Book Report: Rated R by Mike Leon (2014)

Book coverYou might be asking yourself, “Self, did Brian J. get this book because of its lurid cover?” Well, not just because of its lurid cover; I found it mentioned on some blog I read (I forget which one), and I found the back of the book material interesting:

Lily loves movies–especially the bloody ones. They distract her from her broken life, even if it’s only for a few hours at a time. But something unbelievable is about to happen in the backwards little video store where she works. Someone Lily knows is not who they say they are. And when she finds out their dark secret, she will be drawn into a world of violence and destruction as fantastic as any body-count blockbuster. She will be hunted by mercenaries, a ninja master, an invincible cannibal butcher and a psychopathic super soldier more bloodthirsty than death itself. If she’s lucky, she might still be breathing when the credits roll…

It’s a self-published bit by an author with a large number of books available, so I expected something akin to a men’s adventure paperback like the Executioner series or something you’d find on Glorious Trash but with a more modern bent.

The book details how Lily becomes involved with a stone killer hiding out from his past. But he’s just like seventeen or eighteen and is a super soldier. When he defends the video store where they work together from a robber with extreme prejudice, people from his past, including some other super elite soldier types (with gimmicks) come looking for him. And his brother, perhaps even a better killer, breaks out of his special prison and goes looking for a special MacGuffin which Lily and Sid (the super soldier) must find first.

So the book has its postmodern bent, where Lily calls the MacGuffin the MacGuffin. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it has its tongue in cheek. But, boy Howdy, is it lurid. Lily is promiscuous, and she has numerous encounters with Sid and others. They’re not Gunsmith-level depictions of human intimacy, but they’re not couched in the-train-whistle-blows-and-the-train-goes-into-the-tunnel-symbolism, either. The fighting sequences take the worst splatter-instincts of the Gold Eagle or Death Merchant metal-and-anatomy prose Pollock portraiture and amp it up. Which might be part of the post-modern winking of the book. Which is not to say it’s poorly written–the story and text pulled me along in spite of the purple. But it’s probably not for everyone, and I’m not entirely sure it’s for me. Which might be unfortunate, since I bought a second book by the author (not in this series). Both at full price.

It’I enjoyed it better than The Grapes of Wrath. Also, I phrased it that way to better serve as a blurb should the author search for himself and find this review. “Better than The Grapes of Wrath”–Brian J. Noggle, author of John Donnelly’s Gold. Because I’m working on marketing myself and my Internet brand even as I jot down thoughts on things I read.

What was my point? Oh, yeah. Recommended? Well, perhaps, if you want to experience what it is like in the 21st century to read something comparably trashy to men’s adventure fiction was in the 1960s.

Book Report: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

Book coverI told my beautiful wife that I had previously read this book in high school because I am a compulsive liar. I actually read it, now that I think about it, probably in my modern American literature class at the university instead. I remembered the basics of the plot, but that’s about it. Otherwise, I surely would not have read it again.

Make no mistake: I like Steinbeck well enough (see my reports for Travels with Charley, The Long Valley, Tortilla Flat, and Of Mice and Men). But this book, Steinbeck’s magnus opus, is nothing but Depression era full-on socialist/communist agitprop and not a very good story.

As you might know, the plot revolves around the Joad family. Small farmers in Oklahoma, a number of bad years and overdue bank loans force the family off of their land when their home is foreclosed upon (and “accidentally” damaged by the tractor driven by an operative of the new land owner, who turns it into a portion of a larger farm. They buy an old, beaten down truck and begin a journey to California based on a handbill that they have seen promising work picking crops there. They go on the road, have some adventures incidents, and eventually reach California to find that the handbills have drawn hundreds of thousands of people in similar circumstances, and there’s not enough work to go around. So the Joads live in a Hooverville, get driven out, live in a government commune for a while, but leave to look for work up north. They find some work picking peaches, but Tom kills another man and has to go into hiding, so they go to a cotton picking operation some miles away while Tom hangs out, and when his younger sister blabs, Tom goes on the lam. Then a flood forces the remaining Joads out, and life goes on. Well, some other stuff happens, but that’s the nub of it.

Thematically, it’s all about Capitalism Bad, Substinence Farming Good, and Government Socialist Communes Good, Too.

The narrative story of the Joads is broken up by short chapters decrying some bit of capitalism or another. We get bits about the banks, bits about car salesmen, and how capitalism is destroying the country and keeping the little man down. The characters themselves are not very deep; instead, they’re ciphers of good, simple farmers buffetted by the bad winds of change. The main hero, for Pete’s sake, is a hothead who is just getting out of jail for second degree murder, and he commits a second one by the book’s end. The younger brother is ruled by his hormones. The father and uncle are unimaginative. The mother, who holds it all together by being strong, is simple. I get the sense that Steinbeck doesn’t like his characters so much as pity them (an insight I can apply to his other works, too), and that makes for characters readers cannot relate to.

The Joads are isolated, too; although they’re said to be Godly folks (especially the grandmother, who spurts out “Praise Gawd” like she’s got a Christian flavor of Tourette’s Syndrome), there’s no church, larger family, or support system when they fall on hard times. It’s a lot like when Barbara Eihenreich pretended to be poor for a book (Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America). The poor cannot get along without government help because extended family, charity, and churches don’t exist.

So I didn’t like the book, and I wonder if it’s on so many syllabi simply because of its anti-capitalist content. It’s not even Steinbeck’s best (The Winter of Our Discontent is far better).

Reading this compassionate reflection of migrant peoples deserving their small plot of land for substinence farming, I’ve got to wonder what Steinbeck would make of current migrations, such as Mexican residents coming through those same areas of California today (and with the same economic goal/impact and resistance from existing residents of the area) and Middle Eastern refugees coming to Europe. Would Steinbeck be as sympathetic to these migrations and so disunderstanding of existing residents who might resist the new people arriving? Steinbeck shows no sympathy to Californians already in California when the Joads and other displaced people arrive.

The book also romanticises a family’s tie to a small patch of land, like five acres with a small cash crop, some dooryard crops for eating, a couple of chickens, and a couple of pigs. If only everyone could have that instead of large tracts owned by large-scale food producers using tractors! However, the economies of scale in large farms and livestock operations provide the food needed by large populations, especially urban populations, of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A lot of people don’t get that, and insist that hobby farms can provide everyone with what they need. This book certainly wants us to think that, but sustenance farming was mostly sustenance farming, and a couple of bad years could wipe a family out. As they did in the beginning of the book, but Steinbeck does not see a lesson in that.

That’s not to say I didn’t take something from the book: Since I’ve read it, my diction has declined a bit as I’ve started imitating Steinbeck’s representation of sloppy Okie speech, and I’ve started eating beans as whole meals. It did help me along with one of my current goals for 2017, though: I’m hoping to finish reading all the comic books I own, and as I crept along through this book at two chapters a night, I filled the rest of the reading time with comic books. I’m almost ready to start the box of comics I bought at a garage sale nine years ago. So I’m on track for that goal.

At any rate, I’m happy to be done with this book.

Book Report: The Bookmakers by Zev Chafets (1995)

Book coverI remembered the author’s name from his New York Daily News column from early in my IT/office-based career, where I spent time during the day reading a pile of newspapers’ Web sites during the work day. So when I encountered this book at some book sale or another, I picked it up.

In it, an author, Mack Green, encounters a mugger one night. As he has been a bit on the skids recently, without a decently selling book for a couple of years, Green dares the mugger to shoot him, and when the mugger does not, takes the gun away and sends the young man running. The experience energizes him, and he decides to write a novel based on an author’s last year before committing suicide. He tells his agent, a former priest whom Mack plucked from the fold and made into a famous literary agent because he represented Mack, and he decides he’ll work with his normal publishing house and favorite editor, a fellow named Wolfowitz whom Mack plucked from an accounting position at the publishing house and made into a powerful editor because he was Mack’s editor and because he has an eye on the financial side of publishing. But the agent pays off his bookie with his share of the book’s proceeds, and the bookie then enlists a relative in Hollywood in picking up the movie rights. And the editor has had it in for Mack after a nearly forgotten (by Mack) dalliance with the editor’s wife. Many of these people think the book would be a better success if Mack killed himself at the end–or was killed and made to look like a suicide. To write the book, Mack returns to his hometown in Michigan and hooks up with a hoodlum friend from high school and his first love.

I enjoyed the book; it reminded me of Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen a bit, with its odd collision of amusing characters. It’s light hearted, but not quite as zany as you get from those other guys, but a fun book to read. Strangely enough, it made me want to write a bit of fiction myself again, probably one with jump cut chapters that bounce among the characters since that’s the rage these days. Of course, I guess I did that a bit myself, but not between protagonists and antagonists.

A solid book, and I’ll look for more Chavets in the future.

Book Report: Three Novels by Damon Knight (~1957b)

Book coverIt’s funny that I read this book right after A Confession and Other Religious Writings by Leo Tolstoy. One might think that Damon Knight wrote it after reading the work, as it touches on some of Tolstoy’s themes.

This volume contains three novellas:

  • “Rule Golden”, whererin a journalist goes to a secret government installation (in Chillicothe, Missouri) where they’ve got an alien. The alien uses the journalist to help him break out of captivity and to spread a bit of a contagion that causes people to feel pain for the pain they cause. This causes society to break down as people move back to small farms. This tracks quite with “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence”.
  • “Natural State”, which tells the story of an actor from one of the last remaining Cities travelling to the countryside to try to sell manufactured products to the dirt people, only to discover that they have all their needs met via genetically engineered animals. It explores the dystopian urban future, with the perpetual crises and breakdowns there versus the fresh air.
  • “The Dying Man” tells about an immortal, stratified class between Students and Players. The Students must constantly refashion the world to amuse the Players, as no one dies and life’s meaning is only endless pursuit of transitory pleasure. A Player falls in with a Student who becomes ill and starts aging in a world where no one does. As he grows, he learns the meaning of life and ends up a small farmer before he dies.

The three stories are only 190 pages total, each shorter than the preceding. Interesting, of course, in the way that science fiction and especially golden age science fiction is, but a little hippie-dippy in theme.

Will my science fiction kick last? Who knows.

Fun fact: I bought this book almost 10 years ago. Proof that I get around to reading the books I buy at book sales. Eventually.

Book Report: A Confession and Other Religious Writings by Leo Tolstoy (1987)

Book coverAfter reading a number of theological books over the last year (including Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Reinhold Niebuhr, Existentialism and Thomism, and a couple of unfinished works by Tillich and others), this book is a breath of fresh air: It is not obscure at all, but that’s not for lack of depth.

For starters, the lead piece, “A Confession”, is biographical in nature, and one even in this 21st century can relate. Tolstoy, a literary lion, comes to question his relationship to the eternal, especially that presented by the Russian Orthodox church. He runs through the stages of exploration, inquiry, grappling with reason, and ultimately finds peace with the simple, unlearned Christianity of the peasants. His essay “What Is Religion And Of What Does It Consist?” explores what religion is and what it means and draws some parallels between different religions to show what’s common to them and what man is looking for from them. In “Religion and Morality”, he talks about whether morality can be separate from religion. In the final bit, “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence”, he discusses true Christian love as the basis for society compared to all other force-based systems that have dominated the world to this point.

The writings are engaging and easily comprehensible, although at times a little repetitive, and they apply as much today as they did when they were written a hundred years ago. The last piece seems extraordinarily timely: Written between Russian revolutions, it points out that some of the angry people seeking to overthrow the tsar will only impose their own vision with the same force that they fought against. At times, he sounds a little sympathetic to socialists and communists, but he won’t know what they end up doing. Also, the whole of the Christian nation thing, turning the other cheek on a national scale, might be true to the heart of the gospel, but as national policy, it’s a good way to get your nation and religion overrun by those who follow thunder gods. Instead, Tolstoy thinks without the state, men will fall to small groups in harmony. An anarchist, or a small commune-ist. I disagreed with his prescriptions and predictions, as his belief in Christians born-again with the gospel would trump the fallen state of human nature.

A side note: It’s pretty clear in “A Confession” where Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich. He almost alludes to it by name. Maybe he does. At any rate, it made me feel smart to connect the two having read both.

Worth a purview for the title piece alone; the others are just gravy.

Book Report: Captain Horatio Hornblower: Beat to Quarters by C.S. Forester (1939)

Book coverApparently, I like to read a maritime adventure story in the winter time. Last year in January, I read The Sea Wolf. This year, I’ve read this book, the first in the 12 volume Horatio Hornblower series.

The setting of the book more reflect the Aubrey/Maturin books of Patrick O’Brian (I read Master and Commander back in 2009) than the Jack London book. In it, Captain Horatio Hornblower takes his English frigate the long way across the Pacific to link up with a Spanish rebel on the west coast of Central America. When he arrives after seven months at sea, he finds a madman (a la Colonel Kurtz of The Heart of Darkness) who has declared his independence from the Spanish crown and who has drawn the attention of a fifty-gun Spanish ship. Hornblower lays a trap for the bigger ship and takes it without any loss of life, but the madman demands it–so Hornblower, still under orders to support the fellow, turns over the ship. When Hornblower travels south, he encounters a Spanish ship bearing new orders: He is now an ally of Spain, and he must retake the ship he just gave to the madman. So he goes.

The book is more adventure story than Clancy (or O’Brian)-esque treatise on seamanship. So although it includes details of the workings of nautical vessels back in the day, it doesn’t detract from the story (see also Captain’s Courageous by Kipling). I liked it well enough that I want to find the rest of the series and read them, too.

It left me hungry for more so much that I wanted to grab the next of the O’Brian books that I have instead, but somehow, in turning my bookshelves over last year, I have temporarily misplaced ten or so paperbacks. Which is to say they are not in the place in the bookshelves where they’d resided for years. When I mentioned it to my beautiful wife, she also looked where they’d been, but they are no longer there. I’ll find them eventually, and I’ll probably read one because I liked Beat to Quarters so much.

So take that as a ringing endorsement. As much as you get from this blog, anyway.

Book Report: Mastodonia by Clifford F. Simak (1975)

Book coverNothing like a little science fiction to be memorable. This book is an odd duck of a book. The basic conceit of it is that an archeologist on sabbatical returns to his rural Wisconsin home to dig where he and his friends found some strange metals in his youth. An old flame returns and joins the dig, and they discover it is the site of a crashed spaceship from millennia ago. The local simpleton, who has always expressed affinity for animals and claims to talk to them, helps put them in touch with the survivor, a time engineer who can make time tunnels and who has been lonely throughout ages. So the alien will help the archeologists open time tunnels to the past, which the archeologists sell as exotic safari trips. But first, they decide to make their home in a bygone age to establish residency outside the United States. Hence, the Macedonia of the title.

Well, you’ve got a lot of things going on. Discovery of an alien artifact and alien. Relationships between small town people. Politicking and legal maneuvering. And hunting the biggest game of all.

I’d call it an interesting book, but that’s apparently pejorative now. Instead, I’ll say that the book left me wondering where it was going, but not in a bewildered fashion. Science fiction books, especially ones without problems well-defined early, can noodle around a bit and then resolve themselves somehow, as this one does, and all the speculation is worthwhile of its own accord.

As a reminder, I read Simak’s City in 2010 (seven years ago!). And called it ‘interesting’ for the same reason.

Book Report: Blood Dues by “Don Pendleton” (1984)

Book coverIn a stunning turn of events, I read the last two Mack Bolan books out of order. Hellbinder is the 72nd entry in the series; this book is the 71st. And you know what? It doesn’t really matter. The books are just about interchangeable in the short term.

In this book, Bolan is still hunting the Soviets, but he’s also transitioning back into hunting the mafia, and the plot of this book allows him to do both. He returns to Miami and finds a terrorist plot backed by the Cubans to use Free Cuba activists who have grown accustomed to money, power, and crime to fund their activities. It also involves the mafia, who has been doing business with the gangsterized counter-revolutionary exiles.

The book is particularly brutal for Bolan’s allies: Many of the people introduced in the book die in the book, and an imprisoned former colleague whom Bolan breaks out (and who might have factored in an earlier book) dies. Bolan survives, though. No spoilers there: I already read the book following this one, and Bolan was in it. And some four hundred or five hundred more.

At any rate, as I’ve said, I’m afraid I won’t remember this book in the long term. But it was a pleasant way to while away a couple of hours.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Book Report: Start Here Now by Susan Piver (2015)

Book coverThis book is a quick primer on the shamatha meditation style written by a practitioner and published by an organization following the Shambhala school of Buddhism. That said, the book is heavy on the practice of meditation and thin on the philosophical tenets of Buddhism.

The early parts of the book contrast shamatha with other types of meditation and gives a quick overview of some of the schools of Buddhism, but the real focus of the book is encouraging the practice of meditation, particularly shamatha-style, which involves focusing on the breathing.

Buddhist thought aside, the book provides good insight into methods to still yourself each day. Which I’ll try to focus more on. But the author insists I should follow the millenia-old teachings of actual Buddhist masters instead of breathing according to the Relax setting on my watch. I don’t plan to set up a meditation space in my home nor conduct a meditation retreat weekend with all natural foods and lots of napping (well, I might plan lots of napping), but I’ll try sitting in better posture and focusing on my breath while trying to relax.

So it was an interesting and informative book to read, written for a quick read and, perhaps, for future reference if you become a meditator.

Book Report: No One Noticed the Cat by Anne McCaffrey (1996)

Book coverThis book is the first fiction book I’ve read in 2017. It’s a short novella with a cat on the cover. Which is probably why I bought it in the first place.

It’s a fantasy story about political intrigue. A young prince takes the throne, and his regent passes away; immediately, he must negotiate diplomatically with a neighboring king whose queen is an intriguer who has been killing people who cross her. Once the young prince takes a shine to one of the eligible royals from that kingdom, he might well be the next target, and it’s up to him, his trusted advisors, and the cat who might possess the spirit of his former regent, to keep the kingdom and the prince safe.

It’s a quick little bit of fantasy and intrigue, a pretty engaging little bit. I’m not sure if it’s targeted to adults or young adults, but, honestly, so much these days the young adults are as far as adults get, ainna?

McCaffrey is most known for her Dragonriders of Pern series, and although I’ve probably read one or two in my life, I most associate her with Dinosaur Planet and Dinosaur Planet Survivors, the latter of which I got from a summertime reading program back when I didn’t own many books at all and that mass market paperback meant something.

Book Report: The Sheep’s in the Meadow, the Raccoon’s in the Corn by Marguerite Hurrey Wolf (1979)

Book coverThis book is a collection of essays about country living from a woman in Vermont (sometimes). Let me explain.

The author and her husband bought a farm in Vermont in 1948 and spent summers there for a number of years while living elsewhere. They lived on the farm full time while her husband, a dentist, worked at the University of Vermont, but his work took the family to Boston and Kansas City for a number of years, but they retired to the farm in 1978. The essays in this book come from throughout the time period, and they’re not in chronological order, so sometimes their children are children and sometimes they’re married adults. Sometimes, the author is an older woman talking about how farm work is getting harder as she gets older, and sometimes she’s talking about closing the house up for the winter. It’s a little jump-cutty in the gestalt.

But the individual essays are amusing and entertaining little vignettes. She talks about being a woman driving a pick-up truck back in the day when that was out of the ordinary (or maybe it still is in some places and I just live somewhere where it is not). She talks about the swimming hole on the farm, she talks about giving talks as an author and the strange situations that arise there. The essays are all self-contained and pleasant, but sometimes she uses the same turn of phrase or metaphors over and over again. She’s clearly well-read–a college educated former teacher after all, and her vocabulary and allusions sent me to the dictionary more than once. But I suppose they could have been written years apart, so this is forgiveable.

According to the essays and the about the author section, she has written many other volumes of such Rural Living stories and whatnot. I’ll keep an eye out for them, but I might be challenged in this regard if they did not disseminate much outside of Vermont and New England.

Book Report: Training African Grey Parrots by Risa Teitler (1979)

Book coverYou’re probably wondering why I picked up this book. Well, that’s easy: It was on my to-read shelves. No, no, you say; why did you buy this book, Brian J.? You’ve got a house full of cats! Well, gentle reader, twenty-some years ago, when I was a young man who planned to be a novelist, I thought it would be cool to have a main character who has a pet African grey parrot (kind of like Baretta; I don’t know why I am so fixated on Robert Blake allusions lately). I was so interested in it at that time that the girl I was seeing even bought a monk parakeet, which is a low-end mimic of a bird. But that’s been decades, so today I cannot even think of the character or the conceit of a plot I was planning.

So I saw this book inexpensively, I picked it up, and since I was in the mood for some light non-fiction, I picked it up.

So the book talks about how to pick out a good young parrot, how to work patiently with it to teach it how to come out of its cage, step on a stick and then your finger, how to maximize training it phrases and best use its mimicry, and to teach the bird tricks like climbing a ladder and ringing a bell. The book also goes into some trainer-esque things like trimming the bird’s claws and beak and clipping its feathers; I can’t imagine trying to do these things as a beginner, but I suppose it’s good to have them in there for completeness.

So am I tempted to get such a bird? Well, some of the things that turned me aside from getting one of my own back in those days are still true. They’re fairly expensive. They will, in all probability, outlive me (easier now than then, but these birds have a life span of 50 years or so, and I didn’t think so then and know so now). I could probably afford one, expensive as it is, and I do spend more time at home than I did in my middle 20s, but I also have cats who would agitate at the least and eat at the worst the expensive bird, so it’s probably still not for me.

But if I remember the plot and character of the book, I know more about training the birds, so I can deduct the couple hours I spent reading from my taxes someday.

Somewhere around here, I have a book on having rabbits as pets, too; although I have yet to read that book, you might remember a character in John Donnelly’s Gold has a pet rabbit.

Book Report: Baby, Would I Lie? by Donald E. Westlake (1994)

Book coverI bought this book shortly after Christmas, when I took my children to ABC Books so they could spend the gift cards I bought for them the week before Christmas. Honestly, it’s an inefficient system if you think its purpose is to get gifts for my children. If you realize it is instead a system for getting me to ABC Books as often as possible so I can pick up one or two or five books each trip, you’ll see its genius.

At any rate, this Donald E. Westlake novel was in the Missouri section as it takes place in Branson. Since I was going to a near-Branson location this weekend, I picked it up.

It was not a very quick read. Unlike a plot-driven book like, say, a Parker novel (not Robert B. Parker, but a Richard Stark Parker book a la Lemons Never Lie). Instead, it focuses on a number of characters with their points of view intersecting on an event.

This event is the murder trial of a country and western star, Roy Jones, with his own Branson theater. He stands accused of the murder of one of his theater’s young lady employees amid other problems, including negotiations with the IRS to recover some owed back taxes numbering in the millions. The media descends upon Branson, including an intrepid reporter for a New York weekly and her lover/editor and former co-workers of theirs at a Florida-based tabloid. The tabloid reporters will stoop to great lows to uncover dirt on Jones, and the editor from the New York weekly wants to do a story on the depravity of the tabloid. His replacement at the tabloid is a nervous, high strung man with a wife and kids he’s not fond of, and he has the closest thing to scruples of anyone at the tabloid.

Jones himself picks the woman reporter to spend time with his entourage and get the inside view of the defense and trial, but he’s playing his own game, as the reporter will learn.

As I said, it’s more a study of these characters and their interplay than a plot-driven piece–as many subplots play out with almost equal weight. Instead, the focus is on the characters. The telling and brushing of them is humorous and slightly askew–less than you get in Hiaasen and Barry, but still not straight on and serious.

It’s a sequel of sorts to an earlier book with the same main characters (and a different event), but it does not depend upon familiarity with the earlier events nor does it really nod to them. It is contained in its own right.

The characterization of Branson is pretty good; although 20 years have passed since the books publication, the vibe of Branson is correct. Although some of the characters look down on the people who come to Branson, the intrepid reporter main character comes to see us sympathetically, so it’s not condescending.

It’s a fun book, and I should probably pick up some more Westlake elsewhere when I can.