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Salammbo (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 25 December 2016 00:00

arthage - I've written about its founding (Fire and Bronze) and some of its people (Early Retyrement). In one my my first unpublished novels (Oath to Carthage) I wrote about Hannibal and his war on Rome (and some dystopian time-grabbing future society). So yes, I've tried to write Punic for some time.

The thing is, I'm not sure I've gotten it right. See, in a way the Punic wars determined the culture that would become our world. You had the Romans (who won) who embraced the pragmatic, materialistic world that we recognize. They are who we spawned from, with our rules of laws and our scientific advances and our entire worldview. But the Carthaginians (who they fought tooth and nail across three wars) were something (I suspect) alien, a culture of ancient religion and mysticism, one with a ruling body of ancients, flashy generals, loose laws, and a strange menagerie of gods represented by a priestly class. When I write them, I sometimes think that I'm "Romanizing" them, not making them alien enough.

But Gustave Flaubert, writing in the late 1800's, he got it.

In Salammbo, we follow the affairs of the Carthaginian state as it reels back from its first Punic War, where they scrimmaged with Rome across the Isle of Sicily. Burdened with their defeat and heavy war Indemnity, they've withdrawn back to North Africa, with Hamilcar (their general, father of the young powerhouse Hannibal) in exile and the plains before Carthage filled with unpaid mercenaries. All I know from history about this was how the sell-swords assaulted Carthage and ran amok across the farmlands until Hamilcar returned and put paid to them. The details, I assumed, have been long lost. But Flaubert has imagined them to the grimiest, grittiest detail.

The story revolves around several characters - Hamilcar (and his son, whose future greatness he endeavors to protect). And then there is his daughter, Salammbo, beautiful and winsome and all that, a child of temples and priests and delicate swoonification. Against them stands the three great Mercenary figures - Matho, the huge black merc (who has glimpsed Salammbo and is fixated on her); Narr' Havas, the dashing Numidian prince with his waves of cavalry; and Spendius, former slave, crafty and shifty, the one who keeps the others on track, spurring the revolt on with an eye to being a virtual king himself.

The things Flaubert imagines are amazing. Of course, I know (and have seen) the Punic ports - those he covers in detail. How much of the other places he describes, the broad avenues, the temples, the people, I cannot verify. Still, they feel alien enough that they could be Carthage. It's not just togas and sandals and such - its a crazy metropolis in a crazy time of transition, with their gates pressed by mutineer barbarian mercenaries, the council and temples dicking around, of half-hearted military attempts and sieges and such, until finally Hamilcar is recalled, the last of Carthage's strengths are committed, with Matho looking at the city's great walls and pining for Salammbo (who, in turn, fears and lusts for him), of Spendius spooling out his devious plans and Narr' Havas playing both sides. Great book. Great history.

I really enjoyed it. Yes, it was windy as stories were at the turn of the last century. But the author held true with the thought of this alien culture. The battles are horrific, the deaths grisly and drawn out, and even a strange and unexpected twist in the final sentence. But yes, a good book. I'd have to thank some friends I have in Tunis for putting me onto this one.

You can get it all for free, right HERE, from Project Gutenberg!



Last Updated on Monday, 12 December 2016 09:16
The Johnstown Flood (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 18 December 2016 00:00

n 1889, the city of Johnstown was happy and prosperous (isn't this always the way of things?). Located in a steep valley at the convergence of Stoney Creek and the Little Conemaugh River, it enjoyed the service of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the business of several steel mills. The people were happy, oblivious to the slightest hint of foreshadowing on my part.

But up the sharp valley of the Little Conemaugh River, fifteen miles up, topping a side valley, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club enjoyed their scenic valley and beautiful lake. Composed of Pittsburgh's elite, the rich and powerful (back when not just anyone could be thus), their group had built the old South Fork Dam to produce their beautiful lake. miles long and quite deep. Lots of water, just waiting for something to happen.

And happen it did when a once-per-century storm dropped buckets of rainwater into hills denuded of trees, filling the lake. Of course, the relief outlets had been removed for scrap in the rebuilding and the spillways had protective grating over them to keep the fish stock in so once they plugged, the water had nothing to do but rise. The club did what it could (i.e. groundskeepers with shovels) but there was no stopping the water - once it was over the sagging top of the dam, the force of millions of gallons of water carved through the earthworks like a knife through a wedding cake, and down the valley the wave roared, thirty-five feet high and loaded with the rubbish of the hamlets it swept up as it thundered downwards.

Of course, what it did the the communities around Johnstown - frightening. Not only was the crushing impact of this mid-continental tsunami devastating, but all the houses swept along in the crest, many of them containing their trapped inhabitants, they all smashed into the stone railroad bridge just north of town. And somewhere in the wreckage was a hot stove. And suddenly it was truly a pyre, with flames and screams and images beyond the most craven of modern cinema.

The Johnstown Flood is a very quick and interesting read, following the runup to the tragedy, the mistakes made (both by the club, the railroad, and the townspeople). It details the event, step by step and gallon by gallon, as a living town is literally ripped apart. And then there is the aftermath, the efforts of people in this disaster zone to deal with the muddy waste that had been their town, now reeking of the 2000 corpses littered about. And, of course, for a socialist like me, there is the followup with the hopeless legal attempts of the poor against the rich. Of course, the club was underfunded and blew away like sand in the wind. The rich slipped off into the shadows, donating money but distancing themselves from the club. Yes, that sort of thing warms my revolutionary heart.

While the history is fascinating, I need to point out that the author didn't quite understand the true workings of railroads. For one thing, the Pennsy did not relay on telegraph towers - those were interlocking or signal towers that happened to come with telegraphs to connect them up and down the line (for the control of trains). Most of the telegraphy would have been between the depots. Worse, the author slanders the Yardmaster who had three eastbound passenger trains in his yard, literally calling him stupid for not "doing anything". Simply put, a yardmaster cannot "do anything" beyond the yard limit signs. As it read, he took what precautionary measures he could, ordering the three passenger trains to tuck against the depot, a move which actually saved a great number of people. His only other alternative (with the lines going down and no authority for moving trains outside of yard) would be to back all three movements under a walking flagman west along the valley. And, of course, if the one-in-a-million flood did not occur, and his five-hour overdue first-class trains were now inching backwards in the boonies, out of all contact, it would have spelled the end of his career. So, yes, it's easy to play the century-and-a-half-after quarterback on this. Here, I think the author was trumping up blame where none existed.

Overall, it was a great book, one that I'd recommend. While there have been disasters since then that surpassed the events of Johnstown, there is something about an event that came crashing down out of a rainy afternoon.


Last Updated on Sunday, 18 December 2016 08:54
Mr. Mercedes (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 11 December 2016 00:00

tephan King. You might love him or hate him but some image from his tales will stick with you, be it from words on paper or images on filmstock. A friend of mine always remembers the big wheel rolling through that vast hotel. For me, Roland the Gunslinger reloading a revolver one-handed. Yeah, we all got an ounce of nightmare fuel from him.

Mr. Mercedes isn't really scary. It's a little disturbing, especially the bad guy and his relationship with his mother (which is skin-crawling perverse) (I could imagine King's editors slowing their review pace down at some of those passages). But no, mostly Mr. Mercedes is a crime novel, a hunter and hunted tale that plays back and forth with who's on top and who's going to lose.

Turns out the bad guy is a disturbed youth who has had (as mentioned) a very strange childhood. Now, the only way he can feel value is to kill others (to feel superior). In this, he steals a Mercedes and comes out of the fog in the predawn hours to plow through a line of people waiting for a job fair to open. Yes, total down-on-their-luck folks (including a woman with a baby) that get crushed under his tires. And off he goes, delighted that he pulled off a horrific act of terrorism and has gotten away scot free.

But not quite.

The detective who worked his waning days on the force on the Mercedes case has now retired. Now overweight, with an empty life of afternoon TV, he sits in his chair patting his father's revolver, just waiting for his stars to finally align so he can put it into his mouth and paint the living room wall red. Then a letter drops through the mailslot, a taunting little communication from Mr. Mercedes, the clever fellow who ran over all those people. He goads retired detective Hodges, gloating how he never was found, how he's free and won't do it again, but if the good officer would like he can go on an online message board and chat with him about it.

And so Hodges is drawn back in, privately reopening the case on his own (a criminal act in itself, which could land him in jail). The irony being, of course, that in attempting to further push Hodges into suicide, he actually gives the old man a reason to live.

Thus begins the winding tale of case and clue and clever deduction, with us watching as Hodges slowly works out who his perk (intentional - you'd have to read it to know why) is. And meanwhile, the clock is ticking down. The kid has a bunch of plastic explosives and a bucket of ball bearings, a boy band is in town, the stadium will be packed, and it's up to the retired detective and his weird band of allies to stop him.

I had to read this. We touched down in San Diego and I'd finished Eternity Road on the plane out. Darting into the airport bookstore, I planted myself in fiction, looked up at the titles, saw King and grabbed it. And as I started reading it, I found myself relieved that the tale was sawing through the tedium of real life nicely. A good story, more crime than horror, but worth a read. Check it out.


Last Updated on Sunday, 13 November 2016 21:06
Eternity Road (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 04 December 2016 00:00

'm not sure if you'll relate to this, dear reader.

You see, I am a cyclist. This means that I see another world you've never seen. All those overpasses you've parked under for a traffic light, or gone over? I've sat there on my bike and looked at them, removed from the scale of a car, seeing this massive structures for what they are outside of the cage of conventional putt-putt transport. When you sit under an overpass on the saddle of a bike and look at the forest of concrete supports, each as thick as a young redwood, bolstering a skyfull of concrete three stories overhead, then you see the world as it is, not the blur-world from your car. Even something as utilitarian as a parking garage - when you look at one of these things, they are larger than Persepolis. Had they been build 2000 years ago they'd have been one of the wonders of the ancient world.

But we don't see them. It is background to us.

Which is why Eternity Road was such a great book. Author Jack McDevitt seems to have looked at this world, and thought about how it would appear centuries after a civilization-ending plague, when the growing civilizations of this new time refer to us as the roadmakers. Our ruins are still around but all knowledge and purpose has been lost. And in this strange world an explorer returns, having journied far to the north for find Haven, a place rumored to hold many of the books of his ancient world. But he returns bitter, his entire company lost, a loner. Only after his death does a young girl (whose brother was also on the expedition) is bequeathed Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a book long believed lost.

Does Haven exist? She means to find out.

So it's a fascinating "There and back again" journey, the party of companions interesting, the world strange and brooding, the mission disheartening. And Mr. McDevitt isn't afraid to kill off characters (and nobody comes back from Moria in this one). It's got high adventure, sad partings, everything you could hope for. And in reading this you'll view the world that you take for granted a little differently. Perhaps, even, a little more fragile.

This one I found in a used bookstore. A quick peek showed it to be available on Amazon (a hardcover for a penny, a steal). It's got my recommendation. For you people with a taste of realistic post-apocalypse, crack open this cover.


Last Updated on Sunday, 13 November 2016 15:35

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