Saturday, January 29, 2022

Death in a Strange Country: a very short review

Donna Leon's second Guido Brunetti book, Death in a Strange Country followed close on the heels of her first, as she established from the start the pace that has allowed her to write thirty-plus books in barely 25 years.

The "strange country" of the title refers to the uneasy existence of U.S. military troops on European soil, something that was established at the end of World War II and then expanded greatly as the NATO alliance grew and deepened over the following decades.

You could see the "strange country" in either direction, as the American military personnel clearly find themselves in strange country whenever they are posted abroad, or conversely as Brunetti experiences when he visits the base:

The walls held posters of unnamed cities which, because of the height and homogeneity of their skyscrapers, had to be American. That nation was loudly proclaimed, too, in the many signs which forbade smoking and in the notices which covered the bulletin boards along the walls. The marble floor was the only Italianate touch.

The case which Brunetti must solve intricately winds in and out of these two strange countries, Italy and the American military base, sending Brunetti and his colleagues back and forth as leads point this way and that, and in the end the case becomes a tangled knot of corrupt officials, organized crime, and unfortunate happeners-on who found themselves consumed by the consequences.

As is, I expect, a theme with all of Leon's books, Death in a Strange Country features a critical point where Brunetti must make a judgement call of his own, choosing his own path to follow and making his own decisions about where the distinction lies between justice and law.

Though it took me a long time to get through Leon's first book, personal circumstances were such that I flew through the second one, finishing it in only a few days.

However, just as with the first, I ended Death in a Strange Country eager to begin the next Brunetti novel (which is already on its way!).

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Horizon Zero Dawn: a very short review

For much of the last six months, one of my pandemic companions has been Horizon Zero Dawn, the richly-imagined, deeply-realized, beautifully-executed, eerily-compelling video game from the Dutch game developer Guerilla Games.

HZD is five years old at this point, as it was released in 2017. It was a Playstation exclusive at that point, and it quickly became known as one of the signature games for the PS4, and it was credited with substantially boosting PS4 sales.

I originally bought HZD for the PS4, and even tried it once or twice. But I find playing games on the PS4 directly to be hard. I find the Sony controller to be awkward and I've struggled to learn how to use it properly. It often slips out of my hands, and I don't have the coordination, sadly to execute multi-finger combination key sequences with fingers and thumbs of both hands simultaneously, with the result that, sadly, the controller generally ends up in a corner of the room and the (human) controller stomps away in frustration.

Over the years, my kids continued to play the game, and would regularly tell me and show me how wonderful it was, so every so often I'd pick up the controller and try again, only to set it down again.

But in late 2020, Guerrilla released a PC version of the game, and my interest was rekindled.

I don't know, in detail, how the PC version differs from the Playstation version, but I can certainly tell you that the PC version is just gorgeous! It's essentially bug-free, very very stable, very responsive on my six-year-old PC, and oh so very much fun to play.

The overall story arc of Horizon Zero Dawn is quite well known, and you can read about it everywhere, so I encourage you to do so. The game executes that story extraordinarily well, immersing you in a world that is both foreign and familiar, real and yet fantastic, current and yet remote.

As the story is unveiled, and you begin to put the pieces together, the decisions you make as you play take on more and more importance, and you quickly find yourself in something that's much, much more than just a hack-and-slash typical adventure game of quests and monsters.

The story comes to a very interesting conclusion, which will certainly leave you thinking about our modern world, and its modern technology, for quite a long time.

For me, it's hard to decide on a tie breaker, but I think by a slight margin the best quest was Maker's End, where you learn all about Elizabet Sobeck and her relationship with Ted Faro, and the second best quest was The Mountain That Fell, where you learn all the details of the great betrayal and its consequences.

The collectables quests that I most enjoyed were the Banuk figurines, because I loved the mountain climbing and ropes courses, and the Vantages, because again I loved the world exploring. The Vantages quests also provide the loveliest alternate plot line, I think.

And I can't stop without observing that the Frozen Wilds DLC, which came bundled in the PC version I bought, is far and away the most visually appealing of the world landscapes to me. The snowy peaks and valleys and the lovely color pallette of whites and blues and grays combined with some very different background music made that section of the game really immersive to me. The DLC also has the single most appealing location to me, namely the enormous dam and waterworks with its deep underground areas.

Lovely game, through and through. I really, really enjoyed it.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Death at La Fenice: a very short review

I'm, as usual, exactly 30 years late to the party, but let me just be one of the most recent to tell you about Donna Leon and her lovely series of detective novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice Police.

The first in the (wow! 31!) novels in the series is Death at La Fenice.

As the first novel, it spends a certain amount of time helping us get to know the major characters, including Brunetti, his wife Paola, and his various other colleagues on the Venice Police.

Death at La Fenice is a lovely detective novel by itself: never rushed, never forced, never awkward or clumsy. Leon's tale proceeds through both time and space as Brunetti's investigation leads him to explore how events in wartime Germany continue to affect Italy today.

As so many other reviewers have remarked, the best part of Leon's books is how Venice comes alive. Leon, an American writer, talks of the city with a tenderness and respect borne of her own many years living there, and lets us see Venice through her eyes.

Thursday, January 13, 2022


I really enjoy Wordle.

But somehow, my brain is busted from years of playing games like Jotto and Mastermind as a child, so I keep making dumb mistakes.

Today, for example, I got stuck because I thought that Wordle's word list did not allow repeated letters; that is, that a valid Wordle word was five distinct letters.

I, of course, was wrong. Repeated letters are in fact allowed in Wordle.

And that's true of Jotto, also, I guess, although in my family I recall that we disallowed repeated letters in our secret words (though, importantly, not in the guess words). Wikipedia notes that this was a common "table rules" decision when playing Jotto. And the version that MentalFloss describes was quite strict about the no-repeated-letters rule.

I guess I'm not the only person who sees Wordle in this historical context: Wordle’s massively popular (Jewish) predecessors

I am a child of the 60's, after all (though not Jewish).

My parents played Mental Jotto with me as well; it was quite the mental workout! We didn't take walks to the synagogue, but, living in Southern California, we did often find ourselves going on multi-hour drives (that's what Southern Californians do for fun, after all), and Mental Jotto definitely passed the time! Clearly we weren't the only ones who did this.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Dead and Company winter tour upheaval

Bill the drummer has a Twitter account? How did I not know this?

Bummer of a way to find out, though.

And John Mayer is ill as well, oh dear.

I'd never heard of Tom Hamilton before, although my tour buddies are quite familiar with him, as they've seen Joe Russo's Almost Dead multiple times.

Chasing those links led me to see that JRAD are headlining the High Sierra Music Festival. This looks great! Maybe I should check it out next summer? (Check out the Guidelines for important Hula-Hoop information!)

I bet Quincy is wicked hot in late June, but I've been there before in the summer and, being at moderate elevation (3500'), it was lovely in the evenings, and even pretty decent in late afternoon.

Gotta keep on truckin...

UPDATE Now they're starting to cancel the shows. They haven't canceled the entire tour yet, but ...