Book Report: The Marriage of Bette and Boo by Christopher Durang (1985)

Book coverYou could probably have guessed after I bought a couple books while out of town for the night that I’d pick up the shortest book to read in my hotel. And you would be right.

As I mentioned, I saw this play in college. Ah, my senior year: I saw a large number of plays with a number of comely young ladies, none of whom was interested in me. Well, maybe a couple were and I was oblivious to it. I had to attend this play for one of my classes, and I sat next to a young lady who I knew from the writer’s club. After the play, we walked out together, and she straightened my tie. Did that indicate interest? I don’t know. When reading others’ emotions and acting upon them, I’m a chimp at the space shuttle controls: I know something’s happening, and I know I should do something, but I just press the wrong buttons.

At any rate, I remember the play not only because of the young lady but also because the play disturbed me a bit. It’s told from the point of view of an English student reminiscing about his family life and his parents’ marriage which ends while he’s at school. I, of course, had studied a bit of Thomas Hardy at the time (one of the devices of the play is that the narrator talks about analyzing Hardy’s works as he’s analyzing his parents and perhaps their influence upon him). As the child of a broken home (relatively fresh at that, what, with their marriage still longer than the period they’d been divorced), I felt for the kid. Who was older than I was at the time.

So I saw the book, and I remembered almost viscerally the reaction I had to the play at the time, so I bought it and read it again. As an adult (older than my parents when they divorced and almost as old as my father was when he died), I don’t get quite the poignancy that I did then when I identified with the lad, but I do still have a bit of sadness for the characters in the play. I think it’s billed as a comedy, but it’s more a tragedy than a comedy. Even though the moments from the play stuck with me–I’d forgotten a part where a priest imitates bacon, but when I got to it in the book, I immediately remembered the scene on stage.

So it’s a good play, all right.

The edition I have has a lot of end notes from the playwright (who played the main character in the big New York production of it in the middle 1980s) giving a lot of direction for the direction of the play, including some interpretations that he did not care for in some productions. I’ll be honest, that’s a bit of cheating: In my playwrighting class, the professor said to put all that in the words and stage directions, and to put only the bare minimum in to allow for as much interpretation as you can stand. So the end piece seems a little uncricket.

Also, this book is again a book club edition. Which means our parents or grandparents liked plays enough to buy them from a book club. I cannot even imagine that. There aren’t that many people who buy plays these days (or maybe it’s just me), but I don’t remember seeing many of them in the book stores or book sales I frequent–I know, as I buy them. That’s a shame, as they’re often nice, quick reads with impact beyond their word count.

Book Report: Obsidian Son by Shayne Silvers (2012)

Book coverAs you might remember, I bought this book in August at LibraryCon. You know, I like to support self-published authors whom I find sitting at tables at conventions and in the library from time to time, but when it comes time to reading the books, I tend to be a little reluctant. A couple of the self-published efforts I’ve tried have been a little lackluster (ahem), and I’ve put them back on the to-read shelves. And I picked up this one.

Well. This was pretty good.

It’s an urban fantasy book featuring a protagonist wizard, the child of great wizards who are also billionaire businesspeople. The book starts right after their murders, where the hero (Nate Temple, for whom the series is named) owns a book store but might have to take control of his parents’ company. He specializes in finding esoteric works, and he’s commissioned to find a book that is drawing a lot of interest all of a sudden. It’s tied to dragons, creatures who generally remain hidden from public view, and Temple finds himself, his friends, and a growing circle of other Freaks working to prevent a power-hungry dragon from seizing power during a solar eclipse.

It’s set in St. Louis, but it doesn’t ride that too hard (you won’t be able to, say, drive a cab based on the text). It has a couple of place names, but that’s mostly it. Not even as much as an Anita Blake novel. Well, an early one, anyway, as I abandoned that series, what, twenty years ago?

You know, I liked it better than the Jim Butcher book I read a couple years ago. Of course, as this is the first of the series, it’s fresh and setting up the urban fantasy world and the team I presume will appear in later books of the series. Which might get as bogged down in Series Business as any series does. But this is the first, so it is without that baggage. Perhaps I should stick with only the first book or two of a series to keep that freshness.

At any rate, worth a look if you’re into urban fantasy. I’ll probably pick a copy up for my nephew, so that will be two copies of this book I will have bought…. boughten? What verb tense is that?

Book Report: Beijing China (ca. 2002)

Book coverI got this book at a later time than the Korea guide books (The New Pearl of the Orient, Bomun Temple in Seoul Korea, and Wonderful Korea, but I kind of thought of them as a genre and similar; however, this volume is relatively recent (post 2002). So it refers to the 2008 Olympics, which is jarring.

At any rate, it’s an interesting browse. The photos are good, with just a hint of lauding the State in some of the building selections, but it does not completely overlook the historical or religious sites of Beijing. As I just bought a book on Rococo style, I can’t help but compare Chinese/Oriental interior design principles to the couple of things I looked at in that book before I bought it. Were I Lileks or Driscoll, I could probably write intelligently about it. Maybe some day, after many Sunday afternoons watching football games with architecture and design books on my lap. Should the NFL last that long.

Worth the buck or two if you can find it.

Book Report: Slave of the Warmonger by Alex Kilgore (1981)

Book coverI started this book, and I thought, “This is better than some of the Executioner books, surely.” The writing is a little thicker, a little richer than you get in the least of the Mack Bolan books. However, there was some foreshadowing that all was not right.

The first thing was misspelling a Browning Hi-Power as a Browning High Power. I pointed this out to my beautiful wife early on, and she didn’t ask me how I know so much about guns. Clearly, the answer is reading books like this, except for how much books get wrong about guns.

Then, in action, the lead character, who is not only called the mercenary but is, in fact, a mercenary, runs into a fire fight with an M16 in one hand and an M1911 in the other hand, shooting and hitting bad guys. So richer, thicker prose culminating in 80s movie action scenes and a couple of sex scenes. Did I say “movie”? I mean “direct-to-video.”

Still, it’s quick and readable and still better than the worst of the Executioner books.

The main character is a one-eyed mercenary who favors a black cap. I look at him and can’t help think he might have been the inspiration for G.I. Joe’s Major Bludd. Also, I used to know a guy with an eye patch and favoring slouch caps, and I know the challenges he faced with half of his peripheral vision and all of his depth perception gone. I don’t think I would pattern give a superhuman character a missing eye. Nor would I misspell Hi-Power (although I did once change a pistol from a semi-automatic to a revolver and put eight days in a week, but careful (and by careful, I mean repetitive) copywriting caught it).

Book Report: I Could Pee On This and Other Poems By Cats by Francesco Marciuliano (2012)

Book coverI, or someone else, must have given this book of poems purrportedly by cats to my beautiful wife. When she was culling her office books, she was looking to get rid of it (so I hope it was a gift from someone else, because I’d like to think she treasures things I give her beyond their actual worth). So I picked it up as something I could easily browse during football games.

Which means it has a lot in common with Henry Beard’s Poetry for Cats (and Advanced French for Exceptional Cats for that matter).

Unlike Beard’s book, this one does not have a lot of allusion to other poems, nor are they riffs on famous poems (or formerly famous poems). Instead, they’re a lot of free verse musings from a feline point of view. And, if you have a cat, you’re probably familiar with the sentiments expressed within as we (cat owners) tend to anthropomorphize our pets in the same ways.

So it was an amusing bit to browse, especially since the Packers are off to a pretty good start this year all things considered. Were they not, I might be a little harsher on this little novelty item.

Book Report: Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender (1989, 1991)

Book coverYou’re taking a look at my recent reading and note that I bought all of these books within the last two weeks, and you think, “Hey, Brian J., wouldn’t it be better to have only bought these three or four books, read them, and then buy a couple more instead of buying dozens at a crack, dozens of times a year ensuring you have a backlog of thousands of books that you don’t have lifetime enough left to read them all?” I supposed that would be one way to do it, gentle reader. But allow me to answer with a question of my own: Why do you have so little faith in medical science?

But we digress. As noted, I bought this particular book a week ago and jumped right into it. Its title indicates a journey to the Amish and a spiritual journey similar to what you might find in books on Eastern philosophy.

And, indeed, this one might be a little self-consciously similar to those sorts of mid-life coming to spirituality books. It refers a couple of times to Zen philosophy and quotes a Tibetan warrior. So you might think that the author had a spirtual journey book in mind when she started her this particular journey.

The author also comes from a pretty well-to-do background. She lives in New York, but she and her husband pack up to move to California. She starts doing art and whatnot. She has a couple of advanced degrees. She even mentions that the Amish she lived with thought she was rich because she was from the outside world and because she just spent five months in Italy. Um, ma’am, in your world, you might just be working class, but amongst the rest of the world, you are rich.

At any rate, she becomes enamored with Amish quilts that she finds in craft and antique stores and wants to live with them. Which she does. For three weeks. And then she comes back and thinks about it for a while and goes back for a couple of weeks. She doesn’t really want to become Amish nor does she have a particularly religious connection to them (they are a religious community, after all), but she just wants to find some neo-Buddhist mindfulness lessons from them, which she does, which is fortunate, since she has a book about it.

It resembles John Howard Griffith’s experiences recounted in Black Like Me as a bit of self-conscious social anthropology (with a bit of spiritual yearning for seasoning) that is ultimately not very satisfying. Perhaps I’m just particularly cynical.

However, I hope if the author was sincerely looking for something, she truly found it in her brief visits to Amish communities.

Book Report: San Francisco photos by Morton Beebe (1985)

Book coverIn the battle between the San Francisco picture books between this book and the other similarly named book I just looked at, this one wins.

It’s bigger in size, it’s thicker, and it’s got higher quality paper and photography. It also relies on locals for the essays within, including Herb Caen, Herbert Gold, and others, so you get a better sense of place and the people of San Francisco. The essays are essays, too, instead of just text blocks around which to group the images.

So if you have to choose one or the other, this is the one to go with. As probably demonstrated by the fact that it has gone into a third edition.

Book Report: San Francisco by Edmund Swinglehurst (1979)

Book coverThis book is a picture book of San Francisco from 1979.

As you might know, gentle reader, I myself have visited San Francisco on two occasions (noted here and here). So I’d like to think that the book reminds me of my trips, and it does a little bit. On our trips, we went to wine country, we went to Yoshi’s (the defunct San Francisco location), and we went to book stores, none of which are depicted here. We did go to Pier 39 and to Ghiradeli Square, so I see some of that, but I didn’t visit in 1979, so the cars and fashions in my memory were different.

But of all the cities in the world, San Francisco is one of the most photogenic and interesting from a photography perspective, so it’s an appealing book to look at. The text within it is pretty boilerplate, and aside from the place names, one could imagine the copy being written for any city. But the copy is not the point of the book.

So, you’re saying to yourself, is it football season already? Yes, yes, it is, so it’s time for picture books and poetry chapbooks to make up a higher portion of my reading (hem) list. Which is why I stocked up a bit in Branson last weekend.

Worth a browse if you’re into this sort of thing and can pick it up for a buck like I did.

Book Report: The Living Thoughts of Confucius by Alfred Doeblin (1950, 1959)

Book coverAs I mentioned, this book was my pocket book for quite some time, which explains why the cover looks like it does now compared to how it looked when I bought it in Baraboo in June.

As you might know, gentle reader, I’ve been looking to the East like a China Grover the last few years, and I’ve read some books on Buddhism (here, here, and here), Taoism (here, here, and, heaven help me, here). I’ve also read some books on Chinese history (like this) and listened to a long series of lectures on Chinese history (this one). As you know, Confucianism is quite the thing in China and has been historically. So aside from some aphorisms here and there, I have not read Confucius in detail.

Until now.

Although “depth” is misleading. You hear so many aphorisms from Confucius because the collected writings are collections of short lessons and aphorisms that don’t lead from one to another or build upon each other. It’s textually a bit like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations that way. A bit like the Buddhist lessons, but briefer. Which makes them harder to read in succession because they do tend to repeat themselves thematically.

And the theme? Well, to boil it down, Confucius says:

That’s a snarky bit of boiling it way down, but it’s not complicated. Confucius emphasizes filial piety and obedience as the foundation of society. You obey your father and older brothers; they obey the lower ministers; the lower ministers obey the emperor, the Son of Heaven. This then is kind of like the li, the natural way, upon which societies run.

The topic and subject of Confucius’s lessons are practical and mostly political and a bit moral. There’s no ontology in there, no real aesthetics. Only that virtue comes from doing the right thing, which is generally following your leader faithfully. It assumes that your leaders are going to be good and wise leaders, superior men, and that the emperor himself will be benevolent, frugal, and wise. Otherwise he won’t be emperor for long, but the lessons do no focus on how to tell if an emperor should be deposed.

Confucius could be a companion book to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Instead of the focus of how to get and keep power, this book is all about serving those in power because it is morally right. I can see why it might have been a popular philosophy amongst the ruling class of a country.

Much like any Chinese history or philosophy book written after 1949, I wonder how much it has been influenced by the modern Chinese government–whether through actual direct involvement in reviewing the material or whether through indirect involvement where the author fears the loss of access to China for further work. This book was first written in 1950, though, so it’s probably indicative of a Chinese mindset that has prevailed through ages. Perhaps I’ll come to a greater understanding of Confucianism versus Buddhism in Chinese thought if I study enough. Have I enough time, I might have something intelligent to say.

At any rate, I cannot yet compare this book to other books in Confucian thought. As the aforementioned trip to Baraboo yielded a book on Mencius, I have one more book on Confucianism to read. But based on the content of this one, I’m not inclined to delve more into it.

But perhaps I should teach it to my children.

Book Report: The Presidents Tidbits and Trivia by Sid Frank and Arden Davis Melick (1984)

Book coverThis book is a coffee table sized book of small trivia bits about the presidents (through Ronald Reagan, although someone helpfully appended Bush, Clinton, and Bush in pen at the end of one list). The material is not sourced, and it’s not reliable–two separate vignettes give different stories about Ulysses S Grant’s name (one is that he has no middle name; the other is that he became US Grant when someone filled out his application to West Point incorrectly, not using his real name, Hiram Ulysses Grant). And this is a later edition of the book, which was first published in 1972, so some things have been updated to reflect the new presidents (Ford, Carter, and Reagan), but some of them have not.

So you wouldn’t want to cite this book in a paper (well, unless you’re a journalist working for a paper, in which case there are no consequences nor even embarrassment for getting something wrong).

But it did remind me of some of the presidents that one doesn’t think of often and made me want to read a biography of them. Polk and Taylor come to mind, actually. But the relative dearth of biographies in the places I look (book sales and church rummage sales) will ensure I don’t rush out and buy a number of these books to put on my shelves for years.

So I got something out of it, perhaps just as much as one could expect.

Book Report: The Catswold Portal by Shirley Rosseau Murphy (1992)

Book coverI picked up this book right after reading Cotswold Mistress because they had similar titles, and I figured reading them right after the other would lend itself to a certain symmetry. Or something. Besides, there would be no better time to read it than when I had the notion of reading the two similarly-titled books in succession.

I bought this book new with the proceeds of a gift card in 1998 or 1999, when the book was relatively new. I remember picking it up at the Barnes and Noble in Ladue, not far from my then-beautiful-girlfriend (note that the “then” here refers to the ‘girlfriend’ and not the ‘not now beautiful’ because she is now my beautiful wife and remains as beautiful or more beatiful now). Where was I before I was guarding my flank? Ah, yes. I bought this book back then because it had a cat on the cover, and I was a new cat owner. The back cover indicated the book involved a portal to a world of cats. So I thought it might be interesting.

And although I have picked it up a couple of times in those almost twenty years, I often found myself wondering if I was in the mood for a 400-page fantasy book about a portal to a cat world. And the answer was then “No.” But the similar titles to the two books gave me the push to get into it.

As I might have alluded, this is a fantasy world, but the portal does not lead to a world of cats; instead, it leads to a world that includes a race of shapeshifters who can turn into cats. In our world, there are a number of people of this race, but they don’t know it.

The main character, Melissa, is such a woman who was to be cultivated by an evil queen from the Netherworld to lure that shapeshifting race, the Catswold, into a trap. But as she was being taken through the portal, the queen’s henchman was ambushed by a rebel woman who then used magic to make Melissa forget her past and the upper world and then who raised her as a peasant. Melissa, though, is drawn to her destiny at the castle of the evil queen where the king has an agenda of his own and beds Melissa to produce an heir to the kingdom, cementing his position. When the queen discovers this tryst, she turns Melissa into a cat and has her dumped in the outer world. There, the widower of Melissa’s childhood friend Alice is a painter who has lost his creative spark finds a cat and then a new model in a mysterious woman (Melissa, who is still trying to learn about her past).

At any rate, it’s high fantasy with a lot of intrigue, a lot of subplots, and a lot of textured writing throughout 300 pages. Around that time, though, the focus shifts into narrative overdrive, and we get to the end and the resolutions with a couple flashes of the textured writing. Plotlines slowly developed are abandoned or dealt with in a paragraph. It’s almost as though the author thought initially of a trilogy or pair of books or a longer book, but got toward the end and just wrapped it all up. As late as about page 300, elements were being introduced. Elements that would seem to be major elements–like a giant black dragon from the Hell Pit that represents the fundamental evil in all worlds and universes. There’s no way this finishes in 100 pages, I thought. And it did. And the black dragon gets a two paragraph send-off.

So it’s a pretty good bit of high fantasy that finishes too quickly for its own good.

Did it really take me two weeks to read one book? Well, yes; it is high fantasy with deep, rich writing as I said, and I’m spending a little less time reading these days. Hopefully I’ll complete my next read in a shorter interval. Spoiler alert: It has a completely unrelated title.

Book Report: Cotswold Mistress by Michael Spicer (1992)

Book coverAfter reading John Carter of Mars, I was in the mood for something a little different. This is that.

It’s one of those thin British spy/detective novels, something short (159 pages) and droll. In it, Lady Jane Hildebreth, who works for a British government agency, is called upon by an American playboy and airplane designer acquaintance to attend a gathering at a rented estate in England. He brings up concerns that a couple of British engineers working to test his latest plane will die as many British engineers have recently. She pokes around, interviews a number of people, and eventually determines who in the British government might be responsible for their deaths and why.

As I mentioned, it’s a light bit of work, reminiscient of the sorts of things one got from the Doubleday Book Club three-to-a-volume in the 1960s.

As I was reading it, I told my beautiful wife that it helped if I heard the words in my head as though Elizabeth Hurley or Michelle Dockery were saying them. I feel like a bit of a traitor to my generation in that Michelle Dockery won out in the end. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen Downton Abbey more recently than Bedazzled or Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

The author, a British Minister of Parliament, had several other books in the series (all bearing Cotwold in the title) by 1992. I’m not going to go hunting for them, but I won’t avoid them. I think I bought this particular volume at a book sale or on a sale table in the library a decade or more ago in St. Louis as the book bears the Ex Library markings of the St. Louis County Library.

And I learned where Cotswold is in England and that it’s famous for its stone and pottery while asking “Where the heck is Cotswold anyway?” So I’ve got that going for me.

Book Report: John Carter of Mars: The First Five Novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (2013)

Book coverEarlier this year, Friar called John Norman’s work Burroughs pastiches, so I delved into this volume which I bought at Barnes and Noble (the version I read is the Barnes and Noble house brand, not the nice edition linked below). Well, Friar’s comment came to mind, but actually I picked up the book because I rented John Carter recently, and I wanted to compare it to the books. Which I had in a massive volume.

This book, 943 pages of sword novels and appendices/glossaries, includes the first five John Carter books: A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, The Warlord of Mars, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, and The Chessmen of Mars. I read at least the first and the last already. The first (and perhaps the first couple) I read in high school or college, and I remembered little of them except the highlights. I know I read the last later in life, perhaps after college (but not in the last dozen or so years since I’ve been writing book reports on this blog, gentle reader) because I remember the paperback copy I have of it.

At any rate, a couple plot bits/summaries to help me remember in the future:

  • A Princess of Mars really sets it up: John Carter is transported to Mars from an Arizona cave and finds that he has great strength on the planet with weaker gravity. Already a fighting man, experienced swordsman, and horseman (and a Civil War veteran, but undoubtedly we’ll have to scrub him from literature because he was on the wrong side), Carter meets and has adventures in wooing and rescuing the beautiful Dejah Thoris, eventually leading to a battle that saves her from an unwanted marriage to a rival city’s leader. Carter ends up back on earth after helping restore an oxygen-producing plant that provides the breathable atmosphere for the planet.
     
  • In The Gods of Mars, Carter returns to Mars after ten years on Earth and finds himself in the Valley Dor, the place down the river that Martians traverse to die. He finds the Therns, who are a priestly caste, who rule the valley, and the valley is attacked by the First Born, and Carter and Co find themselves taken to the bottom of the world where the first born and their goddess live. Carter finds she is no goddess, meets his son, has adventures, and leads a revolt, but his beloved Dejah Thoris is locked in a room for a year with a murderous Thern princess and a friendly princess named Thuvia who can calm Banths. The book ends with this cliffhanger.
     
  • The Warlord of Mars picks right up with John Carter trying to figure out a way to get into the locked room before a year passes. A First Born and a Thern get into the room first and take away the women, leading Carter and company to the top of the world, I think, to rescue them by leading a rebellion of the Okarians against their tyrannical overlord. As a result of his adventures, Carter has united most of the races of Mars and is appointed the Warlord of Mars, the leader of all.
     
  • Thuvia, Maid of Mars, switches gears a bit (and is the shortest of the novels in the volume). Carter’s son Carthoris, who bears some of his father’s strength and certainly his spirit, wants to woo Thuvia, but she is promised to another. She is kidnapped, and Carthoris is blamed, so he sets out to rescue her, and at the end, wins her.
     
  • The Chessmen of Mars features Tara, the daughter of Carter and Dejah Thoris, is wooed a bit forcefully by the prince of another city, but she rebuffs him as he is promised to another. A great windstorm sweeps her away, and the prince takes his cruiser to find her, but they both end up prisoners of a symbiotic race of pure brains that ride headless bodies. Tara does not recognize the prince, and he passes himself off as a mercenary. They escape and find themselves then as prisoners of a tyrant who kills enemies in a game of live action jetan (Martian chess). The prince helps to lead a rebellion against the tyrant, and the fellow to whom Tara was promised married another in the interim–so Tara can marry the mercenary she fell in love with who was the prince the whole time!

Reading them all together like this, I got a bit bored with the same tropes repeating book-to-book, and I thought things really slowed down and started repeating themselves in books four and five. With a bit more spacing out, it might be better.

I have another omnibus edition that has two of these books and another that I thought I could knock off quickly, but I’m not eager to jump into another Barsoom (the Burroughs name for Mars) story right away.

Taken in smaller doses, they’re a fun read, a bit of swashbuckling science fiction/fantasy adventure that holds up decently today if you can suspend disbelief of contemporary civilizations on Mars. Also, ageless Civil War veterans.

Books like this have outsized influence on generations of writers because they represent the kinds of fun things to read that you think might be fun to write. Unlike some of the things now, where most fiction is pretty ponderous and a single novel (Stephen King, I’m looking at you) might weigh in at this size.

At any rate, I enjoyed most of it for its own sake and for my own nostalgia.

Book Report: How to Get Into Debt (2007)

Book coverThis book is a scientifically funny book. You can take a look at it, and you can see the satire within it and the quips and the proven turns-from-reality that make for humor.

However, it is also almost 200 pages of the same gag. Granted, it’s double-spaced and has a lot of sidebars with quotes about debt and financial definitions.

At any rate, the gag itself is that getting into debt is good, all-American, and fun. It talks about how best to get as deeply in debt as you can and how to strategically manage your debt so your credit limits go up without actual default. Until it all does collapse, which might not even be until you’re dead.

It might have made–and probably has–made a humorous essay, but stretching it into a book really thins out the actual funny.

A little bit of wry retrospect, though: the book was published in 2007. A year later, its tenets would become very unfunny indeed.

Unfunnier still are places where I find myself recognizing my own rationalizations and patterns of spending, such as buying expensive coffees and pastries because I was making more than the $20 a day I spent on them.

At any rate, a quick read, but probably not worth your time.

Apparently, this is part of a series of books whose titles are wry satires on self-help books. But I’m not seeking them out.

Book Report: On the Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt (2005)

Book coverThis book was in the Bookmarx philosophy section, and I didn’t know why when I started. I bought it because I’ve been reading some philosophical material of late, and this book is pretty thin, so it would be (I hoped) a quick read in that line.

Well, Hazlitt is an English essayist from around the turn of the nineteenth century, and the events rather capture the spirit of the immediate post-American and post-French Revolution era in England.

The book contains six essays:

  • “The Fight” which details a long trip to a boxing match out in the countryside. Hazlitt discusses his friends who like boxing, some of the people he meets, and the spectacle of his first fight. It’s not a very philosophical essay at all, but it does describe the event and the countryside in great detail.
     
  • “Indian Jugglers” which starts off discussing jugglers that he appreciates but then goes into how long it takes to learn things and how certain physical skills–like juggling–will give you immediate, concrete feedback as to whether you’re doing it wrong or not.
     
  • “On the Spirit of the Monarchy” and “What Is ‘The People’?” are both anti-aristocracy pieces. The first focuses on humans who seem to need some leader over them to enjoy the pomp and circumstance, but that the people who end up ruling by hereditary succession are less good than perhaps a random person. The second talks about styles of government (see this The Wisdom of William Hazlitt post for a taste. He’s spot on about how the self-appointed elites react to having power (or just seeking it) and how governors become self-serving, but he lionizes “the people” a bit too much, not recognizing how important it is to restrain their/its passions and mob-potentiality in government (which the structure of the early American Republic did well).
     
  • “On Reason and Imagination” talks about philosophy qua philosophy and takes to task systems built entirely on abstraction and without recognizing the role that passion plays in ethics (as well as a man’s innate sense of right and wrong). He’s retreading some Hume here, but it’s funny that he’s all Good Natured and Frans de Waal in this essay, but….
     
  • The essay whose provocative title, “On the Pleasure of Hating”, is all Dark Nature and Lyall Watson. This essay talks about the innate badness in people and how they like to do bad things and hate on people, especially former friends. It’s a bit of a whip-saw, and I get the sense he was growing disappointed in his fellow man for whom he had such high hopes.

The style is lofty, and the essays are chock full of quotations, some of which I knew but many more of which I did not. He drops them in without attribution, so he expects his contemporaries to get them.

I enjoyed it, even though it was not as quick of a read as I’d expected. I prefer Hazlitt to Montaigne, and I’d be interested in reading more, but I think most of Hazlitt is way out of print (whereas you can find Montaigne easily, especially the Classics Club edition).

Book Report: We Should Hang Out Sometime by Josh Sundquist (2014)

Book coverAs I mentioned, I picked up this book last week in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The books are all jumbled together on the discount shelves/carts, so I did not realize this was a young adult book until I looked at the back flap and the book’s publisher URL is a youth imprint.

I did look at the front flap before I bought it, and the content there didn’t indicate it was for young people. The author, at all of 25 years old, determines he has never had a girl friend, so he’s going to go back and talk to girls he was interested in from middle school through college and see why they were not interested in him. As a fellow who was also a little thin on the girlfriend department in my youth, I thought it might be an interesting read.

The flap alludes to it obliquely, but the author has only one leg. In the text of the book, he’s very upfront about it, telling the story of his bout with cancer at age 9 and losing a leg from the hip down. I bring it up here not because I want to diminish the author in any way–hey, my best friend lost an eye to an aggressive cancer in his early adulthood before later succombing to a recurrence when he was in his 40s, so I know cancer sucks and it leaves challenges for its survivors–but because it was a bit of a surprise in the book (since I didn’t read the back flap and did not know the author’s story) and, sadly, because early on in the book, I thought that it could easily explain his difficulties in finding girlfriends. I mean, kids and young people and older people can be shallow and not see beyond that. But.

As he starts recounting his youth, and the girls he met and was interested in, it became clear it wasn’t they were nice girls who weren’t (at least in the recounting) put off by his disability. He spends a lot of time with some of them, getting pretty close as friends, but never really becoming girlfriend/boyfriend. As such, I looked past his disability and thought that it was because he was unsure of himself and inexperienced with girls, a bit of a ditherer when it comes to making a move on girls who might be interested in it. So I understood. My problem, in addition to being unsure of myself, was that I would focus on inattainable girls so much that I’d not see other girls who were interested in me.

At any rate, I was very sympatico with the author’s story until toward the very end. He has reached out to these young ladies, and they told him years later that they were actually interested in him back then, and the author breaks down and says that he never got the nerve to press the issue because he was unsure of himself because of his disability.

I don’t know–I certainly didn’t have that disability, and I’m sure a number of young people today who might read the book only have their own uncertainties and insecurities to deal with. Somehow, circling back to it at the end of the book kinda weakened the message, which I assume is that everyone has self-doubt in relating to others, especially girls. However, if you’re lacking in self-confidence to go talk to that pretty girl who is really nice, finding someone else worse off than you are also has a problem with being unsure of one’s self, it might not boost your confidence.

I dunno. I think it could have been a better message without the last bit focusing again on the loss of the author’s leg.

So it was very readable (it is addressed at young adults, after all), and it’s chock full of hand-drawn humorous (that is, not statistically or scientifically supported) graphs –the influence of modern children’s books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid on the canon, no doubt. I liked it, but not as much as I might have.

Jeez, I feel like I’m picking on the author for his missing leg, but I hope it doesn’t come across quite like that. I’m trying to discuss it dispassionately as part of the book, but I’m never sure how this sort of thing comes across. Which is another thing that kept me from really wowing the ladies: I have a tendency to come across as a jerk when I’m not intending to be offensive.

Book Report: Every Time I Find The Meaning of Life, They Change It by Daniel Klein (2015)

Book coverAs you might remember, gentle reader, I read Klein’s Travels with Epicurus earlier this summer and enjoyed it. So I found myself at a different library branch a couple weeks ago, and I was in the philosophy section, and I saw a book that looked like it was a Klein, but it was a different author with a different spin on it. But a couple letters later, I found an actual book by Klein, this volume, from 2015.

The jumping off point for this book is a collection of quotes that Klein collected during his youth and then later. He had a notebook where he copied “Pithies” as he called them, and he reprints them with a couple pages’ reflection on each. You’ve got your Epicurus, of course, and you’ve got your Neitsche, Russell, Emerson, and whatnot. Each quote he selects is a complete jot of philosophy, a koan of sorts to muse on, and he does so.

It’s an entertaining read, a bit of a stroll through philosophy and modern life. It’s accessible and proper old school philosophy, something you can read and think about. It’s funny as I read philosophy these days, the tiers of books you find. Original sources, especially pre-20th century primary texts, are generally readable and digestible in their original form. But when you get to some stuff in the late 19th century, some of the more self-consciously philosophical in the 20th century, and especially the commentary on primary text from the 20th century written by academics, you get incomprehensible mash-ups of academic speak. Pop philosophy books, which I think are a 21st century inventions (but I could be mistaken), offer a return, almost, to the readable primary texts, but these are commentaries and not primary texts themselves. They’re like written forms of the conversations I had when I was younger (and sometimes still do now that I’m reading and listening to philosophy lectures regularly).

At any rate, I enjoyed most of it, and I didn’t disagree vehemently with any of it. There’s a bit in it where he quotes a philosopher who was born after I was, an ethicist and psychologist who explains how we treat those in our tribe differently from those outside our tribe, and how we should work to bridge the gap between the instinctive, immediate moral judgments placed on our tribe with the reasoned ones applied to others outside the tribe. That is, we should treat everyone as compassionately as we treat those inside our tribe. This is descriptive and not really prescriptive as one who is a deontologist would hope for. A proper deontologist would recognize we’re more instantly forgiving of those like us, but we point out that a standard that we apply to both those like us and unlike us would be an objective standard. Too often in the modern era, the prescription based on this position is to apply a standard of forgiveness and non-judgment to people who would not apply the same standard to ourselves. While this is very Christian (and, indeed, as modern life shows us, also post-Christian), I am not eager to forgive those who would do me harm and to invite them to dinner.

This description, this bit of anthropology, meshes with a modern drive to equate psychology and philosophy that I don’t embrace.

Also, it adds one to my list: Persons I don’t trust immediately if they are younger than I am: Doctors, clergy, and (NEW!) philosophers.

At any rate, I enjoyed it and should probably consider buying one of his books new so he can get paid for my enjoyment instead of me continuing to freeload from the library. I’ll look for his next book (or something off of his backlist) the next time I’m at Barnes and Noble or some other bookstore on vacation.

Oh, and I would be remiss in not bragging about how much the reading of philosophy and whatnot has made me recognize things and the names of the people in the book. To whit: The title is a quote by Reinhold Niebuhr. And in a section riffing on a comment by A.J. Ayer, a British atheist, he mentions that Ayer debated and later consulted with Frederick Copleston, a clergeyman. But the Klein does not mention that Copleston, S.J., wrote a long series of books called The History of Philosophy. I know this because I have the series and actually started on part 1 of Volume I last year. I AM SMAHT!

Book Report: Death Has A Name – The Executioner #96 (December 1986)

Book coverAs I mentioned in my most recent review of an Executioner book (Shock Waves, #81 in the series), the numeric gaps between the series books in my collection grows. This one, #96, skips ahead fifteen from the last one I read (although only twelve from Missouri Deathwatch which I read in 2009, right after I moved to Nogglestead).

The changes between the earlier Bolan books and this one are stark: At almost 250 pages, it’s a third again as long as the earlier work, and the writing style is not as terse. It’s as though the writing has shifted from copying 1960s paperbacks (themselves owing a great debt to the proper pulp stuff of the 1930s and 1940s) and more copying the then-current thrillers of the day. So the writing is a little more flowery and less punchy.

In this book, Bolan is about to kill a Mafia figure at his daughter’s wedding, but holds up because he’s in a church. But an Israeli agent jumps up and starts spraying with an Uzi, and Bolan tries to help her escape only to discover that she’s part of a shadowy Israeli group that is working to break up a Mafia-Palestinian arms connection that will arm the Palestinians with enough weaponry to seriously challenge Israel’s statehood. So Bolan travels to Israel with his brother Johnny and works with the team of Israeli commandoes.

To be honest, I was less than impressed with this outing. In addition to being 50% longer than previous works, it features such bits as describing the baddest of the Palestinians as rich from oil money, poor squad-level tactics, and some gun buffoonery. It also features head scratchers such as the leader of the Israeli commandoes shooting a bad guy as Bolan says “We need him for intelligence” followed not too much later by a reversal where Bolan is going to shoot a bad guy and the commando says “We need him for intelligence,” and this complete reversal is for nothing more than giving the bad guy time to detonate a suicide backpack.

Ay, I am likely to less enjoy these books as they get longer, as the authors will likely just add more of the bad padding parts to the books to make the new page count.

Book Report: This Old Dump by Laura Jensen Walker (2004)

Book coverThis is a mild little humorous book about renovating or doing projects about your home with your spouse. Basically, the author recounts stories from friends and her own life, sometimes in a manner of paragraphs and sometimes just a sentence or two. The anecdotes are grouped in chapters by renovation and project type, like painting, wallpapering, plumbing, working with contractors, and so on.

The book is amusing, sometimes, but it doesn’t really rise to the level of Erma Bombeck or Jean Kerr. The author must have a following, though, as she mentions once or twice that she had to push off this book because her publisher wanted her to write or collate a couple of other books first. So she’s got that going for her.

But it’s not especially relatable to me even though I did just (with my beautiful wife) paint our living room (after having bought the paint a year ago for the project–like my sainted mother, I don’t like to rush into anything).

Your mileage may vary, of course.

Book Report: The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (2014)

Book coverI picked up this book at the Fair Grove branch of the Springfield-Greene County Library. You’re saying to yourself, “Hey, has he run out of books to read in his own library and the more local branches of his local library so that he has to drive almost an hour to find something new?” No, gentle reader; this summer, my boys and I are trying to visit each branch of the Springfield-Greene County library, and when we got to the Fair Grove branch (a small room off of the Fair Grove City Hall), I spotted this book in the one shelf of philosophy/religion/magick whilst my children were picking out books of their own. As I’m interested in learning more about how the Bible was compiled over time, I thought it would be a great place to start.

The book starts out pretty scholarly (but eminently readable). It talks about the history of Jerusalem around the time of Christ with some mention of the various tensions between Rome and the peoples of that area, including the Syrians and the Jews. It then talks about the Dead Sea Scrolls and what they might mean and the intersection of those texts with the Bible. It talks about the Septuagint, why it was created, and the intersection between its texts and what later appears in the Bible. It discusses Josephus, a scholar that documented history of Judea around the time of Christ and where that intersects with the Bible.

Then the book takes a turn toward parables. Well, not parables; the book recounts apocryphoral stories such as Adam and Eve after their banishment from Eden; the apocalypse of Abraham, which is a bit of a prequel to his portion of Genesis and some visions he had; and the books of Enoch, father of Noah and a bit of an interesting but underreported figure in the Bible. He mentions very briefly the source text of these stories, and then spends their respective chapters telling the stories and a bit of what we can learn from each story as a lesson. He then wraps up with a short chapter trying to tie it all together with a message about Biblical and related textual scholarship.

I enjoyed the first chapters the most and got a bit from the last of it–particularly a familiarity of some of the Apocrypha–but the shift in its focus sort of turned from what I wanted to learn to something else.

At any rate, it’s a readable bit of popular Biblical scholarship. The author has written a number of other titles of the sort, and if I run across them (perhaps an hour away at the library branch in Strafford), I’ll give them a read. It’s the sense I got from the author of the pop philosophy book Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein–I’ll pick them up if I see them, but I’ll not actively seek them out.

CORRECTION: Originally, this post referred to the Ash Grove branch of the library. Silly me! The Ash Grove branch is a shotgun shack of a two-room library in downtown Ash Grove right off of the train tracks. The boys and I were there earlier in the year. I got this book at the Fair Grove branch. Fortunately for me, Fair Play is in Polk County, and I won’t be able to confuse it with anything.