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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Report: Love by Danielle Steel (1984)

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

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

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

Book Report: After America by Mark Steyn (2011)

Book coverThis book is quite a downer.

I read America Alone almost six years ago (when this current title was still fresh). This one is less optimistic: in the interim, America Alone (ish) elected Barack Obama, and several years’ worth of his policies were underway, so Steyn is concerned that America has joined the rest of the west in entering its decline. So he talks about what the world will look like after the United States cedes its hegemony to other nations with less noble intentions.

The thing I said about America Alone also applies here:

Five years after the book, I’m not as gloomy as Steyn was (and is now, given the title of his latest book–After America for those of you who might not know). The sweep of history is broad and long, and its predictors are more often wrong than not. However, the book does crystallize, or should, that our Western traditions and heritage are better than all the others that have been tried and do require some conscious defense thereof. If you merely enjoy liberty without recognizing its sources, someone will quickly take it from you.

Right down to how long it took me to read it after its publication.

As I said, it’s pessimistic, and it’s too much like reading his blog in book length. Which is to say, depressing if you take it too seriously. He might be right, he might be wrong, and most likely he’s part both. But there’s no good spending one’s evenings before bed wallowing in it. Also, the recent past might suggest a change in the wind for the United States which, one way or another, will render its half-decade-past prognostications out-of-date.

So read it if you’re reading this blog post from somewhere in 2011 or 2012 when it’s fresh. Otherwise, stick to shorter, current doses on the Internet.

And remind me to stay away from current events books at the upcoming book sales.

Book Report: When You Come To A Fork In The Road, Take It by Yogi Berra with Dave Kaplan (2001)

Book coverAs I might have mentioned, I found this book when I went looking for The Legend of Gilgamesh. This book was on the book shelf where I’d last seen the earlier work, so I read it instead when I could not find the epic. They’re almost the same: You’d have to explain to anyone under thirty-five who either of these guys is. Or was.

At any rate, this book collects a bit of Berra’s recollections from his life in baseball and presents a little life advice based on it. That’s about it. He talks about breaking into the big leagues, playing in New York in the days before baseball players made millions, and his youth in St. Louis. It explains how he got the nickname Yogi and, more importantly, his real name (which is probably available on his Wikipedia entry, but I’ve never looked at it). Both of which could help me should they come up in a trivia night. Which would have to be run by someone older than 35.

A nice piece of filler reading material. It won’t change my life, but it was pleasant. Also, take a look at that title page: It looks as though this book is signed by the author. How cool is that?

Book Report: Appointment in Kabul by “Don Pendleton” (1985)

Book coverIt’s unfortunate that the first Executioner book I picked up after reading Rated R was this book. Whereas Leon is funnin’ with the cartoonish violence in a bit of almost campy fun, I’m afraid the author of this Executioner book is earnest. Which is unfortunate, because we have ACTION! like this:

He encountered another two-man patrol walking its beat near the intersection midway between the blocks separating the high command from the checkpoint.

This couple did not know of their encounter with the Executioner until the heartbeat of their death.

He came at them fast, the edge of each stiffened hand slashing downward hard enough to break both necks. The soldiers crumpled to the pavement at Bolan’s feet with soft sighs.

And on the next page:

The Executioner tugged open the driver’s door, reached in and rapidly pulled the driver out, down into a raised knee that smacked the man’s face with such force, Bolan heard the neck snap.

I’m not sure the physics works out in either of these cases, but it’s sure like what you saw in the movies in the 1980s (and beyond). Old men’s adventure fiction was informed by authors who’d read classical literature. Some of these post-Pendleton Executioner novels are informed by authors who watched direct-to-cable actioners.

At any rate, the plot, ripped from Reader’s Digest reports: Bolan gets word of the Russians developing a new chemical weapon even worse than Yellow Rain at an out-of-the-way base near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Bolan hooks up with some mujahedeen and a CIA operative to find the location and put a stop to it. In a Bolanesque fashion.

It’s a cut below the average Bolan fare. I know what you’re asking: Does Bolan smoke? (As you may recall, gentle reader, Bolan did not smoke in the Pendleton novels, so I gauge how well the house author knows about the canon by whether Bolan lights a cigarette or not in any given volume.) Yes, yes, he does. And I get the sense he will more and more in the books to come.

I mean, look at this action bit in the wilds of Afghanistan:

He opened fire, the impact of so many bullets flinging the men off of their feet into shrubbery nearby where only their legs protruded, tremulous in death.

Leaving aside the comma splice which this particular writer loves to use, he describes bushes or brush as shrubbery (numerous times). Shrubbery is part of a garden or maintained yard, ainna? Not something you find in the woods or the mountains of Afghanistan.

Oy, vey. But the text of the book aside, we get some cinéma vérité or breaking of the fourth wall with the transcription of some espionage instructions from a numbers station in the front cover:

Lottery numbers, you insist? Maybe in your mundane world. But in my action-packed world, they’re espionage instructions.

Except I hope they’re not for me. We haven’t covered snapping two men’s necks simultaneously with knife hands in my martial arts class yet.

Book Report: Catch a Poem by the Tale by Michelle Monet (2016)

Book coverMy beautiful wife bought this book from a Facebook friend because a portion of the proceeds went to help people recover from the Tennessee wild fires last year. She might have given it to me, or I might have taken it from her in a fit of kleptomania. Regardless, I started working through it during the football season as I often do such volumes of poetry, and I recently picked it back up from the stack of books beside the sofa where some of the books have been sitting for several football seasons awaiting my perusal. It’s like the Rooneyfication of reading materials over there.

At any rate, the poet is a three letter woman with this volume of poetry: She is a former professional singer and has appeared on stage on multiple continents; she followed that up with a visual arts (drawing and, one assumes, sculpture) period that included traveling to arts fairs (revealed in the book). Then she decided to take up poetry, and the result is this book.

It’s not a bad book, but it is a bit of a doodle book of poetry. The author includes a number of poems that are just noodling with words and poetry. Much of the work lacks a refining touch. There are some turns of phrase here and there that are pretty good, but mostly it’s just self-expression.

Hey, I’m not knocking it. I’m finta do my own collection of poetry one of these days. The meaning of poetry comes from what effect it has on you, the individual. This particular collection didn’t resonate with me, but I’m more of a classicist when it comes to poetry. Your mileage may vary.

Book Report: A Knight and His Weapons (Second Edition) by Ewart Oakeshott (1997)

Book coverThis book is a short discourse on the development of weapons from the middle of the first millennium to the middle of the second, but the focus is definitely on the period from roughly 1000-1500 AD. It says “Knight,” after all.

The chapters are broken down into weapon groupings: Spear and Lance; Axe, Mace, and Hammer; Sword and Dagger; and Early Firearms. The individual chapters are told in a bit of rambling discourse style, as though the author were speaking off-the-cuff, although there are a number of black-and-white illustrations included to show the weapon innovations as he talks about them. Unfortunately, these illustrations are a bit crude and might have made the text clearer if they were not.

At any rate, it was an hour or two through, as it only is a shade over 100 pages plus glossary and index. I learned one thing, for sure: I need a glaive in my personal collection.

Also, even though Ewart Oakeshott sounds like the name someone would choose in the Society for Creative Anachronism, he was a weapons collector and illustrator who definitely knew his material. It’s just that the presentation in this novel could have used some improvement with some charts and timelines and some better organization. But if all you’ve seen is the illustration in the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, you could learn something. And by “you could,” I mean, “I did.” Although none of this material came up in the Geek Trivia Night I attended this weekend, unfortunately.

Book Report: The Beach Girls by John D. MacDonald (1959)

Book coverThis book is definitely a MacDonald: It features a bunch of people in a marina on the east coast of Florida in the 1950s. You’ve got a businessman from up north coming down, looking for the man who seduced his wife and caused her suicide. You’ve got a number of individual characters living on the boats and/or chartering fish boats. You’ve got big businessmen putting the squeeze on the small marina owner, trying to get her property for development. And you’ve got a climactic party on the dock.

That said, it’s not a particular stand out volume in his work. It has his trademark outstanding writing and whatnot, but the elements of the plot and the characters fall into what would later become MacDonald stock.

One thing I get a charge out of, and a way I romanticise these older works, is how easily they drop in classical literature allusions and whatnot. For example, a woman performs the talent portion of many beauty contests she’s won, and she does it by reciting:

Ef yew keep yo haid when all about yew air a-losin’ they-yurs an a-blaimin’ it on yew?

And I’m all like, “Thay-ut’s ‘If’ by Kipling.”

Mostly because I just read The Grapes of Wrath (donchewno?), and it’s all a-rife with the vernacular (albeit a different accented vernacular). Also, I’ve read my Kipling, and that’s something MacDonald and I can share. I’ve gone on about this at length, I know, but it makes me thing the middle twentieth century was a time when an author assumed the reader had read Great Books with him. But I digress.

So I got that out of it. The older I get, the more I get out of reading these books and understanding more allusions (see also A Tan and Sandy Silence and Two Other Great Mysteries). Of course, I said the same thing to Robert B. Parker almost thirty years ago.

Read it if you’re a John D. MacDonald aficionado. If you’re not, start out with some of his other works and then read it, for you will by then have become a serious John D. MacDonald aficionado.

Book Report: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (1970, 1999)

Book coverIt took me two tries to read this book; I started it last year and got about halfway through it, enjoying it for what it was before taking it out of my pocket as my carry book and planning to read the last half of it all at once. That didn’t happen, so I started it again this year as my carry book and keeping it in pocket until I finished it.

The book is a collection of informal talks given by the author after sitting with students practicing zazen. The author founded the first Zen temple in the United States, and this book collects some of his insights into Zen.

So, to talk about Buddhism, I find it easy to break it into three parts, and perhaps this is something we could do with all religions. These parts include:

  • The cosmological/theological/heavy philosophy (the eternal, the afterlife, interpretation of the texts).
  • Practical philosophy (the guidance to everyday living).
  • The practice (the things to do when you’re a part of the religion).

Although this book does lightly touch upon the first (that the individual is akin to a droplet of a stream in a waterfall–part of the stream, then alone briefly, and then part of the stream; that breaking out of the cycle of karma is the goal of Zen, as karma is a self-centered way of thinking), it focuses mostly on the last two, which is fitting: the talks were give after the practicing with an eye toward improving that. Basically, it’s to sit still, in the proper posture, breathe right, and clear your mind. Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that, such as dealing with distractions within and without, but that’s it. Strangely enough, although they’re from different schools, this book and Start Here Now don’t differ much on the practice of Buddhist meditation. Perhaps the difference between Shambhala and Zen schools lie at the higher levels of philosophy.

I was most interested in the middle point above; Practical philosophy. Buddhism focuses on recognizing the transience of this life and all of its moods, emotions, and events. Buddhism is much akin to Stoicism, so much that I checked to see if the sutras might have made their way back to Rome before Zeno (the other Zeno) founded the Stoic school. It was only about a hundred years, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the sutras might have made their ways west before the later thinkers made their marks. Both philosophies urge that calmness and detachment which, if you know me, you probably can tell I appreciate.

The Buddhists also talk about nothingness, but when they do not mean it like the Existentialists do. In the Buddhist sense, “nothing” is the eternal something from which everything is drawn. In the Existentialist sense, “nothing” is the opposite of that.

The book is written in the proper Buddhist style, wherein the koanesque nature might make you go “Huh?” The question of the sound of one hand clapping appears. Once you get it into your head that the Buddhist way is to see the gestalt and the particular at the same time, you can understand it better (the forest is the trees; the tree is the forest). Some of them do go into paradox territory, but as with any religion, eventually you have to make your peace and accept some paradox.

So I enjoyed the book and got some insights into detachment (and a couple of posts quoting the book–search for the wisdom of shunryu suzuki). But it’s a practical and practice primer on Buddhism, akin to the Max Lucado Christian books: A bit of how to live as a Buddhist, but without the implications and intimations of the religion that you get from the heavier books by Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, Tillich, and so on. If you believe Alex G. Smith, that’s how the Buddhists hook you, with their practical philosophy and practice, but that’s how the Christians hook you, too (Tolstoy’s favored religion features that sort of peasant, practical religion, and that explains why he equates religions based on this practical philosophy level.

Now, where was I before I started name-dropping other things I’ve read? Oh, yes: The book is a good primer into Zen Buddhist thought, especially the practical philsophy and practice components, and you could learn something from it. But don’t read it and declare yourself a Buddhist, as it really lacks a cosmological component that explains it all. Of course, the Zen would argue that you don’t need to know it, just to do Zen. But I’m a Western kid, and I expect a bit more in a complete belief system. Which is why I’ll never be a Buddhist.

Book Report: Rated R by Mike Leon (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Report: The Bookmakers by Zev Chafets (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

This volume contains three novellas:

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

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

Will my science fiction kick last? Who knows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Report: The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout (1965)

Book coverThis book is the fifth, or the third, Rex Stout book I’ve read in the last fifteen or so years. The actual number is up for contention, as I read a three book omnibus edition and reviewed them separately (Too Many Clients, Might As Well Be Dead, and The Final Deduction) in addition to a stand alone book The Father Hunt. So is that two or four books? You decide.

At any rate, like the aforementioned books, this novel falls later in the Nero Wolfe canon. Stout started them in the 1930s and carried them on thirty years, so they might have seemed more antiquidated at the outset, but this book is relatively relevant to a modern reader who lived before computers. Within it, Wolfe and Goodwin are hired by a wealthy heiress who has sent copies of The FBI Nobody Knows to many influential people and who thinks she is now the target of FBI surveillance. She would like the impossible: For Wolfe to get them off her back. She offers an exorbitant sum to do it, so Wolfe accedes. As Goodwin and Wolfe try to get a handle on the problem, they find a murder where members of the FBI are suspects–and they come up with a plan to exchange the solution to that crime (and evidence of related FBI wrongdoing) to get the FBI off of their client’s back.

Even in the 1960s, as Spillaine and MacDonald were coming into paperbacks, the book is a bit of a throwback, but it’s still readable and enjoyable. As you know, I just bought this book, but it’s more a matter of last in, first out rather than my diving into this because I just couldn’t wait for a Nero Wolfe novel (although perhaps I was directed in this direction by the Wolfe entry in Madame Bovary, C’est Moi!).

It is noteworthy for its suspicion of the FBI as bad guys, though, but I suppose we were seeing the turning of the culture even then in the middle 1960s. But in a throwback novel, its presence might indicate the theme was already entering the mainstream.

Book Report: On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957, 2007)

Book coverThis book is supposedly the novel that defined a generation, but to be honest, as that generation dies off, I imagine it will be less relevant in the vast history of literature.

For those of you who don’t know, it’s the semi-biographical novel about a veteran writer who lives with his aunt, but the book itself describes several cross-country trips (and one trip to Mexico) that the narrator takes alone or with a ne’er-do-well friend. Basically, they go looking for jazz, drink-and-drugs, and chicks. They find more of the first two than the latter. They visit Denver and San Francisco and friends there. Then they go to Mexico. Finally, the narrator grows up a bit and settles down.

Honestly, I don’t know how much the book celebrates the wandering lifestyle or if it is actually saying that it’s meaningless to wander looking for thrills. After all, the stories and incidents within the book tend to get repetitious. Only the florid presentations of the jazz music have any sort of appeal.

That’s not to say it’s not an interesting book to read. The narrative voice is interesting, and it pulls one along (to nowhere) effectively. If only there was a better story to it.

In the 21st century, it’s most interesting as a document of life on the road in the 1940s. Travel bureau trips and ride sharing. The tail end of hobos and jumping trains and hitchhiking. And so on.

But as a guide to how one should live? Meh.