains the horicrux.
  • While the Order is trying to destroy/deactivate the horicrux, Death Eaters (sans Voldy) pounce on the location, and a battle ensues. Neville somehow fumbles something, causing the explosive destruction of the horicrux, and probably taking out Bellatrix Lestrange as well.
  • Snape betrays the worst of the Death Eaters, and the Order of the Phoenix destroys many of them and sends a batch to Azkaban.
  • Harry has his showdown with Voldy, and it’s not going well, but Ginny dives in to take the fall for Harry, and their combined love (and magical forces) defeat Voldy.
  • Book ends with Snape teaching the Defense Against the Black Arts class, and Harry teaching something like Divination.
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Sat, 24 Sep 2005

Dhalgren

— SjG @ 6:22 pm

Samuel R. Delany, Vintage; 1st Vintage Books ed, originally published 1973.

Dhalgren is one of those books you hear mentioned (in hushed, reverential tones) by the more academically oriented fans of speculative Science Fiction, by people who participated in the 60s counter-cultural experience, and by students of sexual politics. It is almost always refered to as “difficult” or “challenging” by the erudite, and “a trip” by the more participatory survivors of the culture wars. Occasionally, you’ll hear it called “crap” — or worse.

In some ways, Dhalgren is a shallow metaphor for the cultural changes happening in America in the late sixties. All the old rules have changed: the City of Ballona has had some unspecified cataclysm, people in the city do whatever they want and gather in new and shifting social configurations. Race relations get redefined. The bourgoisie are frightened (while their children are seduced). Strange religions flourish, new arts emerge, senseless violence flares, and psychadelic anarchy descends. Through it all, our protagonist is never sure if he is sane, and we might be tempted to believe that the whole thing is a madman’s visions.

Additionally, there is a sense of paranoia that lurks beneath the surface. The arts and media are manipulated by one powerful individual, a man we never quite see. Many of the hallmarks of the city of Ballona (the Scorpions’ light shields, the weapons, even the semi-mystical “optical chains” worn ritually by some to commemorate some profound personal event) are found in vast storerooms, packaged like government-issued equipment. Maybe the magic of Ballona is an experiment? Timothy Leary, LSD, and MK-ULTRA anyone?

Time has blunted some of Dhalgren’s impact. Sexuality that may have been revolutionary (in print, anyway) in the early 70s doesn’t even raise eyebrows in the Internet-age. But we have to keep in mind that interracial sex was considered deviant — or even criminal — at the time the book was written, and that homosexuality and bisexuality, not to mention sadomasochism and polyamory were still shocking.

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Mon, 1 Aug 2005

Pattern Recognition

— SjG @ 2:18 pm

William Gibson, 2003, Berkeley Books

William Gibson is one of the more important creators of the Cyberpunk movement, so it’s easy to take for granted that his work will be imaginative and original. What’s not so obvious, however, is that Gibson is a truly great observer, and very gifted writer.

Gibson’s sense of place is one of the more delightful aspects of his writing. I don’t know whether he’s actually been to the locations he describes, but his descriptions capture something deep about the feelings of the places. There’s an almost emotional connection. While reading Pattern Recognition, I couldn’t help but think of the awful descriptions inflicted upon us by Dan Brown, for example, that sound like a bored tour guide repeating facts and figures. In comparison, Gibson’s places feel familiar and real. While we may not know how many football-fields long the Blue Ant headquarters is, but we feel the size. We may not know the square footage of Damien’s apartment, but we’d recognize a picture of it. And we could almost paint a picture of Hobbs’ “gypsy” caravan.

Gibson is also a master of the brilliant throw-away description. Pattern Recognition is filled with simple observations that are unrelated to the story itself, but which create the fabric of the world and make it very real. The description of the tabloid that Cayce picks up in a train station stands out, but there are many, many others.

Plotwise, Pattern Recognition doesn’t break extraordinary new ground. It’s interesting, but the journey is a greater pleasure than the destination.

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Fri, 15 Jul 2005

Shah Nameh (Book of Kings)

— SjG @ 12:04 pm

by Firdusi (Abdul Kasim Manur), written circa 1000, translated and abridged by James Atkinson circa 1832, read as an ebook from BlackMask.com.

Before I read this book, I was completely unaware of its existence. While this is not altogether remarkable in and of itself, it should be in this particular case. Not only is it referenced in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (which, embarrassingly, I thought was “Arabic” rather than Persian before reading this), but the Shah Nameh is really, in many ways, the national book of the Persian people. It’s a history, a collection of legends, and, most importantly, a beautifully written collection of stories.

Atkinson, in translating, abridged the work and transformed it from verse into more concise prose, but retained the poetry for the moments he thought most important. Skilled though he must have been, reading the portions left in verse gives the impression that this translation leaves out a substantial portion of the magic of the work.

And it is a magical collection of stories. We learn of the sad fate of Jemshid, whose hubris destroys his glorious kingdom; of Zohak whose corruption by demon spirits resulted in two serpents growing from his shoulders; and of exploits the mighty Rustem, who singlehandedly conquers the demon country of Mazinderan.

As a history, we learn of the endless warfare between the neighboring kingdoms, between brothers, between fathers and sons. We are witness to many, many battles, to the deaths of thousands, to the destruction of cities, dynasties, farms, and families. We read of the spread of Zoroastrianism (although, strangely, not of Islam, except in Firdusi’s invocation at the end). We get a history of Alexander, who we are told is actually descended from the Persian royal house.

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Wed, 29 Jun 2005

Organizing Digital Photography

— SjG @ 9:20 pm

Well, it’s an impossible problem. My digital cameras all have high-speed “spray-and-pray” modes, which are the only reasonable response to the challenge of taking candid pictures of children. One shoots a buffer full of pictures, and in one of them (if one’s lucky), all of the kids will have their eyes open, there will be no fingers stuck up noses, and, if one’s really lucky, there will be nice expressions on all of the visible faces.

But the downside is the proliferation of pictures. One develops a certain Tommygun mentality, and, hey, disk space is cheap. Composition’s easier in Photoshop than through the viewfinder.

In short, I have a digital picture management problem. Apple’s iPhoto is a good start, but it can’t handle the quantities of images I’m throwing at it. Recently, I’ve been using an evaluation version of iView Multimedia’s iView Pro. It seems good, with lots of options and configurability. I’d rather not spend $200, but if I can learn to use it adequately, it’d be worth it. And I certainly don’t have time to write my own (witness the moribund Samuel’s Last Attempted Gallery [SLAG] web application that’s never made it past the schema design phase).

I’ll report here eventually what I find.