Book Report: Travels in a Donkey Trap by Daisy Baker (1974)

Book coverThis book fits a little in with the old timey children’s books I’ve been reading lately (Little House books, Me and My Little Brain). Whereas those books were set in the late nineteenth century, this book was written by a woman born in the late nineteenth century. As she gets older, in the early 1970s, she decides to buy a donkey and cart so she can travel around her neck of the English countryside.

So her riding in the donkey trap gives her a lot of time to reflect on life and her youth. She worked for a while as a maid in a couple of houses in her younger days before marrying, so she reflects on those duties as well as her father, who drove a horse-driven delivery van. Missing from the reflections: married life or children, although she does talk about her daughter who lives on the property in the big house (where the author lives in a mother-in-law cottage). She talks about all the animals they have, including numerous cats, goats, and a rabbit. She name-checks an awful lot of flowers and foilage on the way to creating a textual landscape which doesn’t make that much sense to me because I don’t know my English flowers that much. It’s structured a bit like the Little House books in that it covers the first year she had the donkey, from her birthday in January to a nice little Christmas story.

Still, it’s a pleasant little book. Apparently, she received some notice on the news back in the day for using the donkey cart, and she turned that exposure into this book. Which made it to an American imprint, too, so clearly back in the old days, the midlists were a thing.

Question: The English call whiskey “whisky,” so why don’t the call a donkey “donky”?

Book Report: The Life Expectancy of Pantyhose and The Poems of Middle Age by “Wilbur Topsail” (1993)

Book coverWell, what should I think about this book? Let’s get into what I think might be the back story of this volume: Based on a couple of Internet searches, I think this book was actually published in 1993 under a pseudonym. The “author”‘s name also appears in a review of a book entitled Navigating Infinity:

Author Michael Langthorne and Wilbur Topsail, the main character and narrator in Langthorne’s novel “Navigating Infinity,” have some things in common, but the novelist says it would be wrong to call the book autobiographical.

* * * *

The second part of the book features poems that Wilbur wrote from his childhood, through college and into adulthood.

“When you read the poems, you will see that sometimes he is venting and he is angry at his parents and then you will see the other side of him wanting to be a sexual person and wanting to have fun,” Langthorne says. “As he gets older and starts to mature, he writes poems that reflect the fact that he is an older person. You see that he has different feelings as he ages.”

That pretty much describes the poems in the book. It’s a lot of Rod McKuen territory, with the aging sex-seeker lamenting less sex and more aging. But instead of the lyricism of Rod McKuen, we’ve got more modern (and therefore lesser) free verse and a couple of prose pieces with some free-form association.

I didn’t like the book very much, thinking it less than some of the more earnest poetry by less serious “poets” like Leah Lathrom or Ronald E. Piggee. Piggee, as a matter of fact, would be contemporary to “Topsail”: both books were published in 1993, and both men would have been about the same age.

But as I got closer to the finish, I thought perhaps I should appreciate the book more if I thought of it less as a book of poetry and more as a collection of performance pieces. Back in the days when this book was fresh, I did poetry open mic nights, and a number of the St. Louis poets like Paul Stewart and Michael O’Brian did great performance pieces that, if you looked at them in their chapbooks, really weren’t much on the page. You could apply this to the Nuyorican Poets, too–I saw them when they were traveling through St. Louis at that time. Once I got that into my head, that maybe these were a product of the time, I tolerated the poems better.

Then I got to one poem, called “Generations”, that was pretty good. So I guess that redeemed the book for me.

It’s odd, a bit of double-effect going on here: The author is a little younger than I am now, but the poems are from my most fecund poetical era (captured, of course, in Coffee House Memories) in the middle 1990s. I can relate to some of the themes of aging now, but I was not very impressed, overall, with the execution. Especially the prose poem things which were a little free-association with little point aside from the free-association and the poetating.

Of course, now that I’m aware of it, perhaps I will pick the novel up if I spot it at a book sale to see what the older (still) author does with the material.

Book Report: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1935, 1971)

Book coverAs I predicted when I read Little House in the Big Woods, it was not long before I picked up this book. Of course, I had some control over that, so it’s not really prophecy. As I mentioned in the previous book report, this is the third of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books; the second, Farmer Boy deals with the young Almanzo Wilder’s experiences in the 19th century. I don’t have a copy of that book, but my youngest son is currently reading a school copy of the book ahead of a field trip to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home near Marshfield, and he offered to surrepitiously bring the book home every night so I could read it at the same time as he’s reading it. I’m thinking about it.

At any rate, this book covers the move from Wisconsin to Indian territory in Kansas, which Charles Ingalls has heard will be opened for settlement. So they’re sooners sooner than the actual Sooners. They build a little house, meet some neighbors, and not only have to deal with the different challenges and topography of Kansas, but they also have to deal with Indians who they really, really don’t want becoming hostile. Much of the book, as in the previous volume, deals with the man-against-nature stories of building a house, trading, and whatnot, but the introduction of the Indians adds a little drama, as they can suddenly appear in ones or twos and steal your food and tobacco or get together a bunch and threaten to wipe out the settlers. But this drama is told at a distance, as the family huddles in the cabin and watches for a war party.

So it’s not a greatly dramatic narrative, but it is interesting in its historical perspectives. This book was written in the 1930s and takes place in the post-bellum west midwest, but the father speaks respectfully of natives even as others do not and, when the family is sick, a black doctor tends to them. So it’s almost suitably woke (but clearly not enough since it is not Woke™), which might lead one who is paying attention and bothers to read things not written on computers, that maybe the past was not as asleep as they’ve been told.

A couple things of note: I flagged one passage in this book, wherein Laura explains that she and Mary share a cup for drinking water at dinner, and that they only get water, and won’t get coffee until they’re adults. I contrasted this with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, where the children drink coffee all day and all night.

Additionally, as I read this book listening to the Big Band station streaming from my DirecTV, I realized that the Glenn Miller I was listening to was closer in time to Little House on the Prairie than to today. Weird, we think about culture slowing or stopping in the eighties or nineties, but the rate of change has really slowed down before that.

So we’ll see how soon I dive into On the Banks of Plum Creek or if I take the lad up on his offer of sharing his school copy of Farmer Boy with me.

Book Report: Sally Forth by Greg Howard (1987)

Book coverIt seems I have read these books out of order. A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, which I read over a week ago, is a later Sally Forth collection. This book appeared a year earlier. Not that it matters, though; the strips are not particularly serial in nature, and the drawing doesn’t evolve over time, and new characters haven’t been added so I’m dealing with a pre-Asok or post-Asok world (to use Dilbert as an example).

Well, the tropes are all here: The business woman who is the primary housecleaner deals with work and her family. On the plus side, although they’re not the main characters, the males in the strip, that is, the husband and the boss, are not merely the butt of jokes, as they have their moments. So we’ve got that going for us.

It did not give me a laugh out loud moment like the aforementioned later collection did, and it did give me a moment where I wondered if I’d already read a particular strip before. I might have. Perhaps I should not read the collections so close together.

Regardless, it’s the second of the two copies I bought this spring, so I am fresh out of Sally Forth collections until the October book sales at the earliest. And I’ll let them simmer on the to-read shelves for a while to keep the stories fresh.

Now that I’m done with them, my boys can have at them. I’m not sure what they will think of it. It doesn’t match their lifestyle, as mom and dad do not work outside the house, and the strips are computer- and device-free. But they do like to look at the old cartoons since they’re cartoons.

Book Report: The Ozarks: A Picture Book To Remember Them By by Crescent Books (1987)

Book coverI thought I had read this book before, perhaps as a library book I reviewed during a football game. I guess I was thinking about Bittersweet Ozarks At A Glance. That, and I did read another book in this series, Michigan: A Picture Book To Remember Her By in 2009. In that book report, I said I was eager to go up north again; I did, this year.

It’s a little different reading a book about remembering where you live, thirty years before you lived there. For starters, the book uses the whole Ozark Plateau as “the Ozarks,” which means there are photos from almost as far as St. Louis, whereas Missourians don’t start counting the Ozarks until, what, Fort Leonard Wood? Waynesville?

At any rate, I didn’t recognize much. Some pictures of Table Rock Lake, perhaps. But the book focuses on generic landscapes for the most part. Springfield is not represented at all. Silver Dollar City and Branson, which get a couple of pages, but they’ve changed enough since the photos were taken, probably in the 1970s, that neither looks the same exactly.

So it’s more of a historical document than anything I’ll actually remember.

Still, worth flipping through.

And now that I know this is a series, I must collect them.

Book Report: Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald (1958)

Book coverOne of the joys of John D. MacDonald books is that you’re not really sure what you’re going to get, even by the cover. He writes books about business shenanigans and land deals gone bad, he writes crime books, and sometimes he just writes character studies where the characters deal with disasters. Sometimes, like this book, he creates a sympathetic character who makes bad decisions and more bad decisions, and suddenly he’s a bad guy (as also happened to a lesser degree in Clemmie).

In this book, the main character is a former World War II special forces sort who, twenty years later, is a construction project manager. He started his own company, but fell in love with the daughter of a larger construction company’s owner and has married her. Their childless marriage has descended into that alcohol-soaked suburban immorality and adultery that one finds in MacDonald books sometimes. One of his war buddies comes in from South America with a plan to relieve a courier of several million dollars for an arms purchase just as an attempted coup is thwarted, and with the coup plotter dead or in prison, nobody will care about the money. They devise a plan just like in the old days, and it goes off without a hitch–well, except the friend gets wounded and has to hole up at the main character’s house and dallies a bit with the missus.

Then we’re off: An accidental death, covered up, and then murder to cover up the accidental death, and the police come knocking, and….

Well, it is a good read even as the sympathetic character descends out of that sympathy. The end, though, is pretty abrupt, as forces from the government and from South America that were looking for the money show up and set the stage for a bloody climax and then a less bloody anti-climax.

Still, it’s good writing for the most part and reinforces my belief that John D. MacDonald is one of the best writers from the 20th century.

Book Report: Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932, ?)

Book coverIt must be my year for catching up on my old-timey children’s books. Early last month, I re-read Me and My Little Brain from The Great Brain series, and now I’ve read this book, the first in the Little House series (not, as one might assume because the television series bore the title, Little House on the Prairie, which is the third in the series, and I think I have all my commas right between the parentheses here, but I cannot be sure).

As you might know, gentle reader, if you’re over forty years of age or if you’re a school child who has grown up within field trip distance of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s last home in Marshfield, Missouri, these books tell the story of young Laura Ingalls and her family as they grow up on the frontier in a variety of locations during the late middle part of the 19th century.

This book takes place on the western edge of Wisconsin over the course of a year. The chapters are little vignettes of things that happen, starting in the winter with Pa hunting and storytelling by the fire in the long winter evenings, through the emergence of spring and maple syrup season, to the work in the summer (and no meat–as Pa does not hunt during the summer so the little deer and whatnot can grow up) to the harvest and the beginning of the winter. The author touches upon the isolation–it’s several hours ride to their relatives’ homes, and Laura has never seen two houses near each other until she goes to town for the first time–and the amount of work and the frugality (dare I say it, sustainability) the family practices.

The book includes a couple of primers on how to make butter, maple sugar, and various other necessities, so in addition to your Foxfire books, you might want to keep a set of these books around in case TEOTWAWKI teotwakis (because, let’s be honest, it should be a verb by now).

The difference between this book and the aforementioned Me and My Little Brain are separated by a mere twenty some years (that is, the distance between the dot com era and now), but the differences are vast–the world of Adenville, Utah, and the Big Woods. It’s not so much a difference of the decades, although some of that is true–but it is a difference between town and country that was far greater than it is today, although the differences definitely exist. The practices in this book are close to those found in Nebraska after the turn of the 20th century as found in Over the Hills and Past Our Place or even the 1940s in Missouri in Growing Up In The Bend.

I saw a link on Instapundit to an excerpt entitled The Unbearable Darkness of Young Adult Literature that talked about how children’s and young adult literature is currently preoccupied with After School Special parables about the politically favored lifestyles and problems, and I contrast this Man (Child) versus Society (Squares) focus with the children’s books I grew up with that were very much conscious of Man versus Nature and Man versus Man. Most of the contemporary titles won’t have much to say to kids a decade or two from now, not like books about the 19th centuries could speak to child readers in the end of the 20th century. I just hope kids can still relate to these stories.

I can, but I’m a late twentieth century kid whose reading of these classics has been displaced a couple decades.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I heard the television theme whenever I picked up the book.

The next book in the series, Farmer Boy, but it deals with the young Wilder boy whom Laura would later marry. I don’t have it, but I do have Little House on the Prairie which I will undoubtedly pick up before long.

Because I have fallen behind in my annual reading goals this year, and I don’t think looking at cartoon books during football games is going to catch me up. So I must rely on children’s books and religious tracts. And, maybe, counting comic books after all.

Book Report: A Woman’s Work Is Never Done by Greg Howard (1988)

Book coverSally Forth has been around a while now, as this book (and the Wikipedia page) indicates. The book is set at the end of the yuppie era; the parents are busy career professionals, and the title character herself is a career woman offering an empowered heroine at a time, youngsters, where there weren’t that many women executives. I know some would say there aren’t enough now, but back then, there were not any (and as far as how many are enough, gentle reader, I say “enough” is “as many as want to be and are competent to do so” which is not a scientific law measurable with a simple percentage).

At any rate, the two business professionals have a single child, a daughter named Hilary. Where they warning us? Not likely. So you get a crossover of business humor, family humor, and parenting humor, but no sibling rivalry humor. Which keeps the cartoon fresh, I reckon, as it switches contexts. You get some storylines that carry over a strip or two, none of the longer conceits that would stretch weeks like you see in Dilbert.

I mean, it looks to be standard funny pages filler, but I laughed out loud at one of them, which is something I rarely every do. And I remember the era where the topics were current, so it’s got a little nostalgia to it. I see from the Wikipedia page that the cartoon has carried on, so it’s probably also contemporary, so less meaningful to me now. And carried on by others than the original cartoonist, although the strip never broke out of the papers into films and television like some others did.

Book Report: Theosophy: The Wisdom of the Ages by Cherry Gilchrist (1996)

Book coverThis book is a little, sixty page primer on Theosophy chock full of pictures and illustrations. The St. Louis chapter of the Theosophical Society had its office right above the Oasis coffee house in Webster Groves back when I hung out there a bunch, and it had crossed my mind to go up and see what it was about, but I never did. I wonder what twenty-five-year-old me would have thought about it. Something like what older me thinks, albeit probably more dismissive and rude about it.

What I have gleaned about this book is that Theosophy is a mystical religion/philosophy created by a Ukrainian noble woman around the turn of the twentieth century. She studied abroad and brought home elements of Buddhism and Hinduism. Although the first bit of the book talks about how she tried to glean the higher truth that lies at the core of all religions, it came to focus on the mystical elements of the imported religions such as reincarnation and chakras. It also picked up some other mysticism from turn-of-the-century thought, such as astral projection, other planes of existence, and mediumship.

So.

It’s a mystical tradition in the most mystical sense, and it prides itself as being the forerunner of New Age thinking. It’s not like the flavors of Buddhism one gets in contemporary book presentations–all the mindfulness and meditation stuff without any of the epistemelogical underpinings, the stuff that makes you go, “Wait, what?” I could probably make a good thesis and paper on how the practical elements of religion come to the forefront in American life, the stuff that tells you how to live your life (meditation and mindfulness in Buddhism, the practical parables in the Gospels) and the epistemological stuff (the Law, the wheel and reincarnation) gets overlooked or ignored.

But Theosophy is full-on mysticism where the epistemology is baked right into the practical.

At any rate, I learned what it is now, and although I’m not going to be hunting down the local branch personally, at least I’ll be ready if I’m asked at a trivia night what organization Madame Helena Blavatsky formed, I’ll know the answer while the other tables are guessing SPECTRE.

Book Report: Countdown To Super Bowl by Dave Anderson (1969)

Book coverSubtitle: How Joe Namath Ruined Football. Well, no, it wasn’t Joe Namath that ruined football. It was the 1960s and the emergence of expressiveness, of personality over teamwork. Or maybe it was Pete Rozelle who made it a profitable iconic industry instead of a game people could watch and root for their favorite teams of blue collar journeymen like themselves. Or perhaps it isn’t ruined at all; perhaps I just wanted to make a snarky remark about Joe Namath and that upstart AFL team beating the Colts and Johnny U.

It is that time of year, of course: It seems that every year in August I read a football book to prepare for the season in my own fashion, just like every year after football I watch a couple of football comedies to come down from the season. In the past, I’ve read Vince Lombardi’s Run to Daylight, Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay (twice, once in 2004 and 2015), and even Paper Lion. Run to Daylight recounts a week leading up to a game; Instant Replay covers the complete season; and Paper Lion deals with training camp. This book deals with the two weeks leading up to the third Super Bowl which pitted the Jets against the Colts, as I might have mentioned. Unlike the other books, though, this volume has a floating, free-form style that shifts between the various Jets players, some fans, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, and a couple of Colts players. I bet the author and perhaps even a team of researchers was embedded with both teams collecting material for this book and went with the Jets-heavy content because the Jets won. Or maybe not.

The shifting viewpoints really dampen the narrative, though, and whatever tension might be building up to the big game. Even with only a roster of 40 (as they had in those days), it rather drops a lot of names and profiles them for a paragraph or a page, and then moves on, and when the player reappears twenty or fifty pages later, you have to wonder, “Who is this guy?” So it’s complete at the expense of depth.

Anderson co-wrote two football books that I’ve read with John Madden (One Knee Equals Two Feet and All Madden), so he clearly knows football. But this book was less satisfying than the others because of its scattered narrative.

Still, not a bad read.

Interesting note that I flagged:

Don Weiss, the slim public relations director from Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s office, had supervised the issuance of credentials to 367 sportswriters, 253 photographers and 214 radio and TV people–a total of 834. (About 200 newsmen are accredited in Vietnam.)

This is the only mention of politics or The War in the book. As I said in my first review of Instant Replay:

Since the book chronicles an era before my birth, part of its charm lies in its details about a world I’d never know. Green Bay and Milwaukee described in the late 1960s and no mention of the War in Viet fucking Nam, man. Which differs, strangely, from the football season 2004, where the whole world’s talking about that war.

Or, in 2018, made up concerns.

Ah, the good old days, where not everything was political.

Book Report: A Minyen Yidn by Max B. Perlson & Trina Robbins (2017)

Book coverAs I mentioned, I got this book at Library Con just a week ago.

As part of my reading habit, if I get to a natural stopping point, such as the end of a short story, in my reading late in the evening, I’ll pick up a comic book to pass a few more minutes before toddling off to bed. But due to a delayed trip to the comic store, my supply of fresh comics was depleted, so I picked up this collection to serve the same purpose until I could get back to the comic book store. Which it did. Also, it doesn’t hurt that I’ll count this as a full book whereas I don’t count the comic books I read (yet) in my annual tally. But given how few books I’ve completed thus far in 2018, this might be a logical step to gaming my own system. Fortunately, though, football season is coming up, and if the Packers are any good this year, I’ll have three hours a week to page through art books, cartoon collections, and poetry chapbooks.

Well, that’s quite a digression from talking about this book. Back to the matter at hand.

The source material for this book is a collection of short stories, vignettes and slice-of-life bits, written and published by Max Perlson in 1938. They’re about life in America for an immigrant or life in the eastern European shetl where he grew up. His daughter, Trina Robbins, grew up and got into comics in the 1960s and became something of a known name in some circles. She read his book and adapted them to comic book form and had a number of comic artists she knows draw art based on the text. So we have a collection of short pieces each in a different style of art and lettering.

The stories themselves are mildly interesting and vary in depth. Some are more geared to Jewish readers (relying on some knowledge of the culture and religion for poignancy), but some are more broadly approachable stories. The varied art forms, well, vary in their efficacy. Some lettering is harder to read than others, but I think part of the point of the book was to let various artists interpret the material in their own way. As I’ve lamented in other comic book posts, comics have often become all about the artists and the pictures and not so much about the stories. Whereas this volume is about the stories, it can illustrate the deleterious effect of art upon the story.

At any rate, worth picking up at a con when the publisher is discounting books she does not want to ship back to Winnipeg.

Oh, and a quote I flagged in the introduction:

He [her father, Max Perlson] learned well; our home was filled with books, all of which he had read, and because they were around, I read them, too. Among them, I remember the complete Mark Twain, Dickens, the poems of William Blake and John Keats, the memoirs, god help us, of Ulysses S. Grant.

As you might remember, gentle reader, I picked up a copy of those very memoirs last year so I could have a reading copy. One wonders why the “god help us.” One doubts the author wanted the South to win the Civil War.

Book Report: Introvert Survival Tactics by Patrick King (2017)

Book coverI saw this book on Instapundit’s blog, I think, and I buy just about everything I see on Instapundit. I mean, we have screaming flingshot monkeys, for crying out loud.

The book is designed for introverts, which the author defines as someone who gets worn out by social contact instead of people who are awkward or shy. So it might not apply to everyone who considers himself an introvert. Me, I think I was XNTJ on the old Myers-Brigg, where I hit right in the middle of introvert and extrovert. So I’m probably not the core audience for the book. I just look like an introvert because I’m reserved and distrustful of people. So the book didn’t resonate with me as I thought it might.

Basically, it’s a collection of tips and tricks for people who just run out of energy in social interactions as to how they can either extend that “social battery” (the metaphor the author uses) or structure their social lives to take into account their introvert nature. Things like make sure that you have an exit strategy/end time for social events, make sure you take little quiet “breaks” during social situations, all the way up to setting up a safe space for introverts when you’re throwing a party (what?).

You know, I like to host people at Nogglestead because I have opportunities to step out of the room for a minute to take care of hosting duties. But when thinking about introversion while reading this book, I started to think that I’m possibly more of an extrovert than my beautiful wife, who is friendly and can chat up strangers fairly easily, but when she’s done working or socializing, she wants quiet time for herself. It amuses me to think that I’m an extrovert, but not a very friendly one.

So if you’re introverted or think you might be, you might find something in this book you can use. If nothing else, it’s a quick enough read about psychology and self-help.

Book Report: Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar by James Marcus Bach (2009, 2011)

Book coverIt took me a little while to get through this book. I took it with me when I went to Leavenworth in July, and I made it about a third of the way through it then, but it’s been relegated to my carry book in a season where I don’t have much time to read my carry book. Let me again explain the “carry book”: It’s usually a smaller paperback that I take with me when I’m going to have an hour or so to read at a location that’s not one of my primary reading recliners (PRRs). Normally, these spaces include church over the Sunday School hour, the martial arts school when I’ll be there an hour before my class begins, or church while my child or children attend the Wednesday evening programming. In summer, our schedules are off, and I don’t really get to sit and read outside the house. So carry books tend to sit on my dresser (like the Montaigne, sometimes for a long time indeed). But with the start of school, our schedule allows me time to read my carry book again, and I read most of the back half of it yesterday while my child attended Wednesday night activities.

So, about this book.

It’s really three books blended together, or, rather, it is a blend of three topics in one book. It’s partly a bio of the author, partly a book about software testing, and partly a book about learning. This last is its raison d’être.

Bach talks about how he dropped out of school and charted his own path in the computer industry by using his own learning methods, and he codifies them a bit, gives them names, and explains how they work together. Basically, it’s about not being afraid to try, being comfortable with your own pace and limitations, and not giving up.

He describes his own struggles with worrying that he could not or would not learn something. Part of the process is backing off and then reengaging with a topic later and learning cyclically, by learning some things and then filling in the gaps of what you’ve already learned with later engagement with a topic. Man, I hope this works, since I’ve certainly spent my share of time backing off of the higher physics and math I’ve grappled with this year.

At any rate, it ended up being an enjoyable book, but the tripartite focus diminshed it a bit and made it something I could put down for months, but not years. I got something out of it: reinforcement of the patience in learning that I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older.

Book Report: The Case of the Daring Divorcee by Erle Stanley Gardner (1964)

Book coverMy goodness, has it been ten years since I’ve read a Perry Mason novel? The historical documents on this blog indicate it has (the last beeing The Case of the Mischievous Doll in August 2008). I read four in 2007 and 2008 (The Case of the Mischievous Doll, The Case of the Horrified Heirs, The Case of the Fiery Fingers, and The Case of the Cautious Coquette), but nothing since. I guess that’s because my shelves are not thick with to-read Perry Mason books, and I haven’t seen a lot of them available at local book sales. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen many Walter J. Black edition anything in a while. I guess the generation that bought them up by the score has already downsized, and their kids haven’t held onto them.

But I digree–which, to be honest, the digressions are worth more than the book reports themselves. What to say about this entry, apparently the 74th in the Perry Mason line? A young woman desperately seeking his help shows up at Perry Mason’s office, leaves for a moment, but does not return. She did, however, leave her purse which contains a gun that has been fired twice along with her identification. Mason investigates and finds that the woman whose purse it is did not leave it in his office and is being framed for the murder of her estranged husband. Meanwhile, the man’s second wife shows up to claim his property and company, saying that she did not actually follow through on their divorce, so the framed wife was not his wife at all.

It leads to the usual Masonesque legal maneuvering, culminating in a courtroom demasking of the real culprit. Which is rather quick and a bit forced; the real killer and accomplice were bit players until their unmasking, which is ultimately a bit unsatisfying.

Still, one has to admire the lean prose from Gardner’s books. There’s not a lot of description or flourish in it. Most of it keeps the action moving forward. However, I don’t think I could sit down and read a pile of these in order, as the “plot” would be unmasked, dramatically, as “formula.”

Still, these books hold up pretty good and don’t seem dated to people of a certain age.

Especially when Mason rants about prosecutors overcharging:

“If it [a stolen gun] should appear,” Mason said, “that the defendant and this witness conspired to get some evidence from my office, then the taking of the gun would be an overt act which would make him guilty of a separate crime, the crime of criminal conspiracy/ Taking the gun is one thing, conspiring to take it is another. They are both crimes.”

“That’s splitting hairs,” [Prosecuting attorney] Ellis said.

“No, it isn’t,” Mason said. “Whenever you people draw up an information or a complaint against a person you put in just as many counts as you can think of. You put in a count of criminal conspiracy and you put in a count of the criminal act. Then you try to talk a jury into returning a verdict of guilty n every count in the indictment. You claim each count is a separate crime, that you don’t make the law, you only enforce it, that if the legislature has chosen to make it a crime to conspire to commit an unlawful act and a defendant conspires to commit such an act and then does commit the act, he’s guilty of two separate crimes.”

Sixty-four years later, this holds true, and sixty-four more years of “tough on crime” legislators have invented even more crimes to prosecute.

Book Report: The Celebrated Jumping Frog and Other Stories by Mark Twain (1992)

Book coverI have this collection in the Reader’s Digest World’s Best Reading edition, which is a series I pick up when I can find them cheap. They’re nicely put together, they often come with a little biographical pamphlet about the author, and they put the academic material where it belongs–at the end of the book, not ahead of the primary material.

This volume collects a number of Twain’s short stories, including:

  • “The Celebrated Jumping Frog”
  • “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg”
  • “A Fable”
  • “The Story of the Good Little Boy”
  • “The Story of the Bad Little Boy”
  • “The £1,000,000 Bank Note”
  • “Jim Baker’s Bluejay Yarn”
  • “A Medieval Romance”
  • “The $30,000 Bequest”
  • “The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm”
  • “Was It Heaven? Or Hell?”
  • “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit To Heaven”
  • “A Dog’s Tale”

Of the stories, I especially enjoyed “The £1,000,000 Bank Note” wherein a San Francisco trader is lost at sea, rescued, and delivered to London with nothing; there, two rich men give him a very large, uncashable bank check to see if he can make it a month with them to settle a bet between themselves. The trader does with elan. I thought the story was going to lead to a situation akin to the film Trading Places, but it was different. I thought “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit To Heaven” was clever as it grappled with some questions about what Heaven, God, and the Bible might mean galactically. I was startled by non-Disney endings to “Was It Heaven? Or Hell?” and “A Dog’s Tale”. And I might remember the stories, which is about the best that one can expect over the years.

I noted with interest that the bear in “A Fable” is named Baloo, but I cannot determine if it preceded or followed Kipling’s bear from The Jungle Books. I haven’t found a date on this story easily on the Internet, so I don’t know which came first, but it’s likely a bit of tribute between the writers one way or the other.

I’ve read the longer works of Twain’s (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and The Prince and the Pauper), and I think I like them more than short stories. Of course, I like novels more than short stories anyway, as one does not have to shift gears as often with them, which is why it takes me longer to read short stories in a book than it does a novel of the same length.

At any rate, good stuff, a bit of fun, and it counts as a classic in my internal virtuous reading signaling.

Book Report: Me and My Little Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (1971, 1984)

Book coverI read the Great Brain books in elementary school, and when I had children, I started picking the volumes up for my boys. Apparently, I picked up two copies of this book as I found a duplicate copy on their bookshelves while helping them clean their room this summer. So I put it on my to-read shelves for nostalgia’s sake.

The copy I have is an ex-library copy in the heavy library binding, which is only appropriate. Apparently, the books are available in paperback, too, but I got them from the school or public library, so I only understand the book in library binding.

If you’re not familiar with the Great Brain series: These fictional stories tell about a Catholic family in a small town in Utah at the end of the ninteenth century. It starts as a family of five: Mama, Papa, and brothers Sweyn, Tom, and John. The middle son is a swindler who comes up with all kinds of crazy schemes to make money or trick his younger brother John (the first person narrator of the book) into doing his chores. The first books deal with this, but this particular volume details when Tom goes off to the Jesuit Academy in Salt Lake City for seventh grade. John hopes to take up Tom’s mantel and make a little coin using his own brain, but it doesn’t work out that way. The book basically has three story arcs: The first couple of chapters are John trying schemes and failing. The second deals with the family (which is just Papa, Mama, and John along with their hired woman Aunt Bertha at this point) taking in a traumatized four-year-old whose family was killed in a mudslide before his eyes. The third deals with an escaped outlaw who has come back to town to kill the men he holds accountable for his incarceration–which includes Papa.

Re-reading this as an adult, I still enjoyed it. The writing is perhaps a little simpler than you would expect for an adult book–but, honestly, the language in a lot of books these days, especially the genre stuff I tend to read, isn’t exactly Faulkner. When I compare this young adult literature to the stuff my kids favor, though, it’s quite heady literature. My boys said they’ve read them, but they’re not exactly clamoring for more, unlike the excitement they demonstrate when a new comic/novel hybrid by Jeff Kinney or Dav Pilkey appears. Which will probably make them into adults who read comic books, if at all (wait, what? I read other things besides comic books and young adult literature, but I’m in the very selective minority).

It also struck me as I researched John D. Fitzgerald after reading this book how contemporary to my childhood these books were. This particular book was first published in 1971, which means I read it when it was ten years old or less. That’s a crazy thought–they seemed so much older back then, partially because they depict life so long ago and probably partly by how worn the library books were–probably due to popularity and cheap paper more than actual age. After reading this book, I’ve thought about seeking out some of his other works, including his adult book Mamma’s Boarding House, which I tried to read at age eight or nine, but I could not because it opens immediately after Papa’s funeral, and it was too painful to imagine life without a father (spoiler alert, little me: in a year or two, you’ll get to experience it for real by parental decision instead of death). So expect me to be cruising eBay this autumn looking to fill out my personal collection (as opposed to my boys’ collection).

Also, check out the list of other books you will enjoy:

Analysis: TRUE. I did enjoy all of these books in my elementary school years along along with the Beverly Cleary books (although I thought Henry Huggins was the main character and didn’t understand until later why Beezus and Ramona got all the stories). They made me into the get-rich-quick grifter I am today.

Book Report: Emotional Memoirs and Short Stories by Lani Hall Alpert (2012)

Book coverI bought this book after I attended the Herb Alpert / Lani Hall concert last year. I didn’t have enough cash to buy it at the theatre, but I ordered it promptly after I got home.

It’s a collection of short memories from Ms. Hall-Alpert’s life growing up in Chicago interspersed with short stories inspired by some of those memories–or perhaps the recollections are prompted by the short stories.

Regardless, it’s a collection of ten short stories (“Come Rain or Come Shine”, “Standing Appointment”, “Mr. Belmont”, “Something in Common”, “The Professor”, “The Ringing Bells”, “The Cleaning Lady”, “Curiosity”, “Coonfrontation”, and “Inland”). They’re mostly mainstream, slice-of-life style fiction you used to find in women’s magazines or in Colliers and sometimes Short Story magazine. They’re not self-consciously literary, which is nice. They deal often with men’s and women’s relationships and/or a woman’s, particularly an artistic woman’s, self-doubt. They’re nice little stories, and I cannot pooh-pooh them even though I have an English Degree® because I’m not having a lot of luck in writing my own short stories these days even though I’m gathering a little box full of ideas.

So they’re worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of her music.

You’re probably more familiar with her singing “Mais Que Nada” with Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’66, but she did the theme song for the Bond movie Never Say Never Again which my boys and I will watch after Octopussy which is next in our queue, so it seemed the thing to include in this book report.

Book Report: Rogue Warrior: Echo Platoon by Richard Marcinko and John Weisman (2000)

Book coverWhen I cracked open this book, I thought I’d read it before. It begins with a water-infiltration attack on an oil drilling platform. But as I went through the set piece, I thought, No, the other book included an assault on an oil platform in the North Sea, and this one is in the Caspian Sea. Completely different. So it’s like James Bond: Watching the movies rapidly in succession, one realizes how many of the set pieces are repeated, especially ski chases, SCUBA fighting, or the sudden large scale assaults of United States troops, astronauts, or ninja on the enemy compound.

At any rate, in this book, Marcinko is in Azerberjan to “train” the locals, but when his plane lands, he finds a hostage situation that requires the oil platform landing mentioned above. After the hostages are rescued, the convoy taking the hostages to safety is hit by tangos, resulting in the loss of all those the SEALs saved. So Marcinko investigates the connection between the Russians, the Iranians, and a questionable NGO and its billionaire founder. Which leads to a number of set pieces and assaults that you would expect, all told in the meta- and, erm, course style of the Rogue Warrior series.

How meta? Well, he talks about the editor telling him to move the story along, and he even admits

Now, this here book is pure fiction, but the sort of Warrior leadership I’m talking about can be found in real life, every now and then.

Like the example set by Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez. Master Sergeant Benavidez was attached to Fifth Special Forces back in Vietnam. Here, quoting from the citation for his Medal of Honor, is what he did–and how he led by example.

The book then relates the story of what he did.

So the book–and the series–blend the fiction with real actions and authentic government behavior effectively. I like the series overall.

However, this book comes at the end of the Clinton years, and Marcinko calls the former president out by name several times. I don’t like sucker punches from the left, so I rankle a bit about the ones I agree with, too. It not only can turn off half the audience–well, by then, the circles in the Venn diagram of Marcinko fans and liberals were probably far apart already–but it also dates the book. By just fuming about military cutbacks, you could imagine it in just about any Democratic administration instead of pegging it to something that kids these days won’t relate to.

At any rate, still a fun book to read while waiting for my thirst for Shakespeare to resume.

Book Report: The Devil Wins by Reed Farrel Coleman (2015)

Book coverWell, well, well. This was a pleasant surprise. I was not pleased with Blind Spot, the first Jesse Stone book that Coleman took on after the Brandman Dynasty. I knocked it for its slow pacing, for its early revelation of the bad guys, and some thick prose of the sake of thick prose.

With this book, though, Coleman seems to find his footing. In it, the collapse of an industrial building in a winter nor’easter uncovers the bodies of two teen girls killed twenty-five years ago, and Stone has to uncover the unlikely group of killers. Paradise thinks this is its deep, dark shame from the past, and it threatens to hidden secrets from people Jesse has known for a long time. In series business, Jesse is still dealing with the aftermath of Suitcase Simpson’s shooting in the last book, starts visiting the shrink again, and meets the new ME who will become his friend and maybe more. The series business doesn’t overwhelm the story of this book, though.

So, overall, not bad, although the whole “in the deep past of 25 years ago” might ring a little truer if the first Jesse Stone novel hadn’t come out in 1997, 21 years ago. Also, deep, dark past doesn’t work for me since I can remember being an adult(ish) back then.

But good enough that I’ll look for other entries in this line at book sales.

Book Report: A Nice Steady Job by Gregory Dowling (1994)

Book coverI picked this book from my to-read shelves because, whenever I turned around at my desk to talk to my beautiful wife, the red dot that indicates that it was a dollar book I bought from Hooked on Books once upon a time (probably before this blog existed, werd). I’m very conscious of the red dots these days since the current employees at Hooked on Books don’t know what they meant. So when it came time for a new fiction book, I finally settled on it, unsure of what I was getting.

As it turns out, it is a British private detective novel. For a moment, I had some reservations given how little I really enjoyed my last British mystery (Cotswold Mistress from almost a year ago already). But this book’s tone is more akin to American private eye books with a British sensibility to them rather than an Agatha Christie ministers-and-gentlemen-dying locked room thing.

The protagonist, January (called Jan) Esposito, is a bit of a ne-er-do-well loafing about in Italy and teaching English to Italian students. He’s got a hustler of a half brother, with whom he had a previous adventure that led them to believe he could be an adventure or private detective, so when the son of a gentleman goes missing, the Sir reaches out to the half brother, who enlists Jan to go to a small village in Verona to look for the young sir-to-be who is suspected of murdering a local. When Jan gets to town, he meets a young researcher who is not who she claims she is and some local toughts.

It’s a pretty good read, a slower paced book than an American detective book even of that era, but it moves along nevertheless. Of course, Jan uncovers conspiracies and cover-ups that go all the way back to The War (World War II), a partisan plan to recover a religious statue stolen by the Nazis that goes missing when the Nazis burn the house where the partisans hole up after the raid, and a plot to arm a new revolutionary group planning attacks in the modern day. It gets a little convoluted at the end, but a lot of other detective books do get into their plots.

A fun read, and certainly worth a dollar twenty years ago, although in contemporary dollars, that’s probably like $20. Probably still worth a dollar, and you could probably find it for that.

Apparently, this author wrote three books in the 1990s, of which this book is the last, and only recently returned to novels with a couple of historical thrillers set in Italy. Which probably means I won’t find a vast catalog of his other work in book sales here in town, but I will certainly keep an eye out for them.