Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Book Review: Gilgamesh by Gerald J. Davis

Gilgamesh: The New Translation by Gerald J. Davis

Gilgamesh is a first in many ways: the first epic, the first action adventure, the first buddy story. The earliest copies of it date back to 2000 BC. They tell the story of Gilgamesh, ruler of Uruk, who begins as an infamous character. He possesses great power and intelligence but is only interested in bedding any and every woman he wants. The people cry out to the gods who provide an answer in Enkidu, a wild man forged in the hill country. He is a complete savage until he meets one of the temple harlots. She civilizes him after distracting him with her womanly wiles. Once he's shaved and given clothing, he looks very similar to Gilgamesh and comes to Uruk. Enkidu and Gilgamesh have a great battle in the streets. They wind up friends and go on quests together. First, they vanquish Humbaba the Fierce who lives in the faraway Forest of Cedars. When they return, the goddess Ishtar wants to marry Gilgamesh. He rejects her offer since every other mortal who has wed her dies soon thereafter. In her angry jealousy, she asks the father of the gods for revenge. A divine bull is sent after Gilgamesh. Enkidu helps to defeat the beast, throwing a chunk of it back at Ishtar. She curses them both. Enkidu suddenly has a fatal disease, leaving Gilgamesh alone. He seeks out immortal life by journeying to the dwelling of Utanapishtim. He is a mortal who survived a great, worldwide flood and was granted immortal life by the gods (who saved him from the flood by warning him to build a boat). Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a plant that grants life everlasting. Gilgamesh finds the plant but loses it along the way back to Uruk. 

The story moves along at a good pace for the most part. Occasional passages have a lot of line repetition which may have been better as poetry or as spoken aloud but is a little wearisome as prose text. The civilizing of Enkidu is interesting as he leaves behind the country life for city living. It's not really clear how his confrontation with Gilgamesh made the ruler a better person, other than starting other activities. Just getting Gilgamesh out of town may have been enough of an accomplishment! The quest for immortality at the end is also interesting, especially when Gilgamesh has to travel through a long, dark cave on the way to Utanapishtim (who is clearly a Noah-like figure). He almost goes through death and burial to come back to life on the other side. Just not the immortal life he'd hoped for. 

This book includes a separate poem about the death of Gilgamesh along with a few commentaries by other authors. One commentary is from the 1920s and discusses many different aspects. Sometimes it talks about the story, sometimes it bogs down in etymologies and comparisons between a Babylonian version and a Syrian version, sometimes it makes unfavorable comparisons to similar stories in Genesis. I wound up skimming bits and did not find it particularly valuable.

Even though I enjoyed this text, I am curious to try other translations as a comparison. Did anyone write it more as poetry? Did they take more license with the text and not have so many repetitions?

Recommended, though it might get downgraded if I find a more interesting version.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Book Review: Usagi Yojimbo Book 4 by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Book 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy by Stan Sakai

This volume of Usagi Yojimbo is one long story about a potential civil war. Usagi stumbles across a plan by Lord Tamakuro to overthrow the Shogun. Tamakuro has been stockpiling flintlock guns and lead, preparing to take over all of Japan. Usagi has help from many friends from past stories, including Zato-Ino the blind swordpig, Gen the bountyhunter rhino, and Tomoe Ame. Each character starts from a different point but the plot threads come together nicely making a very satisfying story. As usual, the art is simple and beautiful, communicating the action and the emotion along with the storyline. It's another great outing for the rabbit ronin.

Highly recommended.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Movie Review: Goksung (The Wailing) (2016)

Goksung (The Wailing) (2016) written and directed by Hong-jin Na

Local policeman Jong-goo (Do-wan Kwak) has a tough time with nightmares about horrible things happening. If that wasn't bad enough, bad things do start happening in the local village. Mysterious and gruesome murders take out entire families, often with one family member (who killed all the others, i.e. the perpetrator) committing suicide. The theories that assign blame are all wild speculations, from bad mushrooms to the recently-arrived old Japanese man (Jun Kunimura). The investigation is slow and depressing but becomes more urgent when Jong-goo discovers that his daughter (Hwan-hee Kim) has started changing and may be the next perpetrator. Jon-goo's mother-in-law contacts a local shaman to help get rid of the evil presence, if it's not already too late.

The movie starts like a police procedural but quickly morphs into a horror film. Jong-goo is a bit hapless and very passive at the start. He gets more active once he's in jeopardy. The atmospheric surroundings create more tension in an already tense situation. The setting is beautiful and also haunting with all the fog and rain. The plot suffers from having too many red herrings. A lot of significant scenes don't make sense with how things turned out at the end. The ending is horrifying but fails to pull things together, leaving me as a viewer unsatisfied.

Mildly recommended--the atmosphere is great and the story is intriguing until they fail at the ending.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, South Wind Trail

We went for a local hike to the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area. The website shows two different hikes. The South Wind Trail is slightly shorter (2.3 miles to the Wildlife Loop's 2.4 miles). The entrance is on a neighborhood street with free street parking. We almost took a paved path that is part of the Columbia trail system, not the MPEA hike. My eldest spotted the sign for the park, which has a dirt trail behind it. 

Not my oldest son

A few small fields are sprinkled throughout the area, making habitats for field and forest animals. They attract a good diversity of flora and fauna. We hiked in early spring, so not much sign of either yet.

A pleasant field

Walking the trail

The trail features markers that match the descriptions on the trail brochure which I downloaded from the website. 

Marker #1

Another field with some additional habitats in the distance

We came to a fork in the trail and chose a route randomly. The choice didn't matter so much since this is the loop part of the trail, meaning we'd come back out the other tine of the fork.

Going right

Part of the area is an easement for utilities, including rain sewer lines, so we saw some unusual forest dwellers.

At least that hole in the ground is covered!

This area has lots of fallen trees that are left where they lie in order to provide shelter and food for the local critters.

"Y" did it fall down?

Another trail marker that blends in well

Plenty of undergrowth

The park has many small and large tributaries that feed into the Middle Patuxent River (there's also a Little Patuxent River and a plain old Patuxent River). Some are little more than runoffs from higher ground.

A small stream hiding in the undergrowth

The tributary and my son cross the path

A mighty leap!

The path turns along Cricket Creek, the largest tributary in the park. The kids wanted to throw stones, climb over rocks, and even cross the creek if they could. I encouraged everything but the last.

A fabulous find

Cricket Creek

Out in the water

Relaxing rock

The trail parallels the creek with the occasional bridge for humans over muddy bits of the trail. Just off the bridge we saw tracks for non-humans.

Looking around

Some identifiable prints

We weren't quite sure where the creek ended and the Middle Patuxent began. So we explored more sections of the flowing water.

Out on a sandy bank

Further out, coming back

Beautiful water

Not sure if that was a man-made or nature-made dam/crossing

A spooky hollow

We took the opportunity to throw more rocks. A new popular sport was throwing rocks to the other bank of the stream.

Looking for the perfect stone

The beach is on the wrong side (from our perspective)

Another attempt at crossing

I am fairly certain this next view is definitely the Middle Patuxent River.

Should we throw more rocks?

The walk back was fun with more of the same foresty goodness.

More fallen trees for the bugs and the animals to enjoy

We may go back to this trail. We will definitely try out the other trail soon.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Book Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender: Imbalance Part One by F. E. Hicks et al.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Imbalance Part One written by Faith Erin Hicks and art by Peter Wartman

Team Avatar (Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph) head to Cranefish Town, the Earth Kingdom city where Toph's dad owns a factory. Since the war ended, the town has grown substantially, with many other businesses moving into the area. Some problems have arisen. First, the businesses have expanded but there's no local government. The business leaders have formed a council but they haven't developed a police force. This is a problem because, second, there is fighting in the street between various benders. The factories have developed new machines that require fewer benders (who are expensive employees). The unemployed benders have turned to crime, causing trouble for the factories and the non-bending citizens. Toph's dad has invited the team so Aang can help get the situation cleaned up. Speaking of cleaning up, the third problem is the generally poor use of natural resources and trashing of the area. Team Avatar spends some time cleaning up the beach as a start. Unfortunately, a conspiracy is afoot to keep the conflict between various factions going strong.

The book is a great intro to the story (there's two more parts) and captures the action, humor, and heart of the television series. The art does a great job mimicking the art from the series. This is a great continuation of both the television series and of Gene Luen Yang's impressive run of Avatar graphic novels.

Recommended, highly for Avatar: The Last Airbender fans.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Book Review: Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Exit Strategy: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

See my review of volume one here, volume two here, and volume three here.

Murderbot the SecUnit heads home (sort of) now that it has collected incriminating data on GrayCris Corporation, the company that tried to kill Muderbot's group in the first book. It's on its way to Dr. Menseh, the head of the first group who has been in the center of the anti-GrayCris lawsuits. She also bought Murderbot to keep the company from finding out that it is a defective SecUnit. The defect is a hacked governor unit that is supposed to keep Murderbot from acting independently. Murderbot uses its free will to help people...and to watch lots of serial dramas. On its way to Menseh's homeworld, Murderbot discovers that she's gone missing, most likely kidnapped by GrayCris in an attempt to cover up corporate wrongdoings. Murderbot to the rescue!

As always, the science fiction universe and the action-packed drama are fun. The most interesting part is seeing Murderbot developing as a person, learning to adapt to situations and, more importantly, to deal with those pesky emotions that often lead humans into making the bad tactical decisions. Murderbot is always complaining about. It also figures out how to deal better with eye contact and physical contact (there's a funny scene where Murderbot realizes someone needs a hug and goes so far to say that she can hug it). The struggle to understand its own humanity is another great example of the sci-fi tradition of Spock, Data, and Odo. Who doesn't love those guys?

Highly recommended--these first four short volumes make one extended story. A longer novel has been published and I am sure to read that soon.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Movie Review: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) co-written and directed by Nicholas Meyer

A massive explosion on a Klingon moon destroys the moon and poisons the Klingon homeworld's atmosphere. The official response from Klingon High Command is that there was an incident and they need no help. Two months later, secret negotiations with the United Federation of Planets are advancing thanks to Spock (Leonard Nimoy). The UFP invites Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) to Earth to work on a peace treaty, which would mean disbanding the military assets along the Klingon-Federation border. Kirk (William Shatner) is opposed to any peace treaty but Spock has nominated Kirk and the Enterprise as the escort through Federation space for Gorkon's ship. When the two ships meet up, Kirk invites Gorkon and his staff to a diplomatic dinner. The dinner is extremely awkward (leading to lots of funny moments--funny for the viewers, not either crew) and no tension is relieved. After the Klingons return to their vessel, two photon torpedoes are shot at them, disabling their gravity. Two Federation crewmen beam aboard and kill Gorkon. The Klingons automatically accuse Kirk, who surrenders his vessel and beams aboard with McCoy. They are arrested and sent to a penal colony while Spock leads an investigation to find out what really happened.

The movie was the "final mission" for the original Enterprise crew and it is a great send off. The plot centers on an interesting mystery that flows from the tense political situation. Both sides have their warmongering zealots. Kirk starts off in that camp and slowly (and sometimes painfully) moves over to the side of peace. The story is a thinly-veiled metaphor of the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The tone does not get too dark--they throw in plenty of jokes and have a running gag about Klingons quoting Shakespeare in the "original Klingon." Christopher Plummer plays the bad Klingon and, even though his character isn't that deep, he delivers his lines with gusto, in English or in Klingon. The story does get slow at a few points and the characters make a few too many references to literature, like the too-many-Easter-eggs in the recent Star Wars films. The flaws are fairly minor and easily outweighed by the good. The idea that all rational beings should count as human is both a timely and an eternal truth.

Recommended, especially to fans of the original Star Trek crew.