Book Report: The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout (1965)

Book coverThis book is the fifth, or the third, Rex Stout book I’ve read in the last fifteen or so years. The actual number is up for contention, as I read a three book omnibus edition and reviewed them separately (Too Many Clients, Might As Well Be Dead, and The Final Deduction) in addition to a stand alone book The Father Hunt. So is that two or four books? You decide.

At any rate, like the aforementioned books, this novel falls later in the Nero Wolfe canon. Stout started them in the 1930s and carried them on thirty years, so they might have seemed more antiquidated at the outset, but this book is relatively relevant to a modern reader who lived before computers. Within it, Wolfe and Goodwin are hired by a wealthy heiress who has sent copies of The FBI Nobody Knows to many influential people and who thinks she is now the target of FBI surveillance. She would like the impossible: For Wolfe to get them off her back. She offers an exorbitant sum to do it, so Wolfe accedes. As Goodwin and Wolfe try to get a handle on the problem, they find a murder where members of the FBI are suspects–and they come up with a plan to exchange the solution to that crime (and evidence of related FBI wrongdoing) to get the FBI off of their client’s back.

Even in the 1960s, as Spillaine and MacDonald were coming into paperbacks, the book is a bit of a throwback, but it’s still readable and enjoyable. As you know, I just bought this book, but it’s more a matter of last in, first out rather than my diving into this because I just couldn’t wait for a Nero Wolfe novel (although perhaps I was directed in this direction by the Wolfe entry in Madame Bovary, C’est Moi!).

It is noteworthy for its suspicion of the FBI as bad guys, though, but I suppose we were seeing the turning of the culture even then in the middle 1960s. But in a throwback novel, its presence might indicate the theme was already entering the mainstream.

Book Report: On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957, 2007)

Book coverThis book is supposedly the novel that defined a generation, but to be honest, as that generation dies off, I imagine it will be less relevant in the vast history of literature.

For those of you who don’t know, it’s the semi-biographical novel about a veteran writer who lives with his aunt, but the book itself describes several cross-country trips (and one trip to Mexico) that the narrator takes alone or with a ne’er-do-well friend. Basically, they go looking for jazz, drink-and-drugs, and chicks. They find more of the first two than the latter. They visit Denver and San Francisco and friends there. Then they go to Mexico. Finally, the narrator grows up a bit and settles down.

Honestly, I don’t know how much the book celebrates the wandering lifestyle or if it is actually saying that it’s meaningless to wander looking for thrills. After all, the stories and incidents within the book tend to get repetitious. Only the florid presentations of the jazz music have any sort of appeal.

That’s not to say it’s not an interesting book to read. The narrative voice is interesting, and it pulls one along (to nowhere) effectively. If only there was a better story to it.

In the 21st century, it’s most interesting as a document of life on the road in the 1940s. Travel bureau trips and ride sharing. The tail end of hobos and jumping trains and hitchhiking. And so on.

But as a guide to how one should live? Meh.

The Meanest Swim Class Ever

So, as a mid-life crisis which I’m having three quarters of the way through my life (given that my family members have tended to conk out at 60), I’ve decided to do a triathlon. I mean, I’ve done a couple of 5K races last year and didn’t wholly embarrass myself (especially for someone who does not like to run). So I decided to amp it up and do three things that I do not like to do consecutively.

The YMCA of which I am a member has an annual indoor triathlon, which is a timed event instead of a true distance triathlon. That means you get to swim the pool for 15 minutes, ride a spin bike for 20 minutes, and run on a treadmill for 20 minutes, and ranking is based on how far you go.

Now, as the 5Ks have proven, I can run a distance, and I can not fall off of a spin bike with the best of them, so I am set there.

But my swimming leaves a lot to be desired. Unlike many amateur athletes and suburban kids everywhere, I never had a formal lesson; for the most part, my swimming was all about learning to survive in my stepmother’s parents’ small swimming pool and to get from the bottom of the Hyde Park water slides to the ladder out of the pool. That is, I learned to drown very slowly.

Before the annual Y Not Tri, the YMCA offers a triathlon class where a trainer gives the class drills to improve their biking, running, and swimming. I enrolled in the class, and the class is weighted toward the swimming, as most of the classes include swim drills

The first couple of times I attended class, I did not set the world on fire. As a matter of fact, the coach asked me if I had a medical condition that made me lose my breath easily, as I was coming up for air often. As the class has progressed, he’s taken additional steps to help me along, putting me in the group of the slowest swimmers and giving me fins to wear to help me learn to do the scissors kick.

Of course, the coach and the class are very affirming and encouraging, but the fictional class I’m taking is very mean. I’ve used the following quips on my wife and on Facebook from time to time to illustrate my lack of proficiency in the pool:

Everyone in my swim class calls meme Bob. I keep trying to tell them my name is Brian, but it’s still Bob.

My nickname in swim class is Troll. Because I’m motoring, but I’m not going very fast.

They call me Corky at the YMCA. I’m not sure if it’s because I swim vertically or because I look like something out of a Chris Kattan Saturday Night Live skit.

I’m making some strides in swimming.

Which is not really what you want. Because it’s not running, it’s swimming.

But I should survive fifteen minutes in the pool, which is more than I thought I’d be able to do at the beginning of the class.

UPDATE:

They call me “The Rock.” It must be because I resemble Dwayne Johnson when I take off my shirt.

Book Report: Five Themes of Today by Changde Chen (2001)

Book coverThis book is an interesting proposition: It is a number of philosophical arguments presented as poems, as lyrics. Although they do not contain imagery and particularly clever turns of phrase that makes for good poetry, the line-broken and metered presentation makes for easy reading of a philosophical argument.

The main piece within the book, “On the End of Technological Civilization”, presents a mathematical argument that technology is destined to fall because, basically, in a long enough timeline, all possibilities will come true, including the fall of the civilization. I don’t buy it because every moment brings new possibilities that did not exist the moment before, so the finite infinity projected might not apply to history as it does to mathematics.

The other ‘themes’ are longer musings on the logic of love and marriage, reason and religion, the war between equality and liberty, and the dead weight of democracy. They’re followed by some shorter little riffs on more topical subjects. I found all of them engaging, but although I did not agree with much, I did enjoy the presentation of the arguments. I would have expected the bits, particularly the one on reason and religion, to be a little more informed by the Chinese perspective, but it focused on Western religion instead of the Chinese beliefs, for example.

An interesting bit about this particular volume.

This appears to be a copy inscribed by Chen to his Oxford colleague, poet Bernard O’Donoghue. The sticker indicates it was a charitable donation at some time, and fifteen or so years later it ended up in Springfield, Missouri. Man, I feel for Chen here: A personal gift of his book with an inscription put in the Goodwill pile. I remember when I saw a copy of John Donnelly’s Gold listed on Amazon by a used bookstore in Indianapolis, and I knew which copy I’d mailed off that got there. I feel you, brother.

At any rate, like I said, a good intellectual read and an interesting presentation and easily digestible presentation of the material. It led me to wonder if I could make a philosophy book completely out of bullet points or ordered lists for modern audiences to understand. Perhaps someday.

Mean Republicans Might Cut Corporate Welfare, Leave Poor Developers To Starve

The Springfield News-Leader featured this violin-backgrounded, heartstring-tugging story: Developer: Plan to renovate Springfield’s historic Bailey school up in the air:

A Springfield developer who recently bought the Bailey school with the intention of turning the historic building into urban lofts said the project is now in jeopardy.

Jason Murray, the Bailey Lofts LLC developer, blamed the uncertainty on a shift in the political climate at the state and federal levels. Not long after Murray finalized the sale — paying Springfield Public Schools at least $305,000 for the property — talk intensified about the possibility of scaling back or eliminating tax credits available to renovate historic properties.

Murray, who owns 11 other buildings in the downtown area, was counting on tax credits to help finance up to 45 percent of the $2 million renovation. He planned to apply for the maximum tax credits allowed, 20 percent in federal and 25 percent in state.

If the project cannot be profitable without special government deals, it should not be done.

Scientists Discover New Government Money Sink

Suddenly, presidential executive orders cost money!

Executive orders have been a hot topic in the last year or so. Often, an executive order (or “EO” for those of us who dig acronyms) is touted as a quick and decisive tool used by the president to influence or enact policy without the time, expense and inevitable conflict of creating law more traditionally through the legislative branch. But when executive orders wind up in our court system, the expense of the process can quickly become enormous and taxpayers are the ones funding both sides of the fight.

How big of a problem is this suddenly? An attorney is writing an op-ed against executive orders.

Suddenly.

Eydie vs. Herb: The Ultimate Head-to-Head Musical Throwdown

As you might know, gentle reader, I favor the music of Eydie Gorme, and when she does a song that someone else does, I think Eydie does it better. (see this and this).

I also favor the stylings of Herb Alpert (as you can see how often his name appears on my Good Album Hunting post list and whatnot). As a matter of fact, I might own more Herb Alpert albums than Eydie Gorme.

So what happens when they do the same song?

Continue reading “Eydie vs. Herb: The Ultimate Head-to-Head Musical Throwdown”

The Source Of That Thing Daddy Always Says VI

We’ve got about a hundred feet before the driveway where we’re going to turn, and a bicyclist is ahead of us, going bicycle speeds. So I say, “Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill!” as I often do when encouraging some part of traffic to accelerate

Strangely enough, I don’t say that because I’m a fan of the film of that name. I think Assault of the Killer Bimbos handled the same themes more effectively.

You should know me better: I am a fan of the band named after the movie (but incompletely), Faster Pussycat.

Swimming at the YMCA: Slightly Less Serious Than Love

South-side YMCA pool closes due to parasite:

The pool at the YMCA in south Springfield has been closed after an individual who used it tested positive for the parasite cryptosporidium.

The Pat Jones YMCA, located at 1901 E. Republic Road, said on its Facebook page Tuesday that it received word of the positive test from the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. The facility said the individual used the pool as recently as Feb. 1.

Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal disease cryptosporidiosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the play The Courtship of Barbara Holt, the protagonist puts the ailment somewhere closer to love than to the flu:

RICK What’s wrong?
MARK I don’t know. It might be the flu or something. I have a pounding head and I’m rather sick to my stomach.
RICK Could be gastroenteritis.
MARK I don’t think it’s that serious.
RICK An outbreak of cryptosporidiosis.
MARK No, no. Could be more serious.
RICK More serious than crypto in the water?
MARK It could be love.
RICK Oh, that.

This kind of started out as an in-joke for my fellow Marquette University students after the 1993 outbreak in Milwaukee.

Did I survive that outbreak? Yes. Have I been in the YMCA pool since February 1? Yes. So far, so good.

Good Book Hunting: Hooked on Books, January 31, 2017

So my oldest son had an orthodontics appointment last Tuesday, which meant I had to pull him out of school early. After the appointment, we had a little time to kill before picking up his brother, so we stopped at Hooked on Books. If you go through the annals of this blog, you’ll find a lot more mention of Hooked on Books. Every time I came to Springfield, I stopped there. Now that I go into Springfield daily, I don’t stop there quite as often. More recently, I’ve been visiting ABC Books more often because I know the owner and because I’ve been dabbling in theological books, of which they have aplenty.

I didn’t get much, but the red dot (discounted) books always seem to attract me.

I got:

  • Love by Danielle Steel, a collection of poems.
  • The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout, a Nero Wolfe novel.
  • Manifold Space, a science fiction novel by Stephen Baxter. Whom I confess I confused until just now with Steven Barnes, the Larry Niven collaborator. ONLY NOW IS THE TRUTH OF MY FOLLY REVEALED! Well, the proof of the pudding is in the reading, so perhaps it was not folly after all.

It’s not much, but if you’re keeping up with the book reports this year, you’ll see I’ve read eleven. I’ve bought three. I AM AHEAD. Until, of course, the spring book sales. But that’s a couple months away.

Lobbying Legerdemain

Tech giants have united to make noise about President Trump’s travel moratorium:

A total of 97 companies — including Apple (AAPL, Tech30), Facebook (FB, Tech30), Google (GOOGL, Tech30), Intel (INTC, Tech30), Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30), Netflix (NFLX, Tech30) and Twitter (TWTR, Tech30) — filed a court motion Sunday night declaring that Trump’s executive order on immigration “violates the immigration laws and the Constitution.”

Only the cynical amongst us, which should include all of us by now, would suspect that the tech companies are making a lot of noise about this policy not because of a principled stand but because they want to disrupt Trump’s other plan to curtail H1-B Visa abuse by tech giants. You know, the ones who have so Bravely Opposed An Unjust Policy.

The longer and louder we talk about the first, the less chance for the second, they hope.

(Second link via Instapundit.)

In Missouri, You Cannot Overlook The Possibility That The Town Does, Indeed, Have A Tank

This weekend, my beautiful wife and I were schlepping our oldest son to a basketball tournament in lovely Piece City, Missouri. We took the two lane US 60 south out of Republic and through the town of Monett. After we passed through Monett, we came upon a piece of military equipment in front of the VFW.

“Look, boys, a tank!” my beautiful wife said. Maybe she didn’t actually say the exclamation point. Perhaps I am embellishing.

“That’s not a tank; that’s mobile artillery,” I said. (Upon further review, it looks to be an M110; my brother was the spotter for anti-armor, so he could hopefully have told you that without having to Google it.)

“Well, it’s the closest thing that the boys will see to a tank today,” she said. Fortunately, she did not ask me how I know such things (as she once asked me how I knew a revolver did not eject its shells, and I was flabbergasted–I do not exactly where I learned revolvers do not eject their shells, except that a revolver does not eject its shells because it is not a semiautomatic pistol). If she would have asked me how I knew, I would probably have tried to be mysterious instead of acknowledging that I own both the GI Joe Slugger self-propelled cannon and M.O.B.A.T. battle tank. Yes, own, not owned. But she did not ask, and I did not volunteer my information source because it might have diminished my authoritative declaration.

“Unless Pierce City has a tank,” I said.

Well.

Continue reading “In Missouri, You Cannot Overlook The Possibility That The Town Does, Indeed, Have A Tank”

Bilingual Humor

I can leer as much as I want.

Sorry, that’s incompletely translated.

Yo puedo leer tanto como quiero.

You see, leer is Spanish for “to read.”

Never mind, if you have to explain it and include a foreign language, history, philosophy, geology, or geography lesson in it, it’s probably not funny, but it quite likely is one of my jokes.

Book Report: Buddhism Through Christian Eyes by Alex G. Smith (2001)

Book coverThis book is a brief (64 page) primer for Christian missionaries headed to southwest Asia to try to convert Buddhists there. It was written by an Australian missionary with many years’ experience in Thailand, and many of the chapters of the book originated as articles in various religious publications in the region.

The first part of the book talks about Buddhism and how it came to predominate Asia and how it makes its inroads in the West: It does not seek to replace the native religions per se, but rather it complements and then absorbs them. The book then puts into some stark relief differences between Christian scriptures and core Buddhist doctrine (as well as Buddhist scholarship). The stark differences don’t receive a lot of emphasis when you’re reading popular Buddhist books (like Start Here Now), but, then again, you don’t get a lot of the heavy duty Christian scholarship in most church services, either.

At any rate, an informative bit of counterpoint to straightforward Buddhist-themed literature, but a bit apocalyptic on the march of Buddhism to take over the world.

Book Report: Hellbinder by “Don Pendleton” (1984)

Book coverThis book is the first Executioner novel I’ve read in 2017, and the last published in 1984. By 1984, I had recently arrived in Missouri for the first time and lived in the basement of my “rich” relations, whereas “rich” meant “richer than us” but in retrospect was not that rich at all. I digress.

This book is a bit of a globe-trotter: Bolan starts out investigating a KGB camp in the United States, but it’s just a staging area for an attack on a government chemical weapon storage facility. When Bolan gets there, he’s too late: The KGB has already hit the storage facility and steals six canisters of a deadly chemical weapon. Then, they’re off to El Salvador, where a Soviet rogue agent uses one of the cannisters on a rival guerrilla camp for a propoganda stunt that blames the US for the attack. Then the rogue agent sells the other five to a Syrian faction that’s going to use them on Israel. So we jet off to the Middle East after our excursion in Central America. In Syria, Bolan hooks up with a beautiful Mossad agent and reveals the plot to them, where he helps to neutralize the threat and helps Mossad steal the five canisters from Syria.

It’s an odd book, in that Bolan is sort of passive here. He’s late in the attack on the chemical factory, he’s tied up and powerless during the attack in El Salvador, and then he’s only part of the attack force in Syria. The globe-hopping is different, too, as many of the previous books have been limited to a single area or mission. The insertion of the standard Bolan boilerplate musings on His War and stuff are just kind of stuck in there, a bit clunky and a bit out-of-place. Although Bolan does not smoke in this book, he does carry cigarettes–just to share with soldiers he wants to talk to. So it’s a bit of an outlier–or perhaps a change in direction that I’ll see more of in the year to come.

At any rate, not necessarily a bad read, but a bit different from others that precede it.

I Feel Like A Traitor To Ella, But…

I prefer Linda Ronstadt’s rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”.

Here is Ella Fitzgerald’s version, which I’ve enjoyed for decades:

Back when I was filling my evenings with eBay doings and then writing a book, an Ella Fitzgerald compilation featuring this track was in the 6 disc CD changer in my office, so I heard it nightly.

But I recently (December) got the last record in the Linda Ronstadt/Nelson Riddle trio, For Sentimental Reasons, which features this song as well:

Ella’s presentation is a little more seasoned, a little more knowing, which puts the emphasis on again. Ronstadt’s is younger, a little more emphasis on the bewildered. I dunno why, but I prefer it.

Eydie Gorme did not do a version of this song that I can find. Otherwise, as you can guess, it would probably be my favorite.

I was excited to see a cover in the Ronstadt video for something called ‘Round Midnight, which I thought might be a different record, but it’s actually a compilation of the three Riddle/Ronstadt collaborations. Although I already own them on vinyl, I thought to buy them on Amazon, but it’s $40 (but free to stream–wouldn’t you rather spend $10 a month streaming subscription instead of $10 on a CD, son? Amazon would prefer it for you!). Eesh, I think I’ll look for it in person. I did learn of her two Spanish albums and her recent (2004) jazz record (also extortionally priced on Amazon) to look for.

Book Report: Madame Bovary, C’est Moi! by André Bernard (2004)

Book coverThis book is a little encyclopedic collection of main characters of novels and little vignettes about the books and how the characters came about. It talks about Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and others of classical lit along with more contemporary demi-classics like Sam Spade and the Continental Op (from Dashiell Hammett’s novels and stories).

A quick read–it’s only 135 pages with bibliography–but it’s a bit of fun. One feels a certain smug satisfaction when browsing the entry for something one has already read–in my case, the aforementioned Anna Karenina and Dash Hammett stories–and perhaps a bit of curiosity that might inspire one to read one of the novels mentioned that you haven’t read (in my case, Madame Bovary, but fortunately that inspiration is fleeting, and I can go back to reading Executioner novels). The book also has numerous sidebars, from bulleted lists collecting characters into groups (alliterative names, single named characters, and so on) to quotations from authors on other authors, their characters, or writing (C.S. Forester expresses his trouble identifying characters in War and Peace by name, which is what caused me to put the book down when I started it soon after I read Anna Karenina ten years ago (!)).

A good, quick read for the literary-minded amongst us.

Book Report: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

Book coverIt seems to me that, as I was growing up in the 1970s, that allusions to this book were everywhere, but it might have been that I saw the same Bugs Bunny cartoon referring to it over and over again. It was quite a sensation in its day, spawning a movie and a Broadway play much like you get from modern pop culture forces. This book was also sent overseas with World War II veterans a bunch, too, so it was part of the Greatest Generation zeitgeist even though it was set a generation earlier.

It deals with a young girl, Francie, at age ten in a tenement neighborhood in Brooklyn in 1912. It follows her as she ages into her teen years, after the death of her alcoholic father, and into the period when the US enters World War I. So, basically, the same time as the first couple of seasons of Downton Abbey. But the Nolans are not the Crowleys. The father only works a night a week, and the mother works as a cleaning woman. The kids start out collecting junk (from the rubbish bins of the buildings their mom cleans, which gives them an advantage of other neightbor kids). Francie is a bit of an outcast, a dreamer who wants to become a writer.

I really enjoyed the book. It takes you out of the here and now and into poverty before the Great Society safety net, and it does very evocatively. Forget your Dave Ramsey University for being frugal–reading how this family stretched pennies and managed to save makes me want to nail a tin can to my closet floor and insert pennies when I can.

It’s also a mindbender to find modern themes in a book set in the 1910s that was published during World War II. We’ve got:

  • A violin teacher with a particular interest in having his young lady students take off their shoes and socks while they practice.
  • A child molestor that has the neighborhood up in arms until Francie’s mother shoots him with a gun possessed illegally.
  • A soldier passing through that spends some time with a 16-year-old Francie and tries to bed her as a one-night-stand; when Francie asks her mother later if she should have, the mother says yes.
  • Wandering gangs of disaffected young men doing bad things because they’re bored.

You might think these are all 21st century problems, especially if you were educated somewhere in the end of the 20th century or the 21st. However, the book illustrates human nature has always been human nature, and the human spirit has always endured.

At any rate, I recommend it. At the very least, when that Bugs Bunny cartoon comes on, you can tell your kids, “I read that book.”

A Question I Based A Video Game On

A book review of a new biography asks Was ‘the other Brontë’ the best of them all?:

Fans of the novels and poems written by the sibling inhabitants of Haworth Parsonage always have a Top Brontë. Fame-seeking Charlotte and mysteriously reclusive Emily usually grab the limelight. My father reread Emily’s only novel every five years, annotating his student copy of Wuthering Heights and monitoring his opinions depending on how his own love life was going. He shared his choice with the playwright and journalist Samantha Ellis, until the day she read Anne’s final letter, and was taken aback as its sudden significance ‘catches at my heart’, making her wonder about the less wowed, less known, youngest sister.

This wonderful biography begins at a disadvantage. All but five of Anne’s letters are missing. The surviving biographical facts can fit a single page. But Ellis’s first solution is to tell Anne’s story through the characters at the centre of her life. Chapters are devoted in turn to the children’s heroic mother, Maria; their selfless aunt; their bereft Reverend father; the controlling Charlotte; the uncompromisingly independent Emily; and their brother Branwell, who Charlotte says ‘thought of nothing but stunning (drugs) and drowning (drink) his distress of mind’, jointly provide a prism through which Ellis’s elusive protagonist emerges.

We all know how I feel about it, since I made her the big boss in a video game:

The game’s tag line: You always forget the last one.