Book Report: Selected Tales and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe (1927, 1943)

Book coverThis book does not actually contain The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket, no matter what I said in May, which is just as well. I started this book in April, and it took me two months to finish it.

The book collects a number of Poe’s poems in the beginning of the book and then a bunch of his short stories at the back. All the best known works are in it: “The Bells”, “Annabel Lee”, “The Raven” among the poems and “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Gold Bug”, “The Black Cat”, “A Cask of Amontillado”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” among the stores. It also includes a number of scenes in verse (and in prose) from Politian, Poe’s unfinished play.

The aforementioned pieces are the best of Poe, which is why they’re often unanthologized. The other poems and stories are a mixed bag; although they feature the rich, textured learned language of the nineteenth century, sometimes the prose does not serve the narrative (or the poem belabors and loses the point).

It is pretty learned stuff, and Poe engages some of the intellectual and philosophical trends of the time. For example, the beginning of “The Imp of the Perverse” is thus:

IN THE consideration of the faculties and impulses — of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment, has been equally overlooked by all the moralists who have preceded them. In the pure arrogance of the reason, we have all overlooked it. We have suffered its existence to escape our senses, solely through want of belief — of faith; — whether it be faith in Revelation, or faith in the Kabbala. The idea of it has never occurred to us, simply because of its supererogation. We saw no need of the impulse — for the propensity. We could not perceive its necessity. We could not understand, that is to say, we could not have understood, had the notion of this primum mobile ever obtruded itself; — we could not have understood in what manner it might be made to further the objects of humanity, either temporal or eternal. It cannot be denied that phrenology and, in great measure, all metaphysicianism have been concocted a priori. The intellectual or logical man, rather than the understanding or observant man, set himself to imagine designs — to dictate purposes to God. Having thus fathomed, to his satisfaction, the intentions of Jehovah, out of these intentions he built his innumerable systems of mind. In the matter of phrenology, for example, we first determined, naturally enough, that it was the design of the Deity that man should eat. We then assigned to man an organ of alimentiveness, and this organ is the scourge with which the Deity compels man, will-I nill-I, into eating. Secondly, having settled it to be God’s will that man should continue his species, we discovered an organ of amativeness, forthwith. And so with combativeness, with ideality, with causality, with constructiveness, — so, in short, with every organ, whether representing a propensity, a moral sentiment, or a faculty of the pure intellect. And in these arrangements of the Principia of human action, the Spurzheimites, whether right or wrong, in part, or upon the whole, have but followed, in principle, the footsteps of their predecessors: deducing and establishing every thing from the preconceived destiny of man, and upon the ground of the objects of his Creator.

It would have been wiser, it would have been safer, to classify (if classify we must) upon the basis of what man usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing, rather than upon the basis of what we took it for granted the Deity intended him to do. If we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts, that call the works into being? If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures, how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation?

Induction, a posteriori, would have brought phrenology to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term. In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable, but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements. It is a radical, a primitive impulse-elementary. It will be said, I am aware, that when we persist in acts because we feel we should not persist in them, our conduct is but a modification of that which ordinarily springs from the combativeness of phrenology. But a glance will show the fallacy of this idea. The phrenological combativeness has for its essence, the necessity of self-defence. It is our safeguard against injury. Its principle regards our well-being; and thus the desire to be well is excited simultaneously with its development. It follows, that the desire to be well must be excited simultaneously with any principle which shall be merely a modification of combativeness, but in the case of that something which I term perverseness, the desire to be well is not only not aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment exists.

An appeal to one’s own heart is, after all, the best reply to the sophistry just noticed. No one who trustingly consults and thoroughly questions his own soul, will be disposed to deny the entire radicalness of the propensity in question. It is not more incomprehensible than distinctive. There lives no man who at some period has not been tormented, for example, by an earnest desire to tantalize a listener by circumlocution. The speaker is aware that he displeases; he has every intention to please, he is usually curt, precise, and clear, the most laconic and luminous language is struggling for utterance upon his tongue, it is only with difficulty that he restrains himself from giving it flow; he dreads and deprecates the anger of him whom he addresses; yet, the thought strikes him, that by certain involutions and parentheses this anger may be engendered. That single thought is enough. The impulse increases to a wish, the wish to a desire, the desire to an uncontrollable longing, and the longing (to the deep regret and mortification of the speaker, and in defiance of all consequences) is indulged.

We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow, and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, — of the definite with the indefinite — of the substance with the shadow. But, if the contest have proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails, — we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer — note to the ghost that has so long overawed us. It flies — it disappears — we are free. The old energy returns. We will labor now. Alas, it is too late!

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall — this rushing annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a Plunge. To indulge, for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

Examine these similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them because we feel that we should not. Beyond or behind this there is no intelligible principle; and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the Arch-Fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.

Throughout, he takes shots at Kant and other men of the mind. I can recognize a bunch of it as I’ve been going through a history of philosophy lecture series concurrently, so I feel SMAHT!

As to the poems, the best of them (and even some of the lesser amongst the pieces) have something so often lacking from the other poetry I read (such as Friendly Fireside Poems, a book whose reading overlapped with this): mouthfeel. This is the word used by food and drink makers to describe how the product feels in the mouth. Some poems have it: They are fun to read aloud and to feel the words in the mouth. Shank had end rhymes and good rhythm, but no mouthfeel. I’d like to think some of my poems have it, but that’s up to the (aloud) reader to decide. It’s also why I tend to move my lips when reading poems. Which doesn’t make me look SMAHT at all.

At any rate, comparable to the experience I had reading The Complete Fiction of Lovecraft. I enjoyed bits of it, but overall, I was reluctant at times to re-engage with it, which lead to a long reading time.

I did read the complete stories of Poe when I was younger, so I must have seen all of them before, but the ones that stick with me will definitely be the same ones that did in the first place: the best-known. For a reason.

Book Report: Four from Planet 5 by Murray Leinster (1959)

Book coverThis book is a 1959 paperback. I initially thought it was by a British author because of some of the conceits and spelling (and a spot where Britain comes off a little better than the United States), but the author is an American.

At any rate: An American scientific research station records an odd event, and when investigating, the scientists (and a reporter for a women’s magazine) find a presumed spacecraft with four teenagers in it. As they begin to assemble gear to contact where they come from, a scientist destroys the equipment because he’s sure that the world does not want people from an advanced civilization showing up, what with the Cold War and all. The book then is a number of episodes where the US Government takes charge of the kids and hides them from the world, getting more and more impatient with the kids who cannot answer the questions they have because they don’t speak English well (as they learn it after they’ve arrived).

The book is padded out by the scientist protagonist updating and revising his theory about their origin and purpose as well as the government’s plan for them. Books with hard scientists as the protagonists can be risky, especially if the academic parts of science take up a lot of the novel (see also The Forge of God).

It’s not a particularly compelling book, and I enjoyed it mostly for its historical perspective as a piece of speculative fiction written in the late 1950s.

The copy I have belonged to some kid, apparently, as there’s some scrawling of–crayon? in various places, and it’s missing the title page and probably first two pages of the book. Since it was just the beginning of the setup, I went ahead with reading the book anyway, hoping that random pages would not be missing. In retrospect, that probably wouldn’t have been as bad as it might have been in other books.

Book Report: Thundering Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh (1993)

Book coverThis book is an actual Buddhist book. Unlike Hanh’s own Peace of Mind, Start Here Now by Susan Piver, or Zen Mind, Beginner Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, this book presents a Buddhist Sutra–a teaching of Buddha–and offers exegesis and commentary on it.

The sutra in question is Sutra On Knowing The Better Way To Catch A Snake. In it, a monk/teacher has been telling everyone that Buddha says sensory pleasure does not dissuade you from your practice, and he is brought before Buddha to receive some correction. He does, in a form of some parables, including a better way to catch a snake (spoiler alert: use a stick). Then Hanh steps in with some history about the monk in question and teasing out some meanings about the parables in the sutra. The biggest point, though, is that Buddha wants you to know that his teachings are a tool to use on the way to enlightenment, and somewhere along the way to enlightenment, you should abandon his teachings because they are only a tool. You’ll have to let go of things to get to nirvana.

The book does delve into some of the Numbered Lists of Buddhism, but not deeply; they expect you to know it. It also refers to the cycle of birth and rebirth that is Buddhist religion. Which the aforementioned other books, with their focus on meditation and mindfulness as part of Buddhist practice, do not go into. Which makes it easier to be a Buddhist, I imagine, not having to knowingly embrace the whole meaning of the sutras.

I’m interested in reading more of the sort, if only to sound wise when I whip out something from a Buddhist sutra in conversation sometime.

Book Report: Kung Fu #3: Superstition by Howard Lee (1973)

Book coverWith all the Buddhism I’ve been reading lately, it only makes sense to go back to what might actually be the source of my interest in it of late: reading books based on the television show Kung Fu. Imagine my surprise that my research indicates it’s been two years since I read one. Maybe it’s not the source of my recent (and recent means “within the last year”) reading in the philosophy/religion. Or maybe these things are slow percolating for me.

At any rate, this book is the third in the series. In it, Caine is railroaded in a small town, charged for a crime he did not commit, and is sentenced to labor at a local silver mine. In a related thread, a gunman seeks vengeance for some bad hombres who killed his brother and kidnapped his wife. It turns out that they have bought a mine with the ill-gotten gains, and that the woman went willingly. So as Caine tries to Buddhistically manage himself at the mind under a sadistic overseer and to show the near-beaten other ‘inmates’ how to buck up but not necessarily rebel, the gunman meets up with a couple of women from a travelling show going to the mine to find the fiance of one of the women.

So that’s your setup.

It’s a fun read, quick, laden with Buddhist pop sayings instead of bullets ripping meat. I’m afraid I only have one more of these from whatever book sale I found them, so I’ll run out of them before I run out of Executioner paperbacks. And that makes me a little sad. But, on the other hand, I have another yet to read. Soon, or in two years.

Book Report: Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein (2012)

Book coverI picked this book up from the library because I again forgot a magazine to thumb through while my children did their library things and because the philosophy lecture series I’m listening to took Epicurus beyond the word “epicurean.” The library doesn’t often carry the complete works of Epicurus, so I made do with something with Epicurus in the title.

The author of the book has a dental issue, and his doctor offers implants. The author is in his early 70s and considers how long implant treatments will take compared to how long he might live—hey, my family lost their teeth in their 30s, so I’ve been thinking like this for every dental appointment since I was in my twenties (which explains why I didn’t get braces twenty years ago). Instead of spending two years or so going through the painful treatments, the author decamps to an island off of the coast of Greece with a couple of philosophy books to learn what the old philosophers had to say about aging gracefully as contrasted with the modern imperative to try to stay young into your old old age.

The author, who has written many books on pop culture philosophy, goes through Epicurus and other philosophers including the Existentialists and whatnot, as he sits in his rented digs or in the local tavern where the other old men hang out. It is a bit of a ranging discussion, with lots of quick flourishes of explanation as to what other philosophers were about. I’d like to think I could hold a conversation like this: It’s a summary instead of a deep academic dive into the individual philosophers.

Basically, the right way to age is to accept the slower pace afforded the elders and to enjoy the breadth and depth of your memories. This is old age, contrasted with old old age, which is that period of assisted living and dementia immediately preceding death. He is in favor of suicide and assisted suicide because he has determined that that sort of life is not worth living, and that life is only worth life if it is lived well.

So I have a difference of opinion with the author in a couple things. One is growing old gracefully—instead of his approach, I’ll probably be on the side of those who continue starting new things and whatnot (although I’ll probably skip the plastic surgery in pursuit of a youthful appearance). I’m also against the thought that life is worthless unless it’s lived well, since that principle leads one onto a slippery slope where the well can be adjusted to different levels according to one’s desired outcome, and the option to end one’s own life can easily become society’s prerogative to end the lives of those who are not living well but might not know it. Perhaps my resistance comes from a sneaking suspicion that I’ve not lived my life well and my hope I’ll do better now. Or perhaps it’s a principle that life is better than not-life.

At any rate, it was a fun and engaging read. Perhaps I’ll look for the author’s other works at book sales since I didn’t see others next to this one at the library.

Book Report: Shock Waves by “Don Pendleton” (1985)

Book coverDo not confuse this book with the John Sandford novel Shock Wave. I didn’t until I was looking at the names of books I’d already read and thought perhaps I’d read this novel before and mistyped it.

At any rate, this book is a bit of a skip from the earlier ones I’ve read: The last, The Bone Yard was #75, and this is #81. As I get later into the series, the numbers skip by higher increments. I wonder if the books lost their popularity after the middle 1980s enough that there aren’t a lot out in book sale circulation (or if the covers changed colors enough so that I don’t recognize them). So I’m likely to miss some series business, such as changing the focus from the Mafia (again) to aliens or something.

Within it, Bolan travels to New York (Long Island) to rescue an informant who has been captured from the witness protection program by the mob. He finds a local boss has called together a klatsch of capos to crown himself the boss of all bosses. One of the Ranger Girls has accompanied a West Coast capo to the meeting, and her attempt to communicate intel blows her cover. So once Bolan starts shooting, he has to watch out for a couple of friendlies.

The book is a bit talky: Everyone gets a chapter to think about Bolan and what he’s doing. Although there are interesting elements to the plot–one of the West Coast capos calls in reinforcements who arrive just as Bolan sets it off–they’re not handled very deftly. And the book climaxes quickly with the big shoot-up set piece.

So it’s a basic Bolan book: A hard site, a soft penetration, a hard invasion, finis. With a lot of extra talking instead of suspense or tension.

Perhaps it’s best that I not find too many of the later books in the series (by later,, I mean “the back three quarters”) as they’re keeping me from reading important books that make me feel smaht. On the other hand, they do break up the smahtness. So I’ll continue reading a dozen or so of these a year. Almost like I had a subscription!

The end material of this 1985 book is also interesting. In addition to the subscription offers (with free bumper sticker), Gold Eagle has a tease for its Automag magazine about men’s adventure fiction (which must have flopped, as I can’t find anything about it on the Internet, although the people who named the magazine certainly picked a name that would yield search engine results for actual semi-automatic magazines and gold coins in the 21st century–but then again, SEO in 1985 was very primitive indeed). There’s also a contest for a Jeep CJ and a Gun Data Sheet for some obscure rifle.

Also, the book uses the phrase the war on terror to refer to Bolan’s earlier exploits in attacking terrorist groups. Which made it seem a little more contemporary than the book is, but when I was reading those books (in the middle 40s to, what, late 60s? #70?), the same terrorist organizations and countries remain hotbeds of terrorist activity today. So the books remain too timely in that regard.

These books are not only quick and sometimes interesting reads, but they’re wonderful bits of 80s nostalgia.

Book Report: Peace of Mind: Becoming Fully Present by Thich Nhat Hanh (2013)

Book coverI forgot to bring a magazine with me one day while taking my children to the library, so I picked up this book by a prolific Vietnamese monk.

The book focuses on the mindfulness aspect of Buddhist practice. Basically, the book is 150 pages of reminding yourself to take a breath and focus on your body and your mind in the moment. Which is not unhelpful, of course, as that’s pretty good advice. The book contains a couple bits on other Buddhist practices, but it doesn’t delve too deeply into the pure philosophy of Buddhism (the ontology, epistemology, or theology). It’s not even as focused on sitting technique as, say, Start Here Now.

So, basically, it’s take a deep breath and be aware of yourself in the present moment.

For 150 pages.

Although I’m not interested in Buddhism as a pure philosophy, I like reading about the practical applications, such as the mindfulness and a bit of the meditative aspects of it. So I’ll probably pick up books like this from time to time to remind me to take a deep breath and to be mindful. But then I’ll get sixty pages into them and think they’re being repetitive. When they’re probably just trying to be reinforcing, mantra-ish, and perhaps a bit hypnotic.

Book Report: Discourse on Method by Rene Descartes translated by Donald A. Cress (1637, 1998)

Book coverI’ve been listening to a lecture series on the Great Ideas of Philosophy, and as we’ve gone along, I’ve recognized the many of the seminal works mentioned as items on my to-read shelves. So I picked up this book because it’s not very long. Also, it’s at a turning point in history, right as the Middle Ages are ending and the Enlightenment is about to begin (although you could dispute with me the dates where this occurs, but I’m having none of it: this is my blog, and if I want to make interpreted remarks, I will, thank you very much). Also, it is only 44 pages, unlike, say, Being and Nothingness.

At any rate, the book includes the two big things one remembers from Descartes: I think, therefore I am (Section 4). That animals have no souls (Section 5).

Actually, while reading this, I had a brief conversation with a high school student who told me he didn’t like Descartes because Descartes said animals had no souls. I’d just finished the section, so I could explain in greater detail. Basically, it’s that you can build machines that will behave according to their parts, but humans are something else, as we can do things and communicate things that are outside of the physical parameters of our bodies. Animals, on the other hand, cannot. I conflate Descartes’ argument with something I recently read on the Internet about the language of animals, which says that animals can communicate through sounds, but they cannot create complex sentences that indicate conceptual thought.

I felt smart, anyway, being able to explain in more detail the argument. Without the pages and pages of explanation on the then-latest science of heart surgery prefaced with:

I would like those who are not versed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading this, to have the heart of some large animal that has lungs dissected in their presence (for such a heart is in all respects sufficiently similar to that of a man), and to be shown the two chambers or cavities that are in it.

Well, I didn’t have advanced biology class, but I did see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, so I was ready.

A lot of the discourse his explanation of what he’s done so far, and it ends with his talking about how he has not published a longer work after Galileo’s troubles, but he hopes that others will take what he has written and carry on other experiments according to his musings and using his method.

I’m glad to have read the discourse. As the conversation with the young man and the lecture series shows, it’s best to read the primary sources instead of relying on the summation of a thinker passed onto you by someone else. Also, the course helps put Descartes in context of when he wrote so that you’re not reading the book thinking it’s primitive and people have said this for centuries without focusing on when this was said and in what context.

So I’m pleased to have read it, and I feel smaht.

Book Report: Friendly Fireside Poems by Lloyd Carleton Shank (1957)

Book coverThis book is a nice collection of poems from the middle part of the last century. The author has a pretty good sense of rhythm, the poems have end rhymes, and they’re nice short bits of Americana with an especial Christian sensibility. They cover things like the seasons, special events like Inauguration Day (Eisenhower, probably), and holidays. They’re about being neighborly and looking to God. The kind of thing that got published in newspapers in a bygone era, but never made it to the slicks or the anthologies.

They’re better than some of the chapbooks I read, but unfortunately, they suffer in comparison to the better of Edgar Allan Poe’s work which I read concurrently. The Poe poems are fun to say aloud, whereas these are just words.

So it’s okay if you’re going deep into the poet bench, but there’s a lot of better poetry out there. On the other hand, the poems are nice and short, and I’m learning just how much aversion I have to long poems.

Book Report: Shopping Smart by John Stossel (1980)

Book coverYou know I’ve read some of Stossel’s more libertarian current events (then current) books like Give Me A Break and Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. This book is not in that vein: Before he was a correspondent on 20/20, he was a local consumer reporter in New York City, and this book stems from those reports.

Its subtitle is “The only consumer guide you’ll ever need.” Spoiler alert: It is not.

I used to say that the Internet really hasn’t changed things all that much, but I stand corrected. I came of age as the Internet did, so all the adult things I’ve had to do, I’ve had to do in the Internet age (although I have typed college papers on a typewriter and used a card-based library catalog). Chapters on buying a house and buying a car illustrate how much these things have changed. I generally know what I want before I go to the dealer or, although I tend to retain a realtor, I do a lot of looking myself through the MLS on Realtor.com to get a sense of prices and whatnot. So just from the research elements alone, consumers are already ahead of where they were 40 years ago.

So the book is more relevant as a historical document than anything else: You can look at it to marvel at the $5,000 cars and the 10-12% interest rates. The charts that have nine or ten major national carriers and their customer satisfaction rates (spoiler alert: The ones with the lowest survive the best). The appreciation of the new stuff that is old stuff by now (Tylenol, before the taining scare, as better than aspirin).

You probably have to have been there, alive and partially cognizant, in 1980 to really appreciate how much buying and selling has changed in the interim. Otherwise this book is nothing but one of those 1800s medical texts that people buy to decorate their homes with old books. With a disco-era pictures of John Stossel as the main decorating point.

Book Report: The Tao of Elvis by David Rosen (2002)

Book coverI got this book at ABC Books about a week ago, and I jumped right on it. I read it quickly because there’s not a lot of text to it, although perhaps more than in the actual Tao Te Ching.

The author is a Taoist Jungian psychoanalyst, so you can probably expect what you’re going to get: Presentation of Elvis as an archetypal Taoist king. The book consists of an introduction that stresses this, followed by 42 “chapters” (one for each year of Elvis’s life). Each chapter consists of a theme title page with an epigram, three or four quotes from the Tao Te Ching or other Taoist thinkers, three or four quotes from or about Elvis, and a couple paragraphs expounding on the theme. Themes include things like Knowledge and Wisdom, Home (Graceland), Innocence and Play, Work, and Success and Failure (see how important the serial comma is in that list, people?).

At any rate, it’s as much a book about Elvis as it is the Tao, really. Most of the bits of Taoism are taken out of their context, but after reading the Tao Te Ching, I can say they’re probably more appealing and understanding that way, without the next line that doesn’t really follow. That is, I read it more to see what Elvis said that the author of this book pulled out more than I read to see what the Taoist thinkers said.

I think the author tried a little too hard to tie the concepts together, and given the publication date (2002), I can’t help but wonder if he missed the sweet spot of capturing an audience with relevant knowledge of and appreciation of Elvis. Even my friend who used to be an Elvis impersonator is past that now, and he held on into the early part of the century (although living near to Branson, I know there is still some need and draw for them). And about the cover: Is that a yoga (Hindu) pose?

Which is not to say there aren’t lessons in the book: It introduced me to some Taoist thinkers beyond Lao Tzu, so it’s worthwhile in that regard, I suppose.

In other news, this book quotes the one book I have ever read on Elvis, Caught in a Trap by Rick Stanley. Although not as cool as when one philosophy book I read refers to another I’ve read, the cross-reference in my head is still somewhat cool.

Book Report: The Bone Yard by “Don Pendleton” (1985)

Book coverThis book is the second in a row from the Executioner series that has an intricate plot, but this one was a bit more intricate than the writer could handle.

In it, Bolan is in Las Vegas. As he’s making a probe of a hard site, a bunch of ninja come charging out of the house carrying a woman over their shoulder. It’s ninja from the Yakuza who have come to hit the a Las Vegas mob boss, and they’ve carried away a woman reporter he was interrogating. Before they can interrogate her themselves, Bolan steps in and rescues her. She’s writing a series on the mob for the local paper, and somebody wanted to silence her. Turns out that she’s the granddaughter of the old Jewish mob boss who was neutered by the mafia but who was kept on as a hotel manager. He goes way back with the paper’s publisher, and the grandfather has plans of his own to cut down the mafia with his own imported mercenaries. And there’s the Yakuza moving in.

So there’s a pretty intricate plot going on with several moving parts, people with their own agendas, and whatnot. The author cuts between some of the players to get their thoughts on their next move, so it’s a bit more complicated than the books told solely from Mack Bolan’s point of view.

Unfortunately, the complicated build up is solved, ultimately, in a couple of basic Gold Eagle paperback set piece shoot-em-ups that really diminish what was going on and end it a bit abruptly.

The plot could have been so much more, but in the end (the abruptish end), it’s 180 pages of what it is, not what it could be.

Still, it’s keeping the series interesting.

Book Report: The Reagan Wit edited by Bill Adler with Bill Adler, Jr. (1981)

Book coverI have a bunch of Reagan-themed books in case my 1980s nostalgia kicks in. This book is one of them, and to be honest, I picked it because it’s pretty slim, and I needed a quick read amidst all the Eastern philosophy I’ve been reading of late.

Although the book proclaims to be examples of Reagan’s wit, it looks to be a quick means to capitalize on his recent election (given the publication date of 1981, it was rushed to press within months of his inauguration). So the actual wit in it is ill-considered. We get some one-liners from earlier in his political career and his governorship, but many of them fail to stand alone without the context. Some of them are not much more than “Aw, shut up.” (Reagan responds to some hecklers.)

Once we get into the presidency, though, we get fuller stories with paragraphs of setup before the wit, so they’re better. I’m not sure whether that’s because the wit was more recent or because the presidential papers are more complete. But they were better.

So it’s not like it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Or even amusing for the most part. But it does provide a bit of a reminder how tough a Republican political figure and elected official had even in the good old days of the 1960s or 1980s which lends itself to perspective on the present day’s troubles. Which is something the people of the present day often lack, perhaps by design.

(I guess my 80s nostalgia has flared from time to time already: see previous Reagania Remembering Reagan and Dear Americans: Letters from the Desk of Ronald Reagan.)

Book Report: Silent Flowers: A New Collection of Japanese Haiku Poems edited by Dorothy Price (1967)

Book coverThis book was published by Hallmark back in the day when your grandmother or great grandmother might pick up a little light book of poetry as a gift for someone and maybe take a little try at verse herself even though she left school in the eighth grade to take care of her younger siblings. And her poems were better than the stuff written by kids in the English program in college because sixth graders back then were better read than contemporary college-educated folk. But I digress.

The book is, as you might expect, a slim collection of haiku poems. They’re translated from the Japanese, so the actual 5-7-5 syllable count is off on many of them.

But they’re in the proper haiku style, where they provide an Eastern koan sort of thought designed to spur your musing or to trip your own experience with what they’re discussing instead of creating an experience for you.

However, it’s not best to sit down and read them all at once, as they’ll seem very repetitive if you do.

On the plus side, I can now say I prefer the haiku of Bosun to Basho, which will be nice and will impress anyone who earnestly asks.

Are there any haiku in the book of poetry I keep talking about publishing? Yes. And I’ll have to remember to add this one.

Book Report: The Upanishads translated by Vernon Katz and Thomas Egenes (2015)

Book coverI picked up this book from the library not long after reading Tao Te Ching. I mean, why not? I’ve also read a couple books on Buddhism recently (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Start Here Now, and Buddhism Through Christian Eyes) and Tao Te Ching. Why not touch on that other large Asian religion, Hinduism?

Like the Tao Te Ching, I think I might have read this book before, or at least parts of it. I did have a class on Eastern Philosophy, after all, which I denigrated at the time because Father Naus (not Nous because how cool would that have been) used to stand at the lectern, holding the texts, and saying “I don’t understand that, but maybe that’s the point.” Now that I’m a little older and have read more of them, I can understand his point of view and think maybe he’s right.

This book includes many but not all of the things called “Upanishad.” The book includes:

  • Isha Upanishad
  • Kena Upanishad
  • Katha Upanishad
  • Prashna Upanishad
  • Mundaka Upanishad
  • Mandukya Upanishad
  • Taittiriya Upanishad
  • Aitareya Upanishad
  • Shevetashvatara Upanishad

It’s kind of like reading the psalms of Hinduism. The Vedas are earlier works, I remember from my class, and these are later poetical reflections on them that are also canonical.

At any rate, many of them talk about the basics of Hinduism, including the form of Brahman, the eternal, and the Atman (the bit of eternal incarnation that is the individual self) (I think). Some of them refer to the gods lower than Brahman, but you don’t get a cohesive Western style of narrative or lyric. Some of them have a bit of it, but mostly they’re designed to spur reflection and meditation.

Reading this, one cannot help but compare the impression of Hinduism to Buddhism that I got from the other things I’ve read. Both depend heavily upon meditation to get in touch with the inner self, with the Brahman/Buddha nature that is eternal and present within oneself; however, Buddhism is very much about renunciation (Buddha’s first four thoughts are that want creates suffering, so renounce wants), but Hinduism, at least in some of the Upanishads, is about celebrating the things you eat and whatnot. Although I guess that one often thinks of Hindu ascetics, so there must be some strains of Hindu thought that talk about renunciation. That stuff must come from other writings.

Although I delved into this book with some relish, by the time I got two thirds of the way through I was pretty fatigued with reading it. Partially, that stems from reading other speculative primary texts like the Tao Te Ching and this book on Ancient Near East primary texts I’ve worked on a bit. But cumulatively, I have to wonder how many more Eastern thought books I will get through before my current interest in them wanes. I predict…not many.

Book Report: Savanah Swingsaw by “Don Pendleton” (1985)

Book coverIt seems to me that I knocked some of the non-Pendleton Executioner books recently in a book report on something else, but I can’t find it now. But I was pleased with this book because its plot differed from the simpler Bolan Invades A Hardsite plots that so many earlier, non-Pendleton books were.

In this book, Bolan gets himself thrown in jail to break out a small time crook targeted by the KGB for assassination. While inside, Bolan gets into some trouble with other inmates and gets a little help from his wheelchair-bound cellmate. A vigilante band called the Savannah Swingsaw breaks Bolan before Mack can execute his own escape plans. So Bolan has to break the targetted kid out before the assassins can get him. Once he does, he finds that the Savannah Swingsaw’s crimelord adversary has found them at last, so Bolan has to help them clean the crime syndicate up, too.

The plot, as I mentioned, was fresh and different, which made the book a better read than some of the other recent ones in the series, and I’m looking forward to picking up a couple more in the future. As in “reading the ones I have”–I have a pile enough left that I’m in no hurry to acquire more. Maybe someday.

Book Report: Perfect Dark: Initial Vector by Greg Rucka (2004)

Book coverI picked up this book after Perfect Dark was an answer to a question at a recent Geek-centric trivia night, and I did not know the answer. Of course, because I’m encountering this book as a book and not a video game, I probably won’t have it in the proper context should I ever be asked about the franchise again. On the other hand, it’s a book that I get to count towards my annual total.

I thought I recognized the author’s name. I thought perhaps he was one of the authors on the The Starcraft Archive, but I was mistaken. I remembered the name, vaguely, because he’s the comic book writer who last year said that Wonder Woman, canonically, is gay. Which is kinda overreach, if you ask me: If you’re just a small contributor to a canon, you don’t get to pronounce ex cathedra things that cover the canon which began before your birth and might well continue after your death. But I don’t tend to write in existing mythos because I’m a control freak.

At any rate, I guess this book is a prequel to the game series, but I’m less clear on the game mythos than I am on the modern DC mythos (this research notwithstanding). But as a standalone book, it’s all right. It’s set in a corporate future, the kind where the big corporations have replaced nations, have their own armies, and have re-written international law to the benefit of the corporations. One organization, the Carrington Institute, is working to expose wrongdoing among the corporations, and it has working for it a woman named Joanna Dark (of the game title). A young Mary Sue, she’s very good at fighting and shooting and whatnot.

So when one of the corporation’s CEO disappears, it triggers a race for his successor, and it comes down to a woman programmer-turned-executive and a doctor with a pharmaceutically enhanced henchman. The Carrington Institute prefers one over the other, and it looks to help her by finding a mysterious blackmailer who has information on the other candidate, who might have triggered a global pandemic.

There’s a lot of corporate intrigue going on, people not knowing what other peoples’ angles are, and so forth. Then there are some action set pieces which lack a certain amount of verisimilitude (people flipping up tables or ducking behind sofas in a firefight kinda thing).

But, as I said, it was okay.

And if you’re wondering, is there room in this other canon that the writer is working in for gay characters? Well, there is a moment where a woman touches another woman’s face tenderly, so all indicators point to yes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But if you’re known more as an outspoken person than a writer, people are going to be more sensitive to your outspokenness than to your writing, and that’s not a good thing for your reputation as a writer qua writer.

So, how does it stack up on the scale of books from video games? Better than The Dig, not as good as HALO: First Strike and most of the aforementioned Starcraft Archive. There are probably more in the series, but I’m not sure I’ll run out to get them.

Book Report: Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu (2007)

Book coverI might have read this book before; there was something familiar about it. Of course, it would seem familiar, as the Dao is out there, and I’m only gleaning what already exists in all of us and the universe.

At any rate, the Tao Te Ching is a collection of 70-something short verses built for contemplation of the Tao. Like many Eastern koan-style verses, the meaning of the lines is paradoxic on a surface reading, but once you get into the spirit of the thing, you get a better idea of how the paradoxes are resolved through recognition of the universal at the root of both horns of the paradox.

So the effect is calming as you go through it a bit, relaxing, but then it becomes a little repetitive because once you grok it, additional repetitions and slight twists of the theme don’t add much. Or perhaps I’m not deep enough into it to get the subtler meanings of the repetition.

I borrowed the book from the library as part of my recent Eastern history/philosophy focus, but I wouldn’t be surpised if a closer inspection of my read bookshelves already contains a copy of this translation even. If not, I’ll think about picking one up if I can find one inexpensively (the list price is $17, and I don’t think it’s Tao to spend that much on a book).

I don’t think I could pursue Taoism as a full-time philosophy, as looking for the natural, going-with-the-current-of-life action for most situations for me would be to take a nap, and I think life requires more action than that. But it should also have a sense of peace that the Way emphasizes.

Book Report: Spiderman: The Octopus Agenda by Diane Duane (1996)

Book coverApparently, in the middle 1990s, Marvel and Byron Preiss/Putnam put out a series of novels based on Marvel properties. In hardback. These books preceded the new movies that revitalized the Marvel house, by the way. These books, it would seem, did not do it.

This book is not the first of the Spider-Man books; it mentions a couple of other adventures in the past, and they seem to be building to something, as elements of those previous books led to elements in this book.

At any rate, the plot: Spider-Man finds out that Doc Ock is plotting something, and it might have something to do with a company he’d investigated previously, including some teaming up with Venom in Miami (in a previous book). Venom (Eddie Brock) is also on the trail of the company, which seems to have supplied Doctor Octopus with nuclear material that the bad doctor is going to use to crash the world’s financial markets and then destroy some cities to purify the human race. So it’s standard super hero fare.

But, unfortunately, a Spider-Man comic (or film) might be hard to transfer over to a novel, and Ms. Duane doesn’t capture the essence and the kinetic energy of Spider-Man. It’s told a bit like a straight thriller (with Spider-Man in the center of it), but the pacing is not as fast as you would expect if you were raised on Spider-Man comics, and there’s a bit too much day-to-day interaction between Peter Parker and Mary Jane (along with their housekeeping and her modeling jobs). So it’s a bit slow.

Additionally, there are some errors and oversights in the book. If I recall, it refers to the place where the license plate attaches to the car as the fender instead of the bumper. It calls the headquarters of the Fantastic Four the Fantastic Four’s Headquarters instead of the Baxter Building. It talks about the sound of Spider-Man’s footfalls as he walks into an abandoned subway station (which sounds loud for what are essentially socks, and walking on the floor seems very un-Spider-Manish). And a couple other things that were jarring.

On the other hand, the book has moments that struck right or fit in with my worldview. When MJ takes a job doing voice work for a Captain Planet and the Planeteers style cartoon, one of the other says, “Please God, twenty years from now when everyone’s reading Tolstoy and Kipling again, all this will seem very silly.” (Spoiler alert: Twenty years later, they’re probably planning a live action Captain Planet and the Planeteers reboot instead of reading Kipling (didn’t they just do a live action Jungle Book reboot? They were rebooting the cartoon no doubt.)) In another, an elderly cell phone hacker calls a grown man Stevie, and this reminded me of an older woman I knew who called a distinguished doctor “Jeffy” and the former state legislator and current County Clerk “Shanie.” So that rang true.

Also, in 1996, we get a 21st century diatribe also from the older hacker woman:

“You’re being circumspect for reasons of your own,” said Doris. “I’m not going to pry. Let’s let it pass. But bring me your wife’s phone, all right? If your problem is solvable, I want to see if I can solve it. For one thing, if her phone has the covert chip in place, we’ll be able to see some other data–time and location information, other things–which the phone company’s own records won’t necessarily reflect. There may even be recordings of some voice material.”

Peter’s eyes opened wide at that. “Recordings? How?”

Doris smiled at him. “Our snoopy government. Peter, there are more intelligence-gathering bureaus running around in this country doing their gathering than most of the government would ever like you to know. They’d quote you ‘national security’ as a reason for it–and to some extent they might be right. But the truth is that governments are just naturally nosy, and big ones are much nosier than others, and we have one of the biggest. A lot of calls are monitored, although everyone denies it. There’s no use in them denying it, really. The technology makes it easy now, especially since our cell phones systems are still almost all analog, which any kid with a scanner can listen in on. And one of the most basic human vices is the desire to look through the keyhole and see what the neighbors are really doing. When things go digital, the monitoring may lessen a little. The signal is harder to break, and consumers are getting more sensitive to the issue. Which is as it should be. But governments will still fight back, doing their best to fight tighht voice-encryption methods. By their own lights, they’re right to do so, they feel they’re protecting their own interests.” Doris sighed a little. “The NSA in particular monitors a lot of calls all over the country. Computers do it for them, taking random samplings of bandwidth and searching for certain keywords in conversations–guns, bombs, drugs, that kind of thing. If something dangerous-sounding turns up, a little bell goes off somewhere, and a live monitor quietly comes into the circuit to determine whether the threat is real. Other countries do much the same. In fact, the NSA learned the technique from the British, a while after the troubles started in Northern Ireland. As far as I know, every call from Britain to Ireland and vice versa is still routinely computer-sampled for suspect content. And I think they do the same, just for general interest–and again, with an eye to Ireland, and their own drug-smuggling problems, and so forth–with everything that comes in from the U.S. and Canada via the transatlantic cable and satellite downlink stations on the south coast of the U.K. GCHQ passes on anything interesting that they ‘hear’ to the NSAm and the NSA returns the favor at its end.”

Peter shook his head in astonishment. “Is that legal?”

Doris gave him an excessively wry smile. “It must be, dear. They’re the government aren’t they?

My goodness, that sounds current, doesn’t it? Except for the analog bit and prediction that the digital will make it harder (spoiler alert: It doesn’t).

At any rate, it’s an okay book, more of a thriller than a Spider-Manesque story, although it has Spider-Man characters. As it deals with cell phones, it’s more current than a lot of the fiction I read and has aged pretty well in that regard. I might pick up some of the others in the line as I come across them.

(As a reminder, Ms. Duane once stopped by the comments section here (well, there on Blogspot, but this blog is here now) and discussed doing Star Trek work-for-hire in the book report for My Enemy, My Ally. Which was cool. I have a lot of respect for the work-for-hire and the dedicated couple-books-a-year people except for the people churning out most of the middle 80s Executioner novels.)

Book Report: Love by Danielle Steel (1984)

Book coverThis book is a collection of love poems written by 70s and 80s best-selling novelist Danielle Steel. It’s a poetry series of sorts, sort of a concept album of poetry describing the break-up of a relationship, the loneliness thereafter, and then the resumption of dating and perhaps the start of a new, lasting relationship.

The poems themselves are not bad–a cut above some of the things I read in chapbooks and whatnot–but the poems have a collegiate feel to them. The lyrics have a good sense of rhythm and some nice imagery, but suffer from excessive line breakery–where phrases are chopped into separate lines because that’s how one does poetry. Or did in the 1970s and 1980s and in scholastic notebooks.

At any rate, I got the book for a buck at Hooked on Books on their outdoor cart o’ cheap thrills, so it was worth my purchase. It’s still available on Amazon, though, so if you’re so inclined, you can click below. Remember, every time you purchase an item through the Amazon links I provide, I get absolutely nothing from it because Amazon had a mad-on for Missouri from time immemorial (in that I don’t remember when it started). I think it was because Missouri wanted them to collect sales taxes; Amazon does now, but it doesn’t give me a twopence for all these sweet, sweet outgoing links. And to be honest, I’m not sure if I’d want them to suddenly allow me back in the program, as I’d have to prolly manually update thousands of links on this site for a couple bucks a year. But I digress.