Book Review: The Vanished Birds – by Simon Jimenez

The Vanished Birds is the debut novel of Simon Jimenez. It is a big novel, dealing with humanity and its place in a world where star travel is commonplace, where there are many worlds populated by humans, and where large corporations are the de-facto governments that set all the rules and have ultimate power over the people.

The central character is Nia, a young female captain of a trader star ship with a crew of just a handful of people, a pilot, an engineer, a maintenance tech, a doctor, and someone in charge of cargo. Star ships travel through “folds” which are a sort of hyperspace where time is distorted like it would be at relativistic speeds.

Kaeda, a young boy on an agricultural planet meets Nia for the first time when he is 7 years old. She gives him a flute, which he treasures. The ship only stays for a day to take on cargo, and then leaves, to come back 15 years later, on the next “shipment day.” That’s how long it takes for the round trip. However, on board the ship, only 8 months pass. When Nia returns 8 months later, Kaeda is now 22 and they start a love-affair – at least so Kaeda thinks. Within a few years of Nia’s time, she sees him a few more times as he ages, and Kaeda’s entire live passes. He is an old man the last time she visits.

There is also an Asian engineer named Fumiko, who designs space stations. And there is a mute boy who apparently has  extraordinary powers.

As you might guess, this book is definitely a space opera that speculates on humanity’s distant future and extraordinary technology. It’s a large book with big ideas. Interestingly, there are no intelligent aliens in this world, which seems strange, given the scope of humanity’s reach.

I liked the concepts, I enjoyed reading it, but I would not classify it as a great novel, even through it was nominated for a number of awards.

AFS Reunion in Croatia

About 30 former AFS exchange students in 1974 from over 14 different countries, many with their spouses, had a reunion in Croatia this week.

We came to this reunion from Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia, England, Luxembourg, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Thailand and the US. I maybe forgetting a country or two.

We’re all 64 or 65 years old, and share one life-changing experience, a year abroad in the US with the AFS program. Here is a group picture.

Here are some of us on our first day in the country getting some much needed refreshments.

Here is a shot of us at the initial welcome dinner in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.

For about 10 days, all these 65-year-olds were 18 again.

Movie Review: Death on the Nile

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is a Belgian veteran of World War I. He is on vacation in Egypt in the company of an elite group of travelers. When a murder takes place on their boat, he makes it his mission to investigate the case and hopefully solve it. It was not clear to me why a fellow traveler can just appoint himself to law enforcement, but that’s just a fine point. It’s a movie, right?

Of course, the cinematography is amazing. Who is not impressed with the backdrop of the pyramids of Giza? There are even some pictures of people climbing the pyramids. Everyone is always impeccably dressed in white suits and colorful, elaborate dresses and hats. If I traveled in Egypt, I’d be wearing a T-shirt, khakis and sandals or hiking boots. The movie makes a strong impression of the period which is sometime after WW I.

While the story is sometimes cheesy and stilted, the glamor makes up for it, and the plot is very carefully constructed, as is almost always the case with a murder mystery. We have seen hundreds of whodunnit movies, and this is just another one. It follows all the tricks and the playbook.

Still, it’s a great movie and an adventure to watch.

 

 

 

 

3.5 stars

Book Review: Timeline – by Michael Crichton

Timeline was first published in 1999 and, having read most of Crichton’s books, I head read it right away. I remembered it vaguely as a time travel thriller. So I picked it back up again a couple of weeks ago.

In France, a group of archeologists are studying a medieval village, complete with two castles and a monastery. All the buildings are ruins, of course, but they have a rich history dating back to the 14th century, while the Hundred Years’ War was raging, and England was routinely attacking and invading France.

Their research is being funded by a multinational corporation. The company is led by a self-obsessed science tycoon in his mid thirties. It has developed a technology based on quantum science that allows them to travel in time. When one of the archeologists goes back to 1357 and does not come back, the company coerces some of the young scientists to follow him and bring him back.

To avoid anachronisms, they are not allowed to bring any technology, modern weapons or any objects from the future. When they arrive, practically in the middle of a battle, trouble starts quickly and the race to get back home begins.

Timeline is less of a time travel novel, and more a historical novel. The majority of the story takes place during a mere 39 hours starting on April 7, 1357. The protagonists have to battle knights, solve riddles, and play the opposing parties of the war. The whole thing is reminiscent of an episode of the modern television series The Amazing Race: “And now the contestants have to invent gunpowder to impress Lord Oliver. They only have two hours to do it or they’ll be thrown in the dungeon and miss their chance to make it to the next stop.”

Timeline is a historical thriller with a neat plot twist, where scientists get to visit the heyday of the castles, the ruins of which they study in the 21st century.

Movie Review: Mystic River (2003)

Mystic River is an old masterpiece. I had watched it when it first came out, and while I remembered it “was a good movie,” I had forgotten what it was about.

Sean Penn won an Oscar for best actor in a leading role, and Tim Robbins for best actor in a supporting role.

The story is about three friends from a rough neighborhood in Boston who were best friends as boys. Jimmy Marcus (Sean Penn) was an ex-convict when his daughter Katie was murdered. His friend Dave (Tim Robbins), a blue-collar worker, saw Katie last, making a fool of herself late at night, dancing on the bar in a local watering hole. His other friend was Sean (Kevin Bacon), who happened to be a homicide detective, and he was put on the case. As the three childhood friends deal with this tragedy each in their own way, events unfold that pit them against each other.

There is a backstory, which is woven into the main plot. It turns out that Dave was abducted by child molesters one afternoon in the summer of 1975, when the three boys played in the streets. After days of sexual abuse he escaped and returned, but things were never quite the same for the three friends. The demons of the summer of 1975 come to haunt all three of them when Jimmy’s daughter was killed.

About the Peaceful Transfer of Power

All my adult life I have observed the quadrennial presidential elections. My chosen candidates did not always win. But I always enjoyed watching the festivities of the inaugurations. Invariably, some news anchor would comment that in this country, for over two hundred years, we have been able to witness the peaceful transfer of power. I remember bring proud of that, being proud of being a citizen of a nation that was founded on the principles of democracy and the peaceful transfer of power since the 18th century. There was no other nation like this on the planet, and there had never before been one.

We can’t say that anymore.

We can’t feel that way anymore.

That notion has been destroyed. And a little bit of our nation has died with it.

Book Review: The Spaceship in the Stone – by Igor Nikolic

Michael Freeman is an ex-special forces soldier who was injured in the war and is now a disabled veteran. He loses his job and his girlfriend, and he wants to get away to “find himself.”

He was raised by his grandfather in a self-sufficient cabin in the woods. His grandfather has long passed, and Michael goes back to the cabin to get away from it all – with a few six-packs of beer.

When he hikes in the woods behind his cabin, he suddenly falls into a sinkhole or hidden cave, gets hurt badly and passes out. Nobody knows where he is.

When he wakes up he finds himself in a very different world. It turns out he fell onto a hidden spaceship in the rocks below the woods, which has been there for thousands of years, governed by an artificial intelligence, and powered by nano-technology.

Within a few days, Michael, the jaded disabled veteran, turns into a superhero with true superpowers and a mission to change the world with access to all this alien technology.

Of course, soon bad guys show up from all sides making things challenging. Michael assembles a team of ex-soldiers and the battle starts.

The Spaceship in the Stone is a cartoonish fantasy story, of course with a sequel. The characters are wooden, the dialog stilted, the plot contrived and the entire story just over the top.

I finished reading it, though, mildly enjoyed it, but quickly forgot most of the details within the next few days. I was not interested enough to bother picking up Book 2 of “The Space Legacy.”

 

 

Overdramatization of a Riot?

The clip on the left is from Time Magazine, April 25, 2022, page 6.

U. S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Green stated that “The American people are fed up with this over-dramatization of a riot.”

I can’t speak for the American people, other than I am one of them – ex pluribus unum.

Say I took a crow bar, or a sledge hammer, or perhaps even a weapon, and I went down to my local municipal government building – and I am not even talking about the U.S. Capitol or any State Capitol. Then when I got to the locked door, I’d just beat it in. If there were security guards or police, I’d pepper spray them or beat them with the crow bar.

If I did that, chances are that I’d not survive, because I’d be shot down in hail of bullets. If I did survive, I’d rot in jail for the better part of a year until I got my trial, and then I’d lose and – at my age – spend the rest of my life in prison.

Now if I did this same thing along with the 2,000 people who have entered the Capitol on January 6, the whole thing would go away because it’s an overdramatization of a riot?

I am not buying it.

I am in favor of every one of those people that committed violence entering the Capitol that day to do their time.

Those in our government, particularly those elected officials, in the legislative and executive branch who incited this should also be held accountable.

Hiking the Palomar Mountain Overview Loop

Today I hiked the Palomar Mountain Overview Loop, which is #17 in Sheri McGregor’s book 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of San Diego.

But before I started, I decided to not use the regular paved road up to Palomar that everyone takes. I took the Nate Harrison Grade Road, which is unpaved and winds it way up the mountain from Pala on the southwest slope.

The road is fairly well graded in the lower sections.

It was a cloudy and cold morning. Looking down into the valley, I often could not see anything but clouds.

In the higher sections, the road got quite rough. I would not want to do it without 4-wheel-drive.

But with a high lift and large tires, my Mojave was just purring up the mountain. It was made for this. Here it is parked by the edge, with sky all behind it.

Once I got to the higher elevations, the clouds thinned out, and the sky was bright blue.

Once I reached the state park at the top, I noticed a tribute plaque to the California Conservation Corps, or CCC as we call it. My son Devin has worked for the CCC many years and is an avid conservationist. He follows a long tradition of Californians dedicated to the preservation of the beauty of our land.

Finally I got to the trailhead.

There is a short spur of paved road that I walked down, and then I turned right onto the trail.

Here is the map of my hike. I followed it exactly as the book described it, starting at the parking area indicated on the red bubble of the map on the bottom. There is also a parking area in the Upper Doane Valley, right by Doane Pond. That’s where most people start that hike. But I’ll get to that.

 

I hiked the loop counterclockwise, turning right. On the map, you can see yellow, orange and red where I hiked fast, and green and blue where I hiked slowly, and dark blue where I stood and caught my breath. As you can see, I hiked fast in the first half because it was all downhill. I started at about 5,200 feet and Doane Pond is at about 4,500 feet elevation. But then, from the pond forward, it was all uphill and quite steep in sections!

If I had started out at the pond, I would have first gone uphill, and then downhill, which is more like a normal hike on a mountain.

Shortly after starting out, there is a very nice view of the world-famous Palomar Observatory in the distance:

The trail is quite shaded most of the way. Here is a typical view.

And another view:

At one point there is a section of old fence that has all but disintegrated. Time kills all fences in the wilderness.

Down in the valley, the trails are a little more level and are skirted by pleasant meadows on both sides.

Here is a nice view of Doane Pond from the south side. Behind the trees in the center is the main parking lot from which most folks start this hike. But even today, an a holiday weekend Saturday, I only saw another five to ten people on the trail. It was very quiet.

My hike was four miles long (it felt longer for some reason) and took me exactly two hours. I took ample breaks to snack, catch my breath, and take pictures. When I finally got back to the car, heading down for the main road, I pulled over once more and took one photo from the crest of the mountain down into Pauma Valley far below.

The Palomar Mountain Overview Loop Trail is a nice, moderate hike, with a good elevation change to get your pump moving. And if you have an offroad vehicle, I can recommend taking the Nate Harrison Grade Road up. I saw not a single other car on that road on my way up.

Book Review: Conrad’s Time Machine – by Leo Frankowski

The friends and former roommates with the strange names of Tom Kolczyskrenski (try to pronounce that), Ian McTavish and Jim Hasenpfeffer get together for a motorcycle cruise across the country.

Tom is an Air Force grunt with a genius IQ and an affinity for electronics.

Ian got his degree in mechanical engineering and has a lucrative job with GM.

Jim got his Ph.D. in behavioral science and is studying the social interactions of motorcycle gangs.

When the three are on the road, they hear an explosion nearby and happen to be the first ones at the scene, before any rescue services arrive. They find a perfectly hemispherical hole in the ground where a house used to be, and the former contents of the hole appearing in the surrounding area over time.

Long story short, they discover the plans for a technology that eventually ends up creating a time machine. And thus the three misfits decide that they are going to get very rich.

Frankowski is a good story teller. It’s a lighthearted tale that does not take itself too seriously. The characters are funny and a bit cartoonish. They talk with each other like no real people would talk. Either the author intends it that way, or he is really poor with creating dialog. I think it’s the former.

This book is full of casual time travel stunts in everyday life. It creates a new universe, of course so there can be more books in the series. Frankowski writes a lot of books in series, but the naming conventions are somewhat confusing. For instance, there is no Conrad in this book at all, and I can’t quite understand where the title comes from.

In summary, it’s a fun, lighthearted read with a lot of speculative science ideas and perfected time travel. The story is enjoyable, a crack-up even, albeit a bit hokey.

You might enjoy it. I myself won’t be reading any more Frankowski books, though.

Book Review: Farnham’s Freehold – by Robert A. Heinlein

It’s the early 1960ies somewhere in Colorado near a military facility.

Hugh Farnham is a fifty-ish former soldier with an alcoholic and self-indulgent wife and two grown children. Like many of his contemporaries during the cold war, he is worried about nuclear war and has built a fully stocked bomb shelter under the ground in his back yard. One evening, when both his children are home, and his daughter brought a girlfriend, they play Bridge when suddenly the alarm is broadcast. There are incoming ballistic missiles. “This is not a test!”

Hugh and his family and friends, along with their negro house employee, move into the bomb shelter just in time to avoid the first nuclear blast right above them. Now Hugh’s planning and survivalist skills come into play.

** Minor Spoilers Follow **

There are several blasts. The last is the most severe, and somehow the bomb shelter along with all its occupants is catapulted some 2,000 years into the future. American (or what’s left of it) society at that time is very, very different. Eventually the Farnhams find themselves taken prisoner and enslaved. In the effort of trying to cope with their hopeless situation, they learn more and more about the local customs, traditions, science and history. Hugh is a free spirit who never gives up hope, and he meticulously plans his escape.

I read Farnham’s Freehold many years ago, but I had forgotten just about everything about it. A friend recommended it as a classic Heinlein with time travel (albeit involuntary) as a central plot construct. We all know that Heinlein was a master of his craft, and Farnham’s Freehold is no exception. In typical Heinlein style, there is very little exposition. The characters talk constantly, and through dialog Heinlein tells the story. Everything comes to life. Of course, there is some nudity and sex – there always seems to be in Heinlein novels. The plot is meticulously crafted.

Have you ever found yourself reading the beginning of a book sort of absentmindedly, because you can’t get into it, but as you progress, you get pulled in? And then, when you get toward the end, you realize you missed something  at the beginning, so you stop where you are and start over again? Well, that’s exactly what happened to me. Once I got to page 322, I just had to check the beginning, and I went back to read the first 40 pages again, and sure enough, there were significant events there that contributed to the story that I had missed. Generally, when that happens to me with a book, it’s a pretty good one.

Farnham’s Freehold is an apocalyptic tome, a survivalist story, a time jump into a distant future with a very alien culture, and a neat plot twist at the end that makes it all worthwhile.

Tribute to a Teacher

“I’m a success today because I

had a friend who believed in me 

and I didn’t have the heart

to let him down.”

— Abraham Lincoln

 

There are two teachers I remember who made a difference in my life early on. My parents were not able to provide guidance, leadership or direction. When I was in German elementary school in my little town, when I was 10 years old in 5th grade, there was one classroom for the first eight grades. The first row of six kids was the first grade. The second row was the second grade, and so on. In the morning, Herr Sicheneder started in the front and gave the “little ones” assignments and then he worked his way back. I was in 5th grade, and he usually combined grades 5 through 8 and taught them together, at least in subjects where it made sense, like history or geography. After 8th grade, you were done with school and everyone went to a trade school and start a three-year apprenticeship for a trade. I was a shy little boy who had no idea where he was going.

Herr Sicheneder pulled me aside one day and told me that I should apply for prep school. This was in 1966. In the German school system, in those years, maybe 5 to 10 percent of all kids got to go to Oberschule (high school), in German called Gymnasium, which was the only pathway to higher education and university. To get in, you had to pass an entrance exam. I had no idea what was involved, how you applied, and what the exam was like. Herr Sicheneder kept me in school after all the other kids went home for many months and tutored me. I still remember many of the drills today, almost 60 years later. Wegen, während, statt, kraft, oberhalb, unterhalb, diesseits, jehnseits are all German prepositions followed by the genitive case. Who knows stuff like that? I do, because Herr Sicheneder made sure I had them all memorized. He drilled me in German, mathematics, essay writing and whatever else was in the exam. I have no memory of taking it, but I passed, and in the fall of 1967 I started taking the bus to the city every day and went to Oberschule. Herr Sicheneder was the single most important influence on the direction of my life by a long shot. He put me on a course that resulted in what I am today, and without him, my life would have been very, very different.

Herr Sicheneder was in his late fifties then. As an adult, I never got the chance to go back and thank him for what he did for me. He passed away many decades ago.

I met the second teacher with similar impact on my life on my first day in Gymnasium at the end of August 1967. My professor of Latin and German, and my homeroom teacher, was a young man right out of university perhaps in his first year of teaching, by the name of Wolfgang Illauer. I had Professor Illauer in Latin and German for three years. Being a bit of a German literature snob, he taught us discipline in writing, grammar and spelling and made sure we appreciated German literature. Professor Illauer taught me how to write, imparted critical thinking, instilled values for beauty, art, literature and general culture. Being a professor of the classic languages of Greek and Latin, he had a strong classical background which rubbed off on me. Professor Illauer was my coach and teacher between ages 11 and 13, and he shaped my intellectual and cultural trajectory unlike any other teacher I remember. As I grew into the upper grades, I never saw him again.  Eventually I went on a scholarship foreign exchange program to the United States and got my entire college education here.

A number of years ago I googled Professor Illauer and being the academic he was, he had given some lectures as a guest professor in his retirement. I found his email address. We connected and established correspondence, mostly sharing our thoughts on literature, poetry, writing, education and all the things that academics of the classics are interested in.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, we met in person for the first time after more than 50 years. I spent a night at the Hilton at the Munich Airport, and he drove in from Augsburg to have dinner with me. When I was a child, he was a god. Today, we’re almost equals, two old men interested in a common quest for language and education. We’re on a first name basis and use the German familiar form of address. We talked about Tolstoy. Wolfgang recently read War and Peace in the original Russian language. Go figure. He recommended that I read Somerset Maugham’s short stories, which he reads in English.

I spent a couple of hours over dinner with an “old friend” and one of the two teachers with immeasurable impact on my life.

Wolfgang reads this blog. This is my thank you.

 

Visiting The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

On a trip to Washington, D.C., where there are more art museums than in any city in America I know, we visited The Phillips Collection.

This boutique museum holds a most incredible collection of astonishing quality. There are several van Gogh works, countless pieces by Monet and Cezanne, and above all, the most Picasso works in one place I have ever seen. There must have been more than 100 Picassos, featuring “the Blue Period” early in his career.

I can highly recommend The Phillips Collection.

Here is a brilliant van Gogh where I lingered for quite a while before I moved on:

House of Auvers by Vincent van Gogh

Book Review: Time Tunnel: The Eclipse – by Richard Todd

It is 1890. Annika finds herself without a transponder, which is the device she needs to return home to her own time in 2008. Stranded in time, with no way to go home, she makes the best of her situation and fights for the Sioux. She has a little help, because Kyle left his backpack on the counter in a bar when it disappeared. The bag contained his laptop which had basically all human knowledge as of 2008 on its hard drive (go figure how that would be possible).

This is book three out of three in the Time Tunnel series by Richard Todd. There is a little time travel plot twist here, but otherwise it’s just an alternate history story reminiscent of the trilogy by S.M. Stirling starting with Island in the Sea of Time.

I can recommend that series highly. In comparison, Time Tunnel: The Eclipse is a simple-minded tale of alternate history in a world where the United States disintegrates from internal strife and Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan rule the world outside of America.

Todd’s character development devolves in this third book. Most of the characters do stuff and react in ways that do not make much sense and seem very unrealistic. I got the feeling that the author just wanted to hurry and wrap this series up.

I finished reading this book simply because I had invested time in the first two of the series and I wanted to learn what would happen to Annika. However, the third book didn’t add anything new other than a neat plot twist at the end.

 

 

Book Review: Time Tunnel: The Empire – by Richard Todd

Kyle Mason changed world history in Book 1 when he prevented 9/11. His wife Padma, who had died in 9/11, was alive again when he returned. Since Kyle and Padma knew the future between 2001 and 2008, they started a company and became fabulously wealthy by playing the stock market (Apple, for example) and capitalizing on the 2008 market crash. Padma and Kyle were the world’s first and only trillionaires. Padma, the face of their company, essentially “bought” the U.S. government and the country openly called her the Empress of America. She was running things.

That backdrop raised authoritarian opposition, ending in an eventual coup d’etat in America and totalitarian rule. One day emperors, the next day fugitives, Padma and Kyle retrenched to the time tunnel complex in Las Vegas. As government forces chased them down, they hurriedly escaped into time. Without proper navigation, they ended up in 1890 in South Dakota, just before the massacre at Wounded Knee. It was time for Kyle to change the nation’s history again.

Most of the story takes place in Sioux country. The plot, while sometimes contrived, kept me turning the pages. When I was done, I picked up Book 3 right away.