Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

Proxima.  Stephen Baxter. Roc/Penguin Group (USA). November 2014. 480 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451467706.

Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star far, far from the planets of Earth, the Moon, Mars, Mercury and all the other planets so familiar to present day Earthlings.  The year is 2166 and laser beams of energy developed from kernel engineering can hurl a spaceship into different galaxies.  Phases of history on Earth have passed, including a period of purging intelligent scientists who supposedly committed “crimes” (though never specified); and now there is an intellectual war about who will control the forces of energy with amazing potential for not only space travel but also creating new colonies on distant planets. 

Yuri and Mardina were both forced to become colonists on Proxima or Per Adua as it is otherwise called.  Their fellow inhabitants were initially a larger group; but uncontrolled feelings, thoughts and deeds caused several violent scenes in which many were murdered, leaving finally only Yuri and Mardina as survivors. There are other colonists somewhere on the planet but they were dumped in places far away and the chances of their meeting each other are slim indeed!  For now Yuri, Mardina and a specialized robot ColU explore their new world.  It appears that its living inhabitants are plant-like creatures, with a hidden eye, who are always busy building other plant-like structures and creating structures like dams to move or close water sources.  Even the water contains bacterial life that is impossible to define by earth standards.  However, thanks to the genius of ColU the species learn to live with each other, their only major problem the solar flares that could kill them if exposed.

Over a long period of time Mardina sets up a plan whereby she and Yuri will have children.  Mardina refuses to believe no one will ever come to rescue them but Yuri thinks differently. 

At the same time other subplots are happening that involve the battle over these super-kernels.  Who obtains them and controls them can rule not only the earth but also other planets in the cosmos and beyond. 

Eventually other settlers will join Yuri and Mardina and their lives will be irrevocably changed by a change coming to Proxima that will mandate their moving elsewhere.  The “Hatch” will take them where they never dreamed of going; this is the discovery of a lifetime that totally shifts the plot of this novel.

Proxima is brilliant science fiction, the best this reviewer has read in more years than will be admitted.  It’s hard science fiction with a complex plot interlaced with real scientific explanations that are intelligently delivered and best of all highly readable and comprehensible to the average non-scientist reader.  It depicts a world where inhabitants resemble nothing encountered in earth’s experience and yet doesn’t come across as silly but highly credible, exciting and intriguing reality.  For any reader who has the slightest interest in science fiction, this is your must read for the year; and for those who have never experienced the “other world vicissitudes of life on other planets,” this is the greatest introduction to the world of science fiction you will ever find!  Highly, highly recommended, a truly wonderful work of science fiction that ranks up there with the masters of the genre!

Singing to a Bulldog: From “Happy Days” to Hollywood Director, and the Unlikely Mentor Who Got Me There by Anson Williams

Singing to a Bulldog: From “Happy Days” to Hollywood Director, and the Unlikely Mentor Who Got Me There.  Anson Williams. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. November 2014. 176 pp.  ISBN#: 9781621452256.

Anson Williams, better known as “Potsie” on the wildly popular show “Happy Days,” here tells a simple but compelling story about how he rose to success.  His mentor turns out to be an African-American janitor named Willie Turner who drank too much but who had a fount of wisdom in sayings that Anson sprinkles liberally throughout his story.  For these snippets alone, the story is worth the read, as well as the author’s ability to control his own actions, reactions, thoughts and feelings so as to allow these wise words to rule his life.  Simplistic? No, Anson comes across as sincere and humble about it all!

Anson Williams lacked direction and had taken low-paying jobs until certain opportunities came his way, combined with Willie’s words such as, “All good boy. Don’t gets in dey way of yerself. Go wit yer feelins.” Those moments of coincidence, miracles, or whatever one wishes to call them combined with his obvious talent, as he describes in an imitation of someone else that got him his first acting job.  Upwards he travels as he meets the fellow actors he came to respect and love, Henry Winkler, Don Most and Ron Howard.  Later he’ll be well on the way to stardom when he meets President Ford’s daughter, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bill Cosby and so many more famous actors and actresses.  It is noteworthy that he acknowledges those famous people as those who fit in with Willie’s humble sayings and those who were quite full of themselves and therefore not worthy of more than comment.

Further into his career, after years of Potsie and “Happy Days” fame, Anson goes on to be inspired to direct his own films and shows, and develop what is known as product development and promotion business which is just as fascinating on its own.
Singing to a Bulldog… is a light, pleasant read that spans the career of Anson Williams.  It’s a life free of the usual “love ‘em, hate ‘em” news reporting so rampant in the current media. It tells a straightforward, interesting, funny and inspiring story that readers will be sure to admire and enjoy!  Thanks for sharing, Mr. Williams – this one will go down as a terrific book about an important segment in the entertainment industry! Nicely crafted!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu.  Monique Brinson Demery. Public Affairs Publisher. October 2014. 280 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9781610392815.

The story of Madame Nhu begins with her life as an upcoming bride living in a Vietnam laced with French dominion and influence.  She is about to marry a man who will eventually become the Prime Minister of Vietnam, the man who will wield the real power behind President Ngo Dinh Diem as nations and revolutionary groups vie for power, prestige, and style in Vietnam.  For now Tran Le Xuan, Nhu’s name in her youth), is excited about her marriage and upcoming family status.  But intrigue is omnipresent and Nhu’s life seems like it is unraveling as she initially fails to beget children and her husband seems more entwined with his secret trips and missions than he is with his young bride. 

At the same time, we learn how North Vietnamese leaders are seeking to combine their rising power with French administration.  The French will fall eventually and Tran will learn how the poor and suffering live when she is forced to flee with her family as the Communists from the North approach South Vietnam.  From that point on, Madame Nhu reaches deep inside to let her immense strength confront all obstacles in her path.  The story continues with American advisers coming to court her husband and Diem will take over after a coup.  Madame Nhu’s notoriety grows as she declares her love of power and prestige and comes across as cold and heartless toward the people she is supposed to serve. Indeed the rule of her family and Diem is correctly labeled as repressive, though these rulers always claimed the treatment was to safeguard their people. Her callous remarks about the burning Buddhist monk serve as the vicious, cold benchmark of her future years.  Until her husband and Diem are assassinated, she will court power and use her sexy, slim body and charm to keep South Vietnam free. 

One aspect that is always clear in this account is how mixed the advice and help from the USA was.  American estimation of the rising threat of Ho Chi Minh always seems inaccurate and forthcoming help was the same; the replies of Madame Nhu and the South Vietnam government was partially responsible as they feared a foreign takeover by the Communists, French (again!) or even the Americans if the truth were to be admitted.

Madame Nhu goes into seclusion when she barely manages to escape to America and remains there for over 30 years before her story is told by the author of this account.  In order to gain all the information in this book, the author had to play a cat-and-mouse game with Madame Nhu in which the author would be fed bits and pieces of little known information but never wholesale openness and trust.  Madame Nhu, we learn, had reason to fear the vengeance of many who considered her responsible for thousands of deaths, losses and disasters that befell the Vietnamese people.

The story never loses the sense of intrigue, mystery, and exposure of truth and thus is a superb nonfiction account of a pivotal time in global history that affected the lives of millions to the present day.  Finely crafted account of this very famous lady’s journey through the vicissitudes of Vietnamese and American history!