A Common Theme

This year, my children and I went to the annual ArtsFest on Historical Walnut Street in Springfield, Missouri. We parked a little ways down unhistoric Walnut Street and walked down the block.

As we neared the festival, we came upon a house. “Is that a pig?” I asked. Indeed, it was a pig statue in the front yard.

We walked to the next house, and there’s a more modern piece of art out front:

“And there’s the bacon!” my eight-year-old said.

I’m not sure if that’s intentional, but that is certainly the effect.

Here they are on Google Maps:

Book Report: Mad About Town by the staff of Mad Magazine (1983)

Book coverThis book dates from 1976, but it was still in print seven years later. It collects Mad magazine bits from the early 1970s, including the send-up of All the President’s Men. As such, it might not relate well to today’s youth. I’ll have some first hand knowledge of this when my oldest boy absquatulates with this book.

I’ve moved out of the middle 1970s Mad demographic these days; while some things were amusing a bit, I only laughed out loud at two bits. One was about a boy who turned everything into a gun given a bat and a ball and told to go outside to play, and the boy promptly turns the bat into a gun (and, left unspoken, the ball into a grenade). I’ve got boys, and this is true. The second was about a man recounting an argument with his wife, and the punchline was very good indeed.

It’s a good reminder of how much most humor is rooted in its time, and how very little humor really hits upon the major themes of humanity that can extend across mere decades. But the best of it can do so without footnotes, and unfortunately, this book would probably need some if it were held up as a classic. As it is, it’s an amusing browse for an hour or so for old men like me.

Books mentioned in this review:

Not The Camus Quote I’d Have Gone With

So I’m three or four years behind on my reading of Birds and Blooms Extra. Which, to be fair, is not a magazine you’ve probably heard of nor one you’d expect me to read. But there was a time, long in the past, where I was interested in, if not birds, at least pretty flowerbeds and vegetable gardens. But that was before I moved to this Cthulhu-forsaken bermuda grass jungle. But I digress.

In an autumn issue, we’ve got an autumn-themed full page image, prints available for sale. And they’ve got a quote by Albert Camus on them.

Camus quote on a pretty picture

I’m not sure if that’s a real Camus quote or not. To be honest, I haven’t read all of The Myth of Sisyphus yet. Maybe it’s from that. But I can’t imagine how it came to be that this quote was appended to this image. Did an editor say, “Quick! we’ve got a picture of autumn leaves on a fungus! Get me an Existentialist quote, stat!” Did a passive-aggressive copy editor with a literature degree titter over his keyboard when he threw this quote on the picture, expecting no one would get it? Or, more likely, did someone do an Internet search for autumn quotes and find a result he or she liked?

Yes.

I, on the other hand, might have selected “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” Which is why I am not in charge of putting quotes on pretty pictures for a national magazine targeted to older people in the northern Midwest.

Book Report: Poor Richard’s Almanack: Benjamin Franklin’s Best Sayings edited by Dean Walley (1967)

Book coverThis book was printed by a greeting card company (Hallmark) as a cheap gift you could pick up for someone as you were picking up the card. Pause a moment to reflect on the decline and fall of these sorts of books. From truisms, aphorisms, and self-helping little nuggets in the 1960s to feel-good and self-affirming poems to…. Do they even do these any more?

At any rate, this book collects some of Benjamin Franklin’s pithy sayings from his periodical and presents them with some period woodcut images. It’s a lot like reading a Twitter feed (or the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, for that matter). Some of the sayings are humorous descriptions of life, some are prescriptions for self-discipline and self-improvement, but all are worth reflection. It’s best not to try to read this as fast as you can–which is pretty fast indeed, as it’s sixty pages of three to five sayings per page–but instead to savor them, maybe even to read them aloud unless you’re in public (or perhaps even then).

Worth a look, and in book form, it’s more resonant than a collection you’d find on SmartyQuotes.com or whatnot.

Books mentioned in this review:

Public Service Announcement

A father comes into his child’s bedroom and turns down the son’s radio. The father holds a number of empty candy wrappers in his hand. He displays them to the child, who looks startled to see them.

Father: These yours?

Son: No, I….

Father: Your mother said she found them in your closet.

Son: I dunno, one of the guys must have left….

Father: Must have what?

Son: Look, Dad, they’re not mine….

Father: When did you eat it?

Son: Dad, I….

Father: Answer me! Who taught you how to sneak this stuff?

Son: You, all right! I learned it by watching you.

Father looks guilty, wipes the chocolate remnants of a Hershey’s egg from his lips.

Voiceover: Parents who sneak their children’s remaining Easter candy have children who sneak their remaining Easter candy.

Continue reading “Public Service Announcement”

Book Report: The Avengers #2: The Laugh Was On Lazarus by John Garforth (1967)

Book coverThis book did not have Iron Man in it. I guess Robert Downey, Jr., wanted too much to do it.

I guess not; this is the wrong The Avengers. This set is the 1960s British Secret Agents, mod 60s woman Emma Peel and staid John Steed. I’ve never seen the series, and I even missed the almost twenty year old film starring Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

It’s a slightly silly, disjointed book. A biotech company can raise the dead, and there’s a priest, and zombie American servicemen who can remember how to fly a stolen plane to the Pentagon. Or to New York.

I don’t know what to make of the story, how it relates to the others in the series, or to the television program. The book has a lot of interior Steed attracted to Peel but unable to say, and I don’t know if this is something that showed up in the program or if it’s a bit of the author’s own invention, thinking that Steed would because what man is not hot for Diana Rigg in a cat suit? I’ve seen that sort of thing before in books, although I cannot recall in which television series or movie novelization book report I remarked on it.

At any rate, of the two period television shows whose tie-in books I’ve read recently, the Kung Fu books (here and here) are better.

But I’ve got a couple more from The Avengers; maybe they’ll grow on me since I’m not going into them cold.

Books mentioned in this review:

I Admit, I Laughed Out Loud

I opened the most recent copy of Garden & Gun magazine, and I laughed out loud. Not at the Roy Blount, Jr., humor piece it contained. Not at a joke or intentionally humorous piece, actually. At the ensemble in the Table of Contents:

Go ahead, if you dare, and click for full size. Then, note in the lower left corner, this text:

Crop top, $3,990, and skirt, $9,700, by Zuhair Murad, at zuhairmurad.com.

That yellow outfit costs as much as a car.

I wonder how much more expensive if the top had sleeves and covered the belly completely.

I can’t talk, of course, as I’m a bit of a clothes horse myself these days. Why, just two weeks ago, I bought a new shirt at Walmart for $9 because the shirts I’ve received as inheritances from my father-in-law (fifteen years ago), uncle-in-law (seven years ago), and mother (six years ago) are starting to show some wear. And I’m outgrowing them as I continue to triumph over being underweight.

Book Report: Renegade Agent by “Don Pendleton” (1982)

Book coverThis book is a tedious, wordy little side-scroller of a men’s adventure novel.

The plot is exceedingly similar to Paramilitary Plot mashed up with Terrorist Summit: An ex-CIA agent is looking to put together a super-network of extra-national intelligence professionals and arms smugglers to help fund terrorists. Bolan has to find him and to rescue a prisoner–in this case, Toby Ranger, a recurring character from the War on the Mafia days.

Unfortunately, in the worst entries in the series, the writing does little to mask how similar these plots were to one another. This entry is particularly week, as entire chapters are chewed up in the musings of Mack Bolan. Where Pendleton would thicken/leaven his stories with a bit of philosophy, later authors simply rehash what Pendleton did and use it as padding to hit word count. This book often features a chapter or two of the musing/exposition, a chapter of Stony Brook team members getting information and thinking about it and the danger Mack Bolan is in, and then a chapter (maybe) that’s an action set piece. Then it repeats. Sometimes, we get a couple extra chapters of philosophy thrown in.

Not worth a read unless you’re compelled to read books on your to-read shelf as I am.

Books mentioned in this review:

A Bonus From This Was Cicero

As a bonus, This Was Cicero included a blow-in card for the Classics Club:

Click for full size

As you might know, gentle reader, I collect Classics Club editions (and a variety of other series published by Walter J. Black).

And although I’ve already invited the three fellows (Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius) mentioned in the flyer into my home, I’ve only so far spent time with Marcus Aurelius.

Also, note in the flyer that the spines only say the name of the author; in reality, the spines also contain the titles. At least in the ones I’ve seen they do.

Book Report: This Was Cicero by H. J. Haskell (1942)

Book coverThis book is nominally a biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, but in reality, it’s a history of the fall of the Roman republic wherein Cicero sometimes makes appearances. I guess the author was working from a lot of Cicero’s letters (as do so many historians from Plutarch on), so he focused on Cicero. But there are huge stretches of the book where Cicero is not mentioned at all, including the first couple of chapters.

The author is a Marxist, of course. He refers often to the proletariat in Rome; he defends Catiline because Catiline was in favor of redistributing the wealth; he name-checks the poor oppressed Sacco and Vanzetti; he touches upon themes and books mentioned in Books That Changed America (namely, conservative opposition to public schools and The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 by Alfred T. Mahan referring to either Pompey or Caesar’s understanding of naval transport of armies); and he often equates good with progressivism/Marxism and bad/corruption/know-nothing aristocracy with “conservatives.” But he’s an early twentieth century Marxist, so it’s lacking in the invective you get in later works.

As I mentioned, the author spends a lot of time talking about things other than Cicero, and he spends a lot of time equating the lives of Roman citizens in Cicero’s lifetime to different periods in history, including seventeenth century England and modern (~1940) America. The comparisons are probably too facile, especially when trying to equate the political groups of the period to modern equivalents (which boils down mostly to Tories/Republicans/Old Senate Factions = bad, Democrats/Redistributionists/Caesar and anyone shaking up the order to make it fairer for the proletariat = good). However:

This is still a pretty good book to read. It is pretty in-depth coverage of Roman history during Cicero’s lifetime, which includes the First Triumvirate and the Second Triumvirate and the Civil War from a different perspective than Julius Caesar. It’s the story of one man with hopes of a restoration of the Constitution that never comes and the slow, continued dissolution of the ideal of the Roman Republic from an ideal state that probably never existed to the seeds of empire based on strong, charismatic men with armies ruling.

It also provides a good deal of context for Cicero’s orations and his other works, including the historical details of why and when the pieces were written. Reading a collection of Cicero’s words will get you a little context, but this book fills in all the gaps.

The author does not paint a flattering picture of Cicero, though. The subject of the book, when he appears, is presented as vacillating, vain, vainglorious, and too much in love with his own oratory. Also, Cicero, in this book, seems to think his words alone could counter armed insurrections of various stripes. A tale with modern parallels.

I enjoyed the book and learned a bunch from it. It’s not without its flaws–politics aside, it does give the subject a bit of short shrift and it has a tendency to draw back from a point in time to provide historical context which gives the reader a bit of whiplash–but informative none the less.

Recommended.

Books mentioned in this review: