Getting My Scone Fix

Debbi’s actually the one who’s been all about scones these past few years, ever since Costco had some orange cranberry scones she really liked. Sadly, they only had them for a few months, and we’ve never seen them since.

However, she bought some scone mix from Iveta Gourmet (just down the freeway in Santa Cruz), and we both like their scones a lot. Debbi is actually quite amused at just how much I like them! (I especially like the chocolate chip scones!)

We just received a large order from them yesterday, and we’re going to try one each of their biscuit and muffin mixes. But right now (as in, “we’re baking some right now”) we’re all about the scones!

Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife

Review of the novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a fascinating, thought-provoking, and emotional book about a couple who are drawn together because of, and stay together despite, a crippling science-fictional condition one of them possesses. It has its flaws, but I can genuinely say that it held my attention all the way through (and despite its length it’s actually a pretty fast read), and that I’ve kept thinking about it for days after finishing it.

Henry DeTamble is the man with the condition: From time to time he unwillingly disappears from wherever he is and reappears at some other time and place. Nothing comes with him – he arrives naked – and he has no control over when it happens or where he ends up. He has a tendency to travel to places near where he was in “normal time” at that point in time, or near where his wife Clare was, and he typically travels into the past, although not always. Henry’s condition is genetic. His parents were both musicians, although his mother died when he was young and his father was disconsolate from that point on, leaving Henry largely on his own, growing up among American punk culture in the 1970s and becoming a librarian in the 1980s. His condition can be life-threatening, as appearing stark naked in some locations without warning (say, in the middle of a freeway) can be quite dangerous. Henry is a running freak, since, as he points out, his survival frequently hinges on his being able to run faster or longer than other people.

His wife, Clare Abshire, is the daughter of a wealthy family in Michigan. She meets Henry for the first time when he appears in a field near her house when she is six years old, and they become friends during his irregular visits throughout her childhood. Henry, on the other hand, first mets Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, when she runs into him at the library. She of course knows a lot about him, while he’s extricating himself from a bad relationship and has never seen her before.

The novel is the story of their romance, and how they each cope with his condition: Henry’s problems are obvious, but Clare has to deal with his regular disappearances, not know where he’s gone, how long he’ll be, or what condition he’ll be in when he returns. The story is narrated by Clare and Henry each, in the present tense, and with sections detailing the date and their respective ages at the time (important due to Henry’s travels). The first half of the book focuses on Clare meeting Henry, and Henry meeting Clare. The second half concerns their married life and destiny.

Niffenegger has pretty cleverly worked out the timeline of Henry and Clare’s lives, and everything holds together in a consistent fashion. She does a fine job of addressing the paradoxes of time travel, positing a universe in which the past cannot be changed, nor can the known future, and the characters discuss this philosophically from time to time. While she keeps things simple by not having the characters lie to each other (at least, not to purposely try to change things), the intellectual character of Henry’s condition works well and is rewarding.

The book seems mis-named, however, since the story is really more Henry’s than Clare’s: Henry is a more fully-realized character, he’s the one who is more squarely in danger, and his reactions seem more visceral and believable. Clare always seems like a bit of a tabula rasa, an extension of Henry but not a lot more than that. She’s an artist, but that has almost no impact on the story. While The Time Traveler’s Wife implies that the book is about how Clare deals with Henry’s condition, it’s really about how Henry deals with Henry’s condition, and how he tries to shield and protect Clare, and help enrich her life despite his handicap. This is not to say that Clare is selfish or unlikeable, she’s just not as well-drawn as Henry.

(I kept finding it very odd that Henry is a big fan of the American punk rock scene, since I hate punk rock. But, oh well!)

The book’s plot is fairly straightforward, as it becomes clear that in 2006 something is going to happen, and the larger story concerns the couple living their lives as they head towards that time. But there are many episodes along the way which provide the real meat of the story: Clare falling in love with Henry as a teenager and trying to seduce him, Henry being overwhelmed by Clare when he first meets her, Henry meeting Clare’s family, Clare meeting Henry’s father, their marriage, Henry trying to find medical help for his problem, their attempts to have children. Many of these have some really clever elements to them: The wedding in particular is quite cool.

Despite Clare’s shortcomings as a character, the relationship between Henry and Clare is very powerful, especially since Henry is such an emotional character, deeply conflicted about many of his relationships, but wholly devoted to Clare. By the book’s final third, their love and their pain are both crystal-clear and fully drive the events which close the book.

I was disappointed in the ending, though. I think Niffenegger missed an opportunity to surprise and delight us in the ending, and thereby craft a better story. I’ll comment more about it after a spoiler warning down below.

Is the book science fiction, or fantasy? I say the former. While Henry’s condition has no scientific explanation, the spirit of the book is one of rational exploration of the bounds and ramifications of Henry’s condition. Well-regarded SF novels such as those of Vernor Vinge (Marooned in Realtime and A Fire Upon The Deep) have similarly-implausible premises, but take a rationalistic approach to working with them. More than the scientific nuts-and-bolts of the backdrop, I think that sort of attitude makes a book solidly science fiction, rather than fantasy.

Despite its flaws, The Time Traveler’s Wife really is a terrific read, a very good example of crafting a “high concept” story, and I think much more successful than its near-contemporary in “mainstream fantasy”, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It may not get my highest recommendation, but I think you’ll be glad you read it.

Spoiler comments about the ending follow:

Continue reading “Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife”

Magic Tournament

One thing I probably haven’t mentioned much in 9 years of journalling is that I was once sucked into the maw of Magic: The Gathering, the original collectible card game often referred to as “gamer crack”. (See also the Wikipedia article.)

For me, it started in November 1995 when I broke up with my girlfriend at the time, and some of my friends in Madison hauled me out to Gene‘s house and introduced me to Magic. I played regularly until around 1998, and a very little bit (mostly with Ceej) when I moved to California, but haven’t really played in years. By contrast, Subrata and Mark started playing before me. This mostly means that the decks I played with were considerably newer than – and often less powerful than – those Subrata and Mark played with. So we have fairly different memories of playing. Subrata, at least, actually played in Magic tournaments, while I just played with friends.

For those of you who might be Magic geeks, when I started playing the set Ice Age had been released the previous summer, so that was mainly what I played with. The Chronicles and Homelands expansions were also available, and Fallen Empires – which had apparently been wildly overprinted – was available everywhere at deep discounts. While I played, I picked up the expansions Alliances, Mirage, Visions, Weatherlight, and Tempest, and then decided I basically had enough cards. I only ever played under the Fourth and Fifth Edition rules. I guess the game has changed rather a lot since those days.

I remember my then-cow-orker Mike and I went in on a box of Mirage booster packs, which cost us about $90 (i.e., $45 each), and we spent several hours after work going through all the packs exploring the cards and trading back and forth until we’d split them fairly evenly. Ah, fond memories. I still have all my cards, since it’s a good game, and I figured I would still play it from time to time.

Anyway, I bring all this up because Subrata put together a day of Magic gaming last Saturday: He had seven other people come over, and we had a booster draft from three booster packs (two Ice Age and one Mirage), and then we assembled decks (with whatever land we wanted) and played for a few hours. I’d never done this sort of deck construction before, and it was actually a lot of fun. I ended up with a mainly black-and-green deck, with a touch of blue.

Playing went somewhat less well, because I had a number of expensive creatures which were pretty good if I could get them out, but the deck was susceptible to faster decks. So I had a couple of successful games, but got pretty badly pounded in my other matches. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about deck construction, so I’m clearly just very rusty.

On the bright side, I did get to meet a couple of people who are still active Magic players, and they’re even on my floor at work! One of them said they sometimes get together for booster draft evenings or weekend games, and asked if I’d be interested. I said I would, as time permits. I don’t necessarily want to get on the Magic roller-coaster again, but I wouldn’t mind playing that sort of game from time to time.

Besides which, for all that Magic has the reputation of being a big money sink, I would have to buy one hell of a lot of cards for it to come anywhere close to my comic book habit! And I am curious now what some of the recent sets have been like…

Rating the Las Vegas Poker Tournaments

This is pretty neat for those of us who play poker and visit Las Vegas: A day-by-day list of Las Vegas poker tournaments, with difficulty ratings. (The sidebar has links to similar pages for other locales. None yet for northern California.)

For reference, here’s a map of hotel-casinos on the Strip.

The patience factor and skill levels referenced in those tables are interesting: “Low-skill” tournaments are ones which have rapidly increasing blinds and are much more affected by luck, while “high-skill” tournaments last longer and provide more opportunity for skilled players to gain an edge through smart play. Which makes sense if you think about it. Moreover, it seems like the high-skill tournaments tend to be more expensive to enter, which also makes sense since the poker rooms need to charge more for the expected hourly use of their tables by the tournament.

(Via Wil Wheaton.)

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 4 January 2007.

And this week it really was a haul:

Manhunter is an acclaimed ongoing series about a Los Angeles lawyer who gets tired of super-villains going free for various reasons, and decides to take the law into her own hands by lifting some superpowered gadgets she has access to and playing vigilante by night. While it’s “acclaimed”, it hasn’t sold very well, and was nearly cancelled last year, but reader outcry caused DC to revive it. This kerfuffle was enough to make me decide to try it out, and my shop got a copy of the first collected volume this week, since the second volume, Trial By Fire, just came out.

It’s okay, but not great. Penciller Jesus Saiz does a fine job drawing both Kate Spencer’s everyday life and her extracurricular adventuring. Writer Marc Andreyko’s scripts, though, are rather haphazard: Kate’s broken family life hits us over the head. The source of her weapons is shown to subtly that it’s hard to believe (why didn’t anyone know the stuff was missing and put two and two together?). For the book’s supposed realism, chain-smoking lawyer Kate is surprisingly athletic and skilled in combat. And Kate is certainly not a likeable protagonist. (In fact, everyone in the book is rather unlikeable.)

And yet, despite these rough edges, I can see the attraction of the book, that it might develop into something with more depth and texture, and that this volume is merely the set-up for more interesting stories down the road. I’ll check out the second volume and let you know what I think.

This is the first issue of All-Star Superman to come out since I started this journal. To the extent that the series has a premise, it concerns Superman before he was rebooted in the 1980s, finding out that his cells have been overloaded by sunlight and that he’s going to die sometime soon. So writer Grant Morrison gets to put the classic incarnation of Superman in some unusual situations as a result. Each issue only advances the story a little bit, though, and it reads more like a set of standalone stories. This issue sees several of Superman’s descendents coming back to the beginning of his career to meet him and fight a time-eating Chronovore who arrives in Smallville.

I’ve never been a big fan of writer Grant Morrison: I think he’s a great idea man, but his characterizations border on nil and his dialogue often feels stilted and ridiculous. I think he’s basically the same writer he was when he broke into American comics back in the 1980s, and frankly I have never really seen what all the hubbub is about. Honestly, I think his best work was his run on JLA a decade ago. All-Star Superman is largely more of the same: Inventive. Loud. Emotionally void.

I’ve never been a big fan of Quitely’s art, either. Mainly I feel that most of his characters’ faces look the same, and often they look downright inhuman. His renderings of Lana Lang and Pete Ross here are completely unrecognizable and kind of grotesque. He also seems to skimp on the backgrounds, which is really clear in this issue, which takes place in Kansas. His basic antatomy is quite strong, but while anatomy is a necessary element of a good artist, it’s not sufficient.

I keep trying out Morrison’s comics because he’s a great idea man, but All-Star Superman is not one of his better outings. Of course, neither was Seven Soldiers. And both of these opinions seem to put me in the minority of comics bloggers.

newuniversal #2 shows us that the original New Universe series was actually in-continuity, and it does so in that very Warren Ellis-esque way. Kinda neat.

If you’re a fan of medieval fantasy, give Artesia a look. I’m not a fan of the subgenre, and I enjoy it: Artesia begins as a concubine for a king in a remote hills country, but for various reasons she overthrows her king and siezes power for herself, and then gets caught up in a major invasion of her land by armies from the south. It’s at its best when it’s dealing with the characters of Artesia and her supporting cast. Writer/artist Mark Smylie has a tendency to introduce way too many characters at times, and focus more on Artesia’s position as a character of destiny and less on her as an actual character, so motivations and feelings tend to get lost in the shuffle. The series is uneven. Smylie’s a terrific artist, though, especially in his figure designs and ability to draw large battle scenes, which are often stunning.

I really need to sit down and read the whole thing at once to reacquaint myself with all of the details and see if I appreciate it more.

These two volumes are new hardcover collections of the first two mini-series. They look like nice packages, although the first volume has a big, yellow “Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award Winner” badge on the front cover, marring the artwork. They couldn’t have put this on the back cover, or used a removable sticker? Sheesh!

Kane is a noirish police series by Paul Grist. Grist published 30+ issues of the black-and-white series in the 90s, and then put it on hold to work on Jack Staff. Grist has a simple but capable style with strong use of light and shadow and interesting panel layouts. I can imagine it wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for me. His writing has the signature note of playing with time perception, leaping between events that take place at widely different points in time (and sometimes in dream) without warning. When it works – as when Kane is flashing back to confronting his on-the-take partner – it’s very cool. Grist vastly overuses the stunt, though, which has made Jack Staff nearly unreadable at times. Kane is still pretty nifty, though, mainly because the characters are all playing different games with different motivations, and that transcends the sometimes-awkward storytelling. (Grist has a nice, warped sense of humor, too.)

If you’re a fan of character-driven police shows such as Homicide (as opposed to today’s never-ending crop of procedurals), then give Kane a try. Start with the first volume, Greetings From New Eden.

Finally (whew!), Richard Moore’s Boneyard is another series on an irregular schedule, although supposedly Moore has had some (as he puts it) setbacks recently which have slowed down his production of the series. This is a very fun comic, and it’s one of the few that Debbi reads. Our hero, Michael Paris, inherits a plot of rural land which happens to hold a graveyard. An, uh, inhabited graveyard. The series is mostly about Paris’ relationships with the inhabitants of the graveyard, especially the vampire, Abbey, to whom he is attracted (and it’s reciprocated). The gang has a few supernatural adversaries who pop up from time to time as well.

It’s fun, and has been collected by NBM in several volumes. Annoyingly, we seem to have the choice between full-size black-and-white volumes, or small-size color volumes. I go with the B&W volumes. If they ever produce full-sized color volumes, I’ll switch to those.

(Can you tell that it bugs the heck out of me when creators or publishers make unfortunate decisions about the format of an otherwise-handsome collection? All I can do is vote with my pocketbook, or complain about it here, so that’s what I do.)

Whew. And with that, it’s time to collapse.

Closing the Collapse Gap

Interesting article: Closing the Collapse Gap. It works from the premise that the US economy is likely to collapse in the not-too-distant future, and compares how well prepared the US is for such a collapse with how well prepared the Soviet Union was. (Summary: The US doesn’t do as well as the Soviets on that score.)

It’s a chilling read, and seems a plausible line of reasoning if the economy does collapse. (I know nothing more about the author or web site than that, but I don’t think the author needs any particular credibility to judge the plausibility of his presentation.)

I will admit that I basically have my head stuck in the sand when it comes to the prospect of the US collapsing (economically, politically, or otherwise). I don’t think a collapse is imminent, but I think it’s likely that sometime in the next hundred years the US will have to change or die. If nothing else, I think a hundred-year horizon should see us to the end of accessible oil reserves, and that will force some sort of fundamental change. Living as I am at the top of the world consumption curve (and if working at a major high-tech company isn’t the top of the consumption curve, then I don’t know what is), I realize that I personally am not well-prepared for such a collapse. That’s probably a big part of why I don’t like to think about it. 🙂

I think one of the take-away points of the article is the value of do-it-yourself knowhow. That’s one thing I cling to in the software biz: Acquiring the tools to do certain useful things myself if I need to, because convenient software packages can obsolesce before you know it. (This is one of the great things about Mac OS X: It has all the UNIXy scripting tools I’m used to using for my DIY projects.) Obviously in a collapsing economy, self-sufficiency is a prime virtue, and I agree with the author that American urban and suburban culture doesn’t contain much of the DIY nature.

Okay, back to burying my head in the sand…

Pickles: Let’s Get Pickled!

Pickles is a rare comic strip in that it can make me laugh out loud. It’s the story of a retired married couple, Earl and Opal, and their extended family (their daughter Sylvia, her son Nelson, their cat and dog, and various other friends and relatives). I guess I would describe Earl and Opal as being tolerably married: Earl is a wise guy with too much time on his hands and not a whole lot of energy, while Opal is cheerful and motivated but won’t put up with Earl’s guff. (I’m reminded of the joke: “Retirement: Twice as much husband, half as much money.”)

The new collection came out last year: Let’s Get Pickled! It’s more of the same, but that’s not a bad thing. Creator Brian Crane has a clean line and a straightforward, Peanuts-like approach to panel layout. Most of the humor is in the characters rather than the pictures. This strip sums up Earl and Opal’s relationship pretty well:

(Click to view the strip)

The strip has lots of jokes about Earl and Opal’s sketchy memory and generally being elderly. I suppose whether all this is funny will depend on your point of view, but I usually find the humor to be tasteful:


Roscoe and Muffin are pretty hilarious at times, by the way. To some extent they’re similar to Percy and Pooch in Sinfest, although Roscoe is more befuddled than he is hyperactive, while Muffin can be downright mean to anyone but Opal. Sylvia I think mostly doesn’t know what to do with her parents, while Nelson loves his grandparents but frequently gets taken in by Earl trying to play tricks on him.

Earl is really the heart and soul of Pickles, which means it’s a very smart-alecky strip, which is probably why I like it:


Pickles reminds me a bit of Fox Trot in its cast of characters trying to one-up one another (or retaliate against those who already have), but I think Crane is a better artist, and his repertoire of humor is broader. It’s also not nearly as well known, which seems a shame. If you haven’t already, I suggest checking it out.

Earlier Pickles collections:


I don’t often make New Year’s resolutions, but it is a convenient time to try to think of things I can do to make my life better. It’s not so much that it’s a new year, but that I’ve just spent over a week on vacation and hopefully I have a little more energy to effect some changes.

My resolution this year can be summed up as “Eat less and write more.”

Or, as I put it to one fellow, my resolutions are means-based rather than ends-based.

Eat less: It’s not like my doctor didn’t tell me four years ago to eat less, and that trying to lose weight is through exercise is difficult because it’s very easy to stop exercising. My only success at losing weight through exercise is when I was working out a lot (4-5 times a week, for many months), and it comes back pretty easily when you stop. So, it’s time to try the other approach.

Write more: While it’s tempting to try to become a professional blogger like J.D., the fact is that I know I’m mainly writing for myself, and that my journal is just not compelling enough to bring in the sort of traffic that J.D. gets. So what I really mean here is to write more fiction. While I know I’m not at this point up to committing to the sort of regular writing that Deathless Pose [sic] demands, it would be nice to get to the point where I would be up to it.

And having finished writing this non-fictional (I hope) post, it’s time for lunch. How’s that for irony?