Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Review: Catch-22

By Joseph Heller
Simon & Schuster, 2010
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Ty Dobbertin

Catch-22 is one of those odd books, not unlike The Catcher in the Rye, that if you didn't read in high school, you likely never will. This is a shame, as while Catcher is kind of a self-important ode to nothing, Catch-22 is a wickedly funny novel. Unfortunately, it's also an incredibly long, bleak one. Which one of these traits you remember more probably depends on your tolerance for pitch-black humor.

The story takes place in Italy during World War II. Captain John Yossarian is a bombardier during the last days of the Allied campaign in Italy, but he seems to be the only soldier who can see through the incompetence of the military command. Yossarian is afraid of dying - scared to death of it, in fact - and will do whatever he can to get out of the war. However, a vicious rule called Catch-22 prevents him from leaving: Any pilot who refuses to fly combat missions is deemed sane, and sane people must fly.

The most remarkable thing about Catch-22 is its humor. The book embraces every kind of humor, from jokes the soldiers tell one another to over-the-top dialogue to situations that push absurdity to its limits. Vignettes about commanding officers who insist the soldiers clock time on a skeet shooting range (which really improves their ability to shoot skeet) or march in parades serve to highlight how ridiculous the military chain of command can get.

While the book's humor rarely falls flat, it will almost definitely cross each reader's personal line of good taste at one point or another. One chapter involves a soldier organizing a bombing run on his own troops - complete with casualties - because he stands to make a lot of money from it. Others involve soldiers beating up prostitutes, threatening to slit a friend's throat open, and slicing a man in half with a propeller. There is definitely humor in these situations, but the book lacks any real pathos. As such, the black humor can get grating or depressing without any kind of contrast.

Still, none of that should take away from the brilliant writing, hilarious situations, and razor-sharp dialogue. The social critique of war as pure stupidity is apt and still relevant today, while the ending is just uplifting enough to redeem some of the book's bleaker moments. I don't have any solid recommendations for satirical books about war, but there is a lot of the same gallows humor and absurd wartime situations in Going After Cacciato and If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O'Brien. For other examples of "political system taken to its extreme," 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell are, of course, the logical choices.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Book Review: The Forever War

The Forever War
By Joe Haldeman
Ridan Publishing, 2012
Buy it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Brian Capaldo

When I started this project, I wanted the results to be anything but predictable. I wanted to embrace whole new genres and discover a few flaws in the speculative fiction niche in which I’ve grown comfortable. However, like Hyperion before it, The Forever War has confounded my goals in the most insidious way possible: It’s proven to be an absolutely unimpeachable classic of science-fiction canon.

The story centers on Sergeant William Mandella and Corporal Marygay Potter, two soldiers fighting in humanity’s first conflict with an alien opponent. The book begins in the 1990s (which, in retrospect, had very few alien encounters, but the book was written in the 70s), but due to relativistic physics, each foray into alien territory takes William and Marygay further and further from the Earth and way of life they’re familiar with. As technology changes, war rages on, and becomes the only way of life either one can tolerate. Think The Hurt Locker, but with spaceships.

Although the story only has two big action scenes (and a third small one in the middle), the characters and dialogue are more than engaging enough to pull the narrative across over a thousand years of conflict. Watching human society evolve and change into something unrecognizable is downright frightening at times, although the ending provides a satisfying conclusion that makes the entire story worthwhile.

The writing itself is also far beyond reproach. In addition to having a great ear for natural, engrossing dialogue, Haldeman is a master of providing clear, detailed descriptions for the bizarre alien worlds, futuristic technology, and strange customs that the human race comes across. Initially, Haldeman wrote this book as an antiwar allegory for the Vietnam era, but its message still rings true today: War is senseless and ultimately pointless, but if you breed a whole generation of people for it, they won’t know any other way of life.

Of course, the book is not perfect, but most of its criticisms are nitpicks at best. The first forty pages or so contain some good action scenes, but much of the exposition necessary to understand them doesn’t come until after the fact. The middle section of the book can drag, as an event happens about 2/3rds of the way through that makes it seem as though the rest of the plot will be bleak and pointless (thankfully, the ending disproves this notion). There is also some uncomfortable and dated commentary on homosexuality, but it’s not malicious, just a little jarring.

If there’s a better military sci-fi story out there than The Forever War, I am not aware of it. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein is arguably just as good, although if you want something closer tonally, go with The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. This is also a fictionalized account of an author’s experiences in Vietnam, except without the science-fiction veneer.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: Fool Moon

Fool Moon
by Jim Butcher
Roc, 2001
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Mike Thompson and Mike Grace

Fool Moon is the worst kind of book to review. As much as I want to tear it to pieces on a few technical levels, I just can't because I had so much fun reading it. Then again, if you've ever read a Jim Butcher novel before, you pretty much know what you're in for.

If not, here's how Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series works: Harry Dresden is a wizard in modern day Chicago. In fact, he's the only wizard-for-hire in town. While Harry has great magical talent, his business sense is lackluster, so he's always taking odd jobs either for the local police force or the occasional wealthy private citizen. His adventures put him at loggerheads with dark wizards, demons, and the criminal underworld, while exposing him to an ongoing love triangle between a beautiful journalist and a scrappy police lieutenant.

As you can imagine, Harry's adventures are pulpy at best, trashy at worst, and  the kind of book you could very easily read in one sitting if you have a few hours to kill. 

For what it's worth, Jim Butcher is a fairly talented writer, and has a real knack for action scenes, strong characters, and natural dialogue. He's also highly educated and shows it off at regular intervals with references to Shakespeare, Germanic opera, and pop culture from Dracula to Star Trek. Both Butcher as unseen director and Harry as narrator have appealing voices and amiable personalities.

The plot, this time around, involves a series of grisly murders that Harry must investigate, aided by the Chicago police force and an adversarial FBI team. Due to the murders' proximity to the full moon and a number of canine imprints on the bodies, Harry suspects a werewolf as the culprit, and the investigation begins. As expected, there are good guys, bad guys, betrayals, plot twists, and plenty of sex and violence along the way, but it's nothing you couldn't figure out once all the major players have been introduced.

The biggest problem with Fool Moon - and let's not beat around the bush, it's a fairly sizable problem - is with Harry himself. Harry is a bit of a Mary-Sue. He's not an egregious offender, of course - he's not all-powerful, he loses plenty of fights, and he gets banged up pretty badly during his investigation. However, he often keeps the truth to himself, withholding vital information from friends - especially female ones - that, by all rights, might save their lives, or the lives of others. However, Harry feels justified in every deception and rule-bend. If this comes back to bite him in later books, feel free to disregard this whole paragraph, but Harry's dishonesty in the name of chivalry is not a great character trait when played as a positive quality.

Still, Fool Moon is an enjoyable read from start to finish, and keeps the momentum going for The Dresden Files series at large. Since urban fantasy is not my forte, all I can say here is that if you're interested in the genre, you could do much worse than Jim Butcher. Start with Storm Front, as it's the first entry in the series, and should give you a good idea what to expect. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Hyperion

by Dan Simmons
Doubleday, 1989
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by David Martinez

So, it's shameful confession time: I was supposed to read Hyperion back when I was a sophomore in high school. My uncle bought me a paperback copy (you know, way back in the caveman days when we used to read books printed on dead trees. Odd, I know) and insisted that it would be one of the best sci-fi books I ever read. I read the first two chapters, thought they were great, and then promptly put it down to read whatever the latest Star Wars book was.

Please forgive me. I was young and foolish and in love with a movie series that George Lucas had not yet finished ruining.

Anyway, nine years later, I've made it all the way through Hyperion without wanting to put it down once. The book can best be described as a mash-up between Dune and The Canterbury Tales, although it doesn't read very much like either one of them. Yes, the book focuses on a bunch of offworlders who find themselves on a planet caught in-between a population of zealous natives and a hostile invasion force. True, the seven travelers in question each tell very different stories in order to pass the time. However, in spite of its inspirations - which range from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Keats to Asimov - Hyperion is very much an original story, and the world of sci-fi literature is all the better for it.

While there is way too much going on in the story to sum it up neatly, I'll give it a go anyway: seven very different travelers find themselves on a pilgrimage to the world of Hyperion in order to make contact with the Shrike, an incredibly destructive alien presence that they have all come in contact with before in one way or another. They might be able to save the galaxy from a barbarian invasion - or they might just get eviscerated. Either way, they decide to share their stories as they make their way to the mysterious Time Tombs where the Shrike resides.

That's pretty much it. The stories themselves are the main focus, but by piecing together background details, you'll learn exactly what's been going on in the galaxy at large and what role the Shrike might play in the fate of galactic civilization. Each story has a different writing style, ranging from epistolary journal entries to military sci-fi to a film noir detective story. Each character, from the bitter scholar Sol Weintraub to the stoic soldier Fedmahn Kassad, is extremely flawed, but still likable.

The book, however, does have one serious problem, but it's hard to address without going into major spoilers. To keep things as vague as possible, I'll just say that the book has a very unsatisfying ending. There are some important plot points that happen towards the end, but the actual resolution of the book basically amounts to "buy the sequel." There's no real climax, and it ends right before it gets to what promises to be the best part of the story. Read at your own risk, and be sure to set aside another $8 or so for the next installment.

Recommending a "better" book here is tough, as Hyperion is actually one of the better-written, smarter sci-fi tales out there. If you want to know where about half the plot comes from, though, be sure to read Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Actually, read Foundation no matter what. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Book Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
Vintage, 2010
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Erin Donohue

My first exposure to magical realist Haruki Murakami was a short story called "The Dancing Dwarf." In a nutshell, a man who spends his day making elephants (not statues or replicas - actual, real elephants) enlists the help of a malevolent, dancing spirit to help him win a woman's heart. This all happens within the span of about twenty pages, and it's a wild ride from beginning to end. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of Murakami's most recent and best-known novels, is kind of the opposite.

Rest assured, there is some very strange stuff in this book, but you'd never know it from most of the plot developments. Toru Okada, an ordinary man living on the outskirts of Tokyo, sets out to find his missing cat and, in so doing, starts a chain reaction involving Toru's emotionally distant wife, his malicious brother-in-law, a traumatized WWII veteran, a pair of psychic sisters, a death-obsessed high school girl, and a mysterious woman who communicates exclusively through lewd telephone calls. There isn't much of a plot to speak of. It takes almost 300 pages for a real event to set the plot in motion, and another 250 before Toru takes some proactive steps to bring about the climax.

The novel's biggest issues all stem from its main character. While Toru Okada is a charming everyman, he is also one of the most lazy, unambitious, passive leading men this side of the Dude. He doesn't work, he accepts criticism without comment, and nothing seems to anger or excite him. This drags what could have been a concise story into one that's over 600 pages long, with very little actual action happening during that time. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle's pacing is glacial and branches off into nearly irrelevant digressions about side characters frequently.

However, taken as a whole, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle works, despite the fact that without a plot or a compelling main character, it really shouldn't. Murakami's writing (and Jay Rubin's excellent translation) makes Toru's constant stream of thoughts and inaction a joy rather than a slog, and the book's climax and ending make the interminable buildup very nearly worthwhile. The characters (even Toru, to a certain extent) are offbeat and memorable, and when the supernatural elements come into play towards the end, they elevate what could have been a trite suburban drama into a life-or-death adventure.

I don't have a solid recommendation for this one. If you can endure 600 pages of nothing much happening for the promise of good writing and an excellent conclusion, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is definitely a good read. Otherwise, you can find more concise magical realist tales in Murakami's own short story collection, The Elephant Vanishes. Be sure to check out some of Franz Kafka's work as well if you'd like to learn about one of Murakami's biggest influences.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
by Leslie T. Chang
Spiegel & Grau, 2008
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Heather McLellan

Once again, our book review takes us to an exotic, faraway land. This time, instead of le gai Paris, we'll be exploring industrial China. Leslie T. Chang, an intrepid American reporter, writes the best kind of nonfiction in Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China: namely, the kind that has no bias other than "what information will make the best story?" While Chang's book can be both fun and frustrating in equal measure, there is a ton of stuff to learn here, and almost all of it is worthwhile.

Factory Girls, at first blush, is most comparable to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Instead of early 20th-century Chicago, however, Chang's book focuses on modern-day Dongguan, China. Originally an out-of-the-way farmland, Dongguan has transformed into an industrial powerhouse over the last half-century. Powered by the insatiable lust for electronics and clothing in the West, as well as the cheap, inexhaustible supply of migrant workers from the Chinese countryside, Dongguan is now home to millions of young women who are making their own fortunes and dictating their own destinies. Part capitalist exhortation and part exposé, Chang documents these young women as they move from job to job, boyfriend to boyfriend, and city to farm and back again.

First and foremost, Chang's writing style is a nonfiction writer's dream come true, most closely resembling the works of V.S. Naipaul, but channeling her fair share of Sinclair and Orwell, too. Most of Dongguan's fast-paced tribulations come through the eyes of Chunming and Min, two factory girls whom Chang befriends early on to act as her eyes and ears in the factories, schools, ice cream shops, and governmental bureaucracies in the sprawling Chinese city.

Even as the two describe fairly abysmal working conditions - twelve-hour days with little overtime pay and only two days off each month - Factory Girls never devolves into a polemic. In fact, Chang takes time to point out how much these conditions have improved in the last twenty years, how much fun the girls are able to cram in after-hours, and how their newfound relative wealth gives them a considerable amount of social power, both in dealing with their families and potential suitors. Make no mistake - you probably wouldn't want to work in a Dongguan factory, but if you were a young Chinese woman whose only frame of reference was an idle, rural life, this would be the most exciting adventure imaginable.

The book falters, however, when Chang digresses into her own family history, which she intersperses into the narrative with increasing frequency. It's understandable that Chang, a born-and-bred American citizen who has little innate connection to China beyond her racial heritage, would want to learn more about her past. However, the links between Chang's family drama during the Communist revolution and the China's current industrialization are tenuous, at best, and the stories about Min and Chunming are frankly much more interesting. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, these sections take up a good 1/3 - 1/2 of the book.

In spite of a few boring patches, Factory Girls is well worth a read for anyone who's interested in Chinese culture, the power dynamics of women in China, or good reporting in general. At this point, I usually recommend a "better" book, but I'm not sure there really is one here. Both The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell deal with similar situations in the West in the early 20th century, and while both are better written, neither one explores Chang's subject matter. This is a book primarily meant to educate, and unless you are a leading expert on Chinese culture, you'll probably learn a lot.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: The Paris Wife

All right, guys and gals, let's dive into another book review!

The Paris Wife
by Paula McLain
Ballantine Books, 2011
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Debbi Honorof

Those of you who know me can probably already see how this review is going to play out in your head. I have no problem stating that, in general, literary fiction and women's lit do absolutely nothing for me; The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is both. McLain tells the true story of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first wife, and that makes all the difference.

Make no mistake: The Paris Wife, from a writing and storytelling standpoint, is not so different from any other women's lit book you'd pick up off the shelf. McLain's style is concise, straightforward, and eminently readable, and her tale is one of a small-town girl who falls in love with a very unusual man, marries him, and eventually divorces him when their relationship sours. Hadley herself is not a fascinating protagonist by any means, but her unique relationship with Ernest Hemingway gives readers a chance to meet the man through a biased but fair observer.

As the title suggests, The Paris Wife is a novel that centers on Ernest and Hadley's time in Paris in the early 1920s. The actual meat and potatoes of the plot are nothing to write home about. Hadley spends most of the novel walking, swimming, making love, dining with friends, or fighting with her husband. McLain throws a curveball towards the end in the form of an affair that very nearly turns into a nontraditional marriage, but ruins the surprise somewhat by setting this turn of events up in the prologue. To put it succinctly, if Hadley had to carry this book on her own - despite McLain's reasonable approximation of her psyche and voice, and meticulous attention to factual detail - it would be a lost cause.

Ernest Hemingway's character, however, infuses the book with a spark that helps carry it from beginning to end. Even though it would be very easy to cast Ernest as either an immortal artist who was far too good for Hadley or an irredeemable scumbag who cheated on his wife, McLain instead opts for a middle path. In The Paris Wife, Ernest usually means well, but he can be petty, mean-tempered, selfish, and egotistical. At the same time, he is loving, generous, well-meaning, and adventurous. Throughout all of his violent mood swings and poor life choices, McLain maintains - probably correctly - that his unusual lifestyle was critical to his value as an artist. Even if Hadley had been happier if Ernest had been a well-adjusted individual, the world would have been poorer for it. Tragedy breeds great art.

The book's biggest issue, aside from its occasionally glacial pacing and bog-standard writing style, is that there's not much reason to read this book instead of an actual Ernest Hemingway novel. Much of Hemingway's work is somewhat autobiographical, and, with no offense intended to McLain, Hemingway's work was much more ambitious. Even so, The Paris Wife is fundamentally a good book, its only real crime being that it invites comparison to much better ones.

For female readers who want a lightweight introduction to the Hemingway canon, The Paris Wife is probably as good a place to start as any. Those who are fearless, however, would be wiser to challenge themselves a bit and start with something like Death in the Afternoon, which covers some of the same subject matter with a writing style that will either make you swoon with joy or tear your hair out with frustration. Only one way to find out!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: The Guy's Guide to Feminism

I turned 25 about three weeks ago, and so far, I've got no regrets. My birthday was fairly low-key, but I got to see my family and friends, drink some good beer, eat some good food, and get a few small gifts. Birthdays get more extravagant, I'm sure, but it's hard to see how they get better.

One of my gifts was a $100 gift card for Barnes & Noble, which is good, because I had just finished the last book on my nook wishlist. Now, I could have just bought the next ten books in the series I've been reading (more on Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child in another post, I'm sure), but I decided to try something new. $100 buys roughly ten eBooks, so I opened up the floor for recommendations. I would take the first ten eBook recommendations that my friends offered me, and read them front to back, no questions asked. This way, instead of reading my usual Orwell/Hemingway/O'Brien/McCarthy/sci-fi trhillers, I could expand my horizons a bit and see what else was out there.

But, I decided, why stop there? My friends were thoughtful enough to share their recommendations with me, so I feel like the least I could do to repay the favor would be to let them know what I thought. So, without any further ado, I present the first review:

The Guy's Guide to Feminism
by Michael Kaufman & Michael Kimmel
Seal Press, 2011
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by John Funk

Speaking as someone who works in the games industry, feminism is a hot topic these days. It seems that we can't go two weeks without some new scandal cropping up about the role of women in gaming, whether as protagonists, content producers, or players. Given that it's such a big part of the discussion surrounding nerd culture lately, just what is feminism? Should men be feminists, too? Does feminism adequately address the needs of all women? How does it tie into concepts like racism and homophobia?

Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel set out to answer these and many other questions in their 2011 book The Guy's Guide to Feminism. They buoy a tough topic with engaging writing, a wide breadth of information, and a few legitimately funny jokes.

Unfortunately, that is literally all they do right.

The Guy's Guide to Feminism does so much wrong that it's actually insulting to read. For starters, the book opens up with an egregious anti-joke. The authors set up a situation where a rabbi, a minister, and an imam are having coffee. A Buddhist monk walks in. This sounds like a setup for comic gold, but instead of a corny punchline, all we get is a three-page treatise on why women feel angry about their place in the modern world, full of righteous indignation and sedate, respectful exchanges.

With all due respect to Drs. Kaufman and Kimmel, who are obviously gifted writers and smart men, their book is often incendiary and wrongheaded. Take, for example, their section on Emotion. Kaufman and Kimmel argue that the only emotion that men are "allowed" to convey in modern society is anger, and that other emotions - save for rare flashes of happiness, grief, or compassion - are bottled up behind a layer of stoicism because of outdated ideas of masculinity. Feminism, they argue, will improve the role of men, because it will allow them to be more in touch with their emotions.

This sounds like a good argument until you think about it for a moment. The whole point of feminism, as I understand it, is to point out the absurdity of many "predefined" gender roles. If that is the case, then Kimmel and Kaufman have absolutely no right to dictate how men should and shouldn't comport themselves (save for the obvious anti-violence and tolerance angles, of course). If men want to be emotional and open, that's certainly their prerogative, but it is also my prerogative to think they should be a little more restrained. Neither one of us is "right," but Kaufman and Kimmel make an impassioned argument for why my view is "wrong." That is not the way to win supporters.

The sections on Pornography and XX/XY (a short primer on male/female biology) are perhaps the most reprehensible. They both feature conversations between imaginary men and women; in both cases, the men are absolute ignoramuses who need the wise, reasoned woman to show them the light of feminism. Just once in the book, it would be nice to see a man and a woman converse when the man isn't absolutely wrong and the woman is absolutely right, but sadly, this never happens. There is, apparently, a lot men can learn from women, but nothing women can learn from men. This is an extraordinarily bleak way to look at the world.

The books failings are too numerous to list, but as a few examples, Title IX did bankrupt many successful collegiate men's sports teams, rape is often motivated by sexual desire rather than a power struggle, and there are biological differences between men and women that go beyond genitalia. If you don't believe me, look them up; the authors did not.

To be fair, some of the sections are fantastic, especially Chivalry (chivalry isn't dead!), Dads (dads should be given paid leave to take care of kids, too), and Fundamentalism (religious fundamentalism is not compatible with a modern worldview, period). It's a shame that they are short and tend to taper off just as the authors bring up interesting points.

While the author's sources are as solid as solid gets, they do not actually match specific statements to citations, opting instead to give a reference list for each chapter as a whole. This is not particularly helpful, and brings many of their conclusions into question.

There's no doubt in my mind that feminism is a useful philosophy and that the authors behind this book are stand-up guys; that much is evident in the way they try to celebrate hardworking men and women of all races and sexual orientations. It's a shame that the book does not deliver on its intriguing premise, too often falling victim to strawman arguments and the idea of shared guilt instead.

As always, if you want to learn the real deal about men, women, and the overall evolution of culture, I recommend The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins instead. This is not even remotely a book about gender studies, and yet it still has more of substance to say about why men and women grew to occupy different places in society, and why such ideas are now outdated.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Receipt for that Popular Mystery

If I asked you to list Gilbert and Sullivan operas, you could probably come up with three off the top of your head: H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. Did you know that they actually wrote 11 more? It's true! From the outdated feminist critique Princess Ida to the heartbreaking grand opera The Yeomen of the Guard, there's a lot more to Gilbert and Sullivan than high seas mischief and execution antics. With that in mind, let's talk about Patience.

Patience tells the story of Reginald Bunthorne, an Aesthetic (capital A) poet ever-so-loosely based on Oscar Wilde, who falls in love with a simple milkmaid named Patience. While all of the women in town fall madly in love with Bunthorne's pretentious poetry and artistic attitude, Patience remains unimpressed. Things only get worse when her old flame, Archibald Grovesnor, comes to town and steals the affections of Patience - and every other girl in town!

With catchy music, an incisively funny libretto, and some very memorable characters, Patience is a thoroughly charming opera, in spite of a surprise downer ending. My favorite piece comes from the Colonel of the Heavy Dragoons. You see, before the women fell madly in love with Bunthorne (and later, Grovesnor), they were engaged to be married to a squadron of soldiers. When the soldiers return, they sing a song to introduce themselves.

The Heavy Dragoon (also called "If You Want a Receipt for that Popular Mystery") is a patter song in the style of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" or "My Name is John Wellington Wells." These songs are characterized by fast tempos and tongue-twisting rhyme schemes. In this piece, the Colonel lists a number of historical figures whom the dragoons aim to emulate. In this post, I would like to explain who each one is. So, without any further ado:

"The Heavy Dragoon"
by William Schwenck Gilbert

If you want a receipt for that popular mystery,
Known to the world as a Heavy Dragoon,
Take all the remarkable people in history,
Rattle them off to a popular tune!

  • A "heavy dragoon" is an armored footsoldier

The pluck of LORD NELSON on board of the VICTORY -
Genius of BISMARCK devising a plan;The humour of FIELDING (which sounds contradictory) -
Coolness of PAGET about to trepan -

  • Horatio Nelson, aboard the HMS Victory, was a British naval hero
  • Otto von BIsmarck was the founder of modern Germany
  • Henry Fielding was a humorous British novelist
  • James Paget was a British surgeon (trepanning is a medical procedure)
The grace of MOZART, that unparalleled musico -
Wit of MACAULAY, who wrote of QUEEN ANNE -
The pathos of PADDY, as rendered by BOUCICAULT -

  • OK, you should know who Mozart is
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay was an English baron, and wrote biographies of royalty like Queen Anne of England
  • Dion Boucicault was an Irish playwright; Paddy was a character in a song he wrote
  • The Bishop of Sodor and Man was a man named Rowley Hills, DD when Patience premiered
The dash of a D'ORSAY, divested of quackery -
Narrative powers of DICKENS and THACKERAY -

  • Alfred d'Orsay was a French dandy
  • Dickens? Come on now
  • W.M. Thackery was a British novelist
  • Victor Emmanuel was the first king of modern Italy
  • William Peveril was a knight who built a hilltop castle
  • Thomas Aquinas was a Catholic priest and philosopher
  • Henry Sacheverell was an English politician
  • Martin Tupper was an English poet
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson was an English poet
  • Daniel Defoe was a British novelist
  • Anthony Trollope was a British novelist
  • François Guizot was a French historian
Take of these elements all that is fusible,
Melt 'em all down in a pipkin or crucible,
Set 'em to simmer and take off the scum,
And a Heavy Dragoon is the residuum!

  • A pipkin is a small cooking pot
  • Residuum is a fancy word for residue
If you want a receipt for this soldierlike paragon,
Get at the wealth of the CZAR (if you can) -
The family pride of a Spaniard from Arragon -
Force of MEPHISTO pronouncing a ban -

  • The czar was the ruler of Russia
    • Aragon was a lawful Spanish kingdom
    • Mephisto is the demon from Doctor Faustus
    A smack of LORD WATERFORD, reckless and rollicky -
    Swagger of RODERICK, heading his clan -
    The keen penetration of PADDINGTON POLLAKY -
    Grace of an Odalisque on a divan -
    • Lord Waterford was a nobleman who coined "painting the town red"
    • Roderick was a Gothic king who lived in Spain
    • Paddington Pollaky was a Hungarian private detective (and forerunner of Sherlock Holmes!)
    • An Odalisque was a Turkish concubine
    The genius strategic of CAESAR or HANNIBAL -
    Skill of LORD WOLSELEY in thrashing a cannibal -
    Flavour of HAMLET - the STRANGER, a touch of him -
    Little of MANFRED (but not very much of him) -
    Beadle of Burlington - RICHARDSON'S show -
    • Caesar was the title of a Roman emperor, so this could be a number of people
    • Hannibal was a Carthaginian who attempted to invade Rome
    • Lord Wolseley was a British soldier who served in the far reaches of the world
    • Manfred was the hero of Lord Byron's epic poem of the same name
    • The Beadle of Burlington was a security guard who patrolled the Burlington arcade
    • Richardson's show was a sort of traveling Victorian circus
    • Wilkins Micawber was a character from Charles Dickens's David Copperfield
    • Marie Tussaud was a wax sculptor who founded a museum
    Take of these elements all that is fusible -
    Melt 'em all down in a pipkin or crucible -
    Set 'em to simmer and take off the scum,
    And a Heavy Dragoon is the residuum! 

    And that's that! Why not take a listen to the song for yourself? Try to follow along with all the shout-outs.

    Big thanks to the Patience Glossary for helping me out on a few head-scratchers.

    Tuesday, January 10, 2012

    The Curious Case of Courtesy

    After two and a half months, I felt that the “Welcome” sign was out of date.

    In October 2011, following a tumultuous summer, I started a fantastic medical writing job in downtown NYC. Like all new employees, I felt a volatile but potent mixture of trepidation and anticipation, but a sign on my desk helped to calm my nerves. “Welcome, Marshall Honorof.”

    Now that I had been at the company long enough to know most of the job’s ins and outs, a woman I work with suggested that it was time for the welcome sign to go. “Empty desk, empty mind,” she said, and I tended to agree. There were three things I knew I wanted to put up right away: my souvenir Sherlock Holmes “Baker Street” plate, my Heroic Age Avengers poster, and my black belt certificate.

    I started taekwondo my freshman year of college, and it’s fair to say that it has had a tremendously positive impact on my life. Taekwondo (literally, “the way of the hand and foot”) is a Korean martial art that focuses on quick strikes, balance, and kicking. Martial arts facilitated my transformation from fat to slender, and from socially inept to outgoing and friendly. Taekwondo taught me physical focus, mental discipline, and how to open doors with my feet. Receiving my black belt in 2008 was one of my proudest accomplishments, and since then, I’ve displayed each new black belt certificate where people could see it.

    After I took down the “welcome” sign and made my desk a little more personal, I called the woman over to see. As a fan of Asian pop culture, I figured that she would get a particular kick out of seeing that I, too, had incorporated a part of the Far East into my life.

    She looked over the Avengers poster and the Baker Street plate for a few seconds, then her eyes settled on the black belt certificate. “I’d take that down,” she said, pointing to it. I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right.

    “Why?” I asked.

    She shrugged. “It’s weird and bragging.” She stayed for a few more minutes to talk over an assignment we were working on, then returned to her desk.

    “Heartbroken” is too strong a word, but I think it’s fair to say that I was crestfallen. Over the course of the day, I sought input on the matter from The Escapist newsroom team, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers. Everyone seemed to think that keeping the certificate up was reasonable; it was, after all, no different from hanging up a diploma or a photo of a particularly accomplished son or daughter.

    As I thought about it, though, a question occurred to me: is there a place for a certificate in the taekwondo canon? I was willing to accept that the certificate was “weird.” The accusation of being weird is one that I’ve dealt with for over two decades, and I’ve learned that all it takes to be weird is to do something that most people don’t do. You can be weird by liking science fiction, or you can be weird by spending your evenings leaping through the air to kick 80-pound bags. In the sense that having a black belt is abnormal, yes, it is very weird.

    However, the “bragging” part of her comment hit a little harder. If it’s true, and hanging up a certificate is a form of bragging, it runs counter to everything that students of taekwondo – especially advanced belts – hold dear. Taekwondo embraces five basic tenets:

    1. Courtesy
    2. Integrity
    3. Perseverance
    4. Self-control
    5. Indomitable spirit

    Each one of these could be a post in and of itself, but for now, just think of these like Maslow’s pyramid. Indomitable spirit is the most important tenet of taekwondo, but it is impossible to have indomitable spirit without self-control. It is impossible to have self-control without perseverance, and so forth. Courtesy, then, is the bedrock of the entire discipline.

    In the dojang (training hall), courtesy refers mostly to decorum, such as bowing to flags and addressing black belts as “sir.” In the outside world, this principle applies to every interaction with other people. Speak clearly and respectfully, even to those who antagonize you. Show respect to everyone you meet – superior, subordinate, friend, family, coworker, or stranger, everyone deserves your best foot forward. Most importantly, follow the Golden Rule and treat people as you would want to be treated.

    Some schools have added a sixth tenet called either “modesty” or “humility.” The idea is basically right out of Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility. Taekwondo is not for showing off, or feeling superior to anyone. Never lord your accomplishments over another individual.

    The more I think about it, though, the more I see this added tenet as superfluous. Courtesy, when practiced correctly, includes humility. Bragging about one’s abilities (or worse, one’s belt ranking) or using your own knowledge to make another person feel inferior is, to put it bluntly, being a dick. That is in no way concordant with the tenets of taekwondo.

    On the other hand, consider “integrity,” a more advanced tenet. I am legitimately proud of what I’ve accomplished through my study of martial arts. Taekwondo has helped me become more physically fit, more outgoing, less confrontational, and, most importantly, less arrogant. In short, a certificate is not a representation of how many boards I’ve broken, how many times I’ve been knocked to the ground, or how high I can land a jump kick. It’s a reminder – sometimes a very humbling one – that I’ve come a long way from the boy I used to be.

    When the woman at work suggested that I take the poster down, I replied, “It’s who I am.” All I meant, on a conscious level, was that the certificate has my name on it, so it’s easy to tell which desk is mine. Completely by accident, it turns out I may have hit the nail on the head.

    Monday, January 9, 2012

    Introductions and Whatnot

    Some of you are probably wondering why this blog is called Helicopter Kick. Let's get that out of the way right off the bat:

    Yes, that's me kicking a helicopter. No, it's not Photoshopped or otherwise enhanced. The story behind this is actually not that interesting. Want to know what is interesting, though? Me - but only every once in a while.

    I've been writing on the Internet for a few years now. Some of you may be familiar with my previous blog, The Chronology Nut. This was a fun project where I followed fictional series in chronological order from an in-universe perspective, rather than the order in which they were released (think Star Wars). Over the course of many months, I worked my way through Castlevania, The Chronicles of Narnia, Rocky, and Warcraft with reasonable speed and fidelity. The project was a ton of fun, and between you and me, I have a fair amount of Assassin's Creed content sitting in storage. Why, then, did I stop?

    This probably merits a post in and of itself, but more of you probably know me through my work at The Escapist. I've been working freelance for this great magazine since March 2011, and currently work as a News Correspondent for them. I try to get up one article every weekday, so if you like gaming, it's worth a read. This is where I've done most of my writing for the last few months, and the reason why my old blog fell by the wayside.

    During my time at The Chronology Nut and The Escapist, I've avoided writing about myself as much as possible. This isn't because I'm a private person or have anything to hide; I'm extremely easy to track down on Facebook and Twitter, and those pretty much contain my life story told in minuscule chunks. When I write about games or books or movies, though, I don't want to take the focus away from the topic at hand. I want to write about the content, not my relationship to it.

    Now and then, though, I'll get an interesting idea that's too long for a Tweet and too obscure for a full-length news post or article. Think of this blog as a way to bridge the gap between those two extremes. During your time here, you can expect to see posts about the following (in no particular order):

    • Taekwondo
    • J.R.R. Tolkien
    • Science (especially astronomy and mammalogy)
    • Star Wars and Star Trek
    • Ernest Hemingway
    • Atheism, agnosticism, secularism, humanism, freethinking, or whatever you like to call "good without God"
    • My nascent relationship with Doctor Who
    • Gilbert and Sullivan
    • Nonfiction writing, both as an art and a profession
    • Whatever else I think you might find interesting

    If this sounds like your cup of tea, I'll do my best to keep you entertained. If not, well, thanks for stopping by, but now off you go! There's a whole Internet out there to explore.

    By the way, I doubt there will be a solid update schedule for a while, but stay tuned tomorrow for my first substantive post, in which we explore the role of humility in martial arts. There's drama, I promise! And superheroes.