Book Report: What Would Machiavelli Do? by Stanley Bing (2000)

Posted in Book Report, Books on March 11th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverAs you might remember, gentle reader, I enjoyed Bing’s novels Lloyd What Happened and You Look Nice Today. So when I saw this book with its subtitle The Ends Justifies The Meanness, I picked it up.

It’s about 150 pages of brief chapters covering things Bing posits Machiavelli would do, such as He would like when necessary, He would make a virture out of his obnoxiousness, He would fire his own mother if necessary, and so on. Each little maxim is given a couple of paragraphs or maybe a couple pages of support and elaboration, often with examples of well-known CEOs or leaders behaving badly.

Even though it’s 150 pages, it’s a schtick that goes on a couple ticks too long. It depends upon the common pop-cultural shallow reading of Machiavelli, where the people see it as a justification for people in power to behave badly instead of an examination about the way power works and how to best achieve and retain it.

It looks like Bing has a number of books in this ilk available; I’m sure not going to race out and get them. If I find them at a book fair, I might give them another whirl, but in the long form, I like his fiction. To much nonfiction Bing at one time might be too much of a good thing.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Spectrum II edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest (1962, 1964)

Posted in Book Report, Books on February 23rd, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book is a fifty-year-old collection of science fiction short stories from some of the luminaries of the business.

It includes:

  • “Beyond Bedlam” by Wyman Guin. In a world where individual humans are split into two distinct personalities through medication and the personalities take turns with the body, one man stops taking his meds and begins to have a forbidden affair with his wife’s alternate personality.
  • “Bridge” by James Blish. This might be the first of his non-Star Trek work I’ve read. A West in decline builds a scientific installation in Jupiter’s atmosphere, and workers use virtual reality gear to man repair and building robots in the hostile environment. A supervisor, crankier than the other employees, might be going mad. Notable now for projecting the US-Soviet conflict as lasting hundreds of years into the future.
  • “There Is A Tide” by Brian Aldiss. In a future Africa, a grand planner runs into some difficulty with his grand plans when mother nature does not work according to the plan, leading to extensive, catastrophic flooding. Also, thrown into the history as an aside, all white people have been killed, although I’m not sure whether this means in Africa or worldwide and what bearing this has on the story.
  • “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick. After four years of a devestating US-Soviet war (those guys again!), the United States has developed small robots that can quickly infiltrate and destroy Soviet installations. But down in their automated factories, the robots have built themselves new models and unleashed them on both sides of the human conflict. Frankly, I found this to be the most contemporarily chilling story, but the main character of the story is entirely too credulous. Why aren’t more people in Philip K. Dick yarns untrusting?
  • “The Feeling of Power” by Isaac Asimov. Many years in the future, a low level technician amazes his betters with his ability to perform computations without a computer. This might give man an advantage in a long-running war with an alien (I think) adversary.
  • “Sense from the Thought Divide” by Mark Clifton. A researcher tries to use PSI energy to create antigravity pods.
  • “Resurrection” by A.E. Van Vogt. A research team from an invasive, conquering, and genocidal race visits a planet that had housed an advanced civilization. As part of their protocol in investigating new homes for their ever-burgeoning population, the resurrect a specimen of the civilization to find out what happened to it. Unfortunately, this specimen is very advanced indeed and outwits them in their efforts.
  • “Vintage Season” by Henry Kuttner. A man leases some rooms to some very strange people who come from very far away. He begins to suspect they’re from the future, and his house is a sought-after spot for a very nice May with some hints that something bad is coming. And it does.

Overall, in retrospect, these are some pretty grim tales that don’t necessarily present an optimistic view of the future. However, they’re very imaginative in that they go off in a variety of directions, and you’re not sure where they might end up. So each has the potential to be a treat in its own right. I liked the book, and I think this is shaping up to be a science fiction year for me already.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Rebel Moon by Bruce Bethke and Vox Day (1996)

Posted in Book Report, Books on February 14th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverI picked up this book as I was browsing my bookshelves and the name Vox Day popped out at me. I’ve visited his blog a couple of times recently (and how recently that might actually be is subject to speculation, as we will see below), so that’s good enough reason to read the book immediately.

The book is based on a video game, but I’m no stranger to books based on video games (see The Dig or Halo: First Strike). However, the authors of the book are actually responsible for the game itself, so that means they have a greater understanding of it and can put the story they would want you to play into the book, kinda like I ran Dungeons and Dragons games back in the day: No matter what you players do, you’re not getting in the way of the good story I’ve put together.

The book deals with a lunar rebellion. It seems to me I just read a book about a lunar rebellion. Well, I did. In 2009. That’s the second time recently I’ve been stunned that so much time has passed since I read a particular book.

At any rate, this book is pretty good as a read, but. It jumps right into the rebellion, with the beginning of the rebellion and not a lot of leading material as to why the moon’s colonies are rebelling. The lunar colonists have secreted parts for weapons and materiel over the course of a decade (it is discovered). So the UN sends up Peacekeepers, which are surprised by the resistance. Then the UN turns to the Germans, and it gets complicated as they eventually start pushing the lunar rebels back.

It’s got engaging characters, including a proxy for the game-playing reader, a gamer himself who’s a good hacker. The technology isn’t dated in the book, as it’s the beginning of the Internet era so the projections aren’t squirrelly in other directions from where we’ve gone in these twenty years. There are a couple of spots where they shout-out to the video game — finding a hidden elevator, for example–but it’s got some depth that’s not grafted on.

Unfortunately, it builds to a point, and then, instead of a climax, we have the big reveal which is not exactly a climax and no resolution. After all, there’s a sequel to wrap it up. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t turn me off to more books by the author if I should find them in my immense stacks. But I’m not so invested that I’m ordering the sequel right this minute.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Captive of Gor by John Norman (1972, 1974)

Posted in Book Report, Books on February 8th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverAfter I finished The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, it felt the right time to delve back into the Gor series. I was taken a bit aback how long it’s been since I read the previous book in the series–I read Raiders of Gor in October 2007.

This book, though, was a bad place to resume. It’s not a Tarl Cabot story. Instead, it’s one of the one-off stories featuring a woman on Gor. The first, actually. It deals with a spoiled high society girl from Manhattan who’s taken to Gor to be a slave. And so she does.

The basic story arc is that the ship in which she is a passenger is shot down; she’s found by a slaver, trained to be a slave, gets rescued by some Forest Girls who are like Amazons, except they’re really just ‘liberating her’ to sell her to someone; she’s delivered to that someone in a building in the woods, but she escapes from that to be recaptured by guards of her original slaver. She’s sold and sold again, finally becoming the property and lover of a leader of a town, but he sells her, and she goes from owner to owner until getting pressured into an attempt on a merchant’s life.

That’s the high view. The details and bulk of the book are in the politics of the slaves, how this character is a weak liar, thief, and betrayer of other slaves. She’s never really redeemed in any fashion except (perhaps according to the ideology of the book) that she becomes a perfect slave.

There are hints and foreshadowing that she’s been chosen to be part of something, so I’d hoped that would come out at some point, but ultimately, it gets related very hurriedly in the last chapter, where she’s part of an assassination plot. At that point, things foreshadowed and hinted at are dumped into a couple of paragraphs, and it resolves kinda poorly.

So I was disappointed with this book, and I’ve got at least three remaining on my shelves. I might pick up another one soon–before 2021, I would hope. You can see a little bit as the series progresses, or at least I can looking back to my reports of the books, as to how Tarl Cabot gets to do a lot of different things like Conan did. He’s a pirate, he’s a warrior, he’s a slave. Norman really owed those old pulp books a debt, and he repays them pretty well.

Just not in this book.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Apple Man by Horace Conner (1987)

Posted in Book Report, Books on February 7th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis is a fascinating book, especially on the meta level.

It is the autobiography of Horace Conner, born in 1919. Here’s how he puts it in the first lines of the book:

I was born on May 15, 1912 in Cotton County, Oklahoma, the southern part of Oklahoma on the Little Red River. I was the second child. The year I was born my father’s house was blown away in a cyclone.

And we’re off.

The book chronicles, in some order, his youth in a large, blended family; his businesses throughout the Depression with his father, particularly working on farms and orchards; his drafting into World War II and his service in the Navy and in post-surrender Japan; then his return to the United States, his failed marriage, his carousing and carrying on with women; and then his jobs after the war, including time in a produce market and a distribution center for Marshall Fields in Kansas City.

It’s a life of some dude who didn’t do particularly heroic things or live a particularly memorable life. But the voice is complex and engaging, or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

He’s humble, saying he wasn’t very good at writing at school, but here he’s written the book. He does a lot of humble bragging, where he does something and throws in that someone who saw him do it thinks he’s the best they’ve ever seen at it; I’m not sure if he is actually humblebragging because he’s good at it and wants affirmation of it or if he’s throwing it in to say it’s because he’s showing us he is too good at something. Some of the things he’s done that are less than heroic are just dropped in, like selling stuff from the Navy on the black market. But he also throws in stuff that he does that’s all right, like feeding Japanese war orphans from the back of his ship. He admits that he’s a bit of a carouser and not good relationship material, but that’s matter-of-fact and he doesn’t regret it or think it’s immoral or counterproductive. He goes out of town on a pleasure trip and ends up missing a day of work, and the excuse he gives his boss is that he was in jail in Sedalia. That’s his best excuse. And the manager buys it and keeps him on. What does that say outside the text of the book?

Most tellingly, he mentions that he wanted to have children and that he enjoyed time with his stepson while he was married, but he leaves no admitted progeny. He talks about retiring and picking up his small entrepreneurial ways, delivering some produce and selling it from his trucks. But he doesn’t much mention church–although he claims to read the Bible, particularly Proverbs. And he talks a little about his methodology of research at the library to make sure he gets his dates right in the book.

But he never explains why he wrote the book.

It’s not for his kids. Perhaps his nieces and nephews? I don’t know. For someone who claimed to not be a good writer, he didn’t do badly. But why did he do it? The writing of this book does not necessarily jibe with the simple man described within it.

As I said, on the meta level, it’s fascinating. And it wasn’t a bad read (better than An Ozark Boy’s Story for example) but there’s no real climactic payoff. After all, this is the life of a man. Also, gentle reader, it’s apparently $125 on the Internet, so you’ll probably not pick it up.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Poetry for Cats by Henry Beard (1994)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 27th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book was a part of my beautiful wife’s collection until she decided to winnow her collection down. I culled the discards for books I wanted, and so I got this one. Which I might have gotten for her as a gift in the swirling clouds of the past.

This book is a collection of poems as written by famous poets’ cats. You’ve got “The Cat’s Tale” by Chaucer’s cat, “Vet, Be Not Proud” by John Donne’s cat, “Kubla Kat” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s cat, and so on.

They’re very clever, and I felt very clever and/or well-read for recognizing most of the source material. It only cost me $40,000 plus interest in an English degree for that.

But, as with my riff about the loss of allusion in heavy metal music, I have to wonder if there are many Generation X-level people who would enjoy this book or if there are any members of later generations that would get them at all. Some, I suppose, but not many. Ah, life. There is no before-me, there is no after-me, there is only during-me.

At any rate, as I said, I enjoyed the brief little book, and the book made me want to re-read the poems they were based on. Did you know I used to be able to recite “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from memory? Indeed, I used to do it at poetry open-mic nights in St. Louis, and I impressed my beautiful wife (then my beautiful girlfriend)’s mother, an English teacher in high school, by reciting it to her the first time we met. But that’s been a long time. I should work on re-memorizing those things.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: You Must Remember This 1978 by Betsey Dexter (1995)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 25th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book was designed as a gift for graduating seniors. It’s got a little place for a to and from in the beginning and a message. Given that 1995 was about seventeen years from 1978 (and ninteen years from now, old man), I’m deducing here.

It’s a little book of tidbits, a couple lists about news stories and pop culture in the year 1978.

I was six in 1978, so I don’t remember any of the news from that time. I mean, I do know of the things now: the Camp David Accords, Jim Jones, Sid and Nancy, and so on, but I don’t remember knowing them at the time. The first news things I think I can recollect are gas lines, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.

The only pop-cultural things I knew then were the television programs: Laverne and Shirley number 1, Happy Days number 2. But I know of the music (“Night Fever” the number one record, higher than “Stayin’ Alive”. Really?) and the books (#1: If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing In The Pits?) because the cultural impact is more resonant over the years than the news items themselves.

Still, it’s a good reprise to bring you back a bit and maybe freshen things up if the Jeopardy! people summon me for an audition this year.

And, strangely enough, it’s probably a quicker read than this blog post was.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard (2003)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 23rd, 2014 by Brian

Book coverAh, now this book is a little more manly that decoupagistry.

This book is the first of a three-volume set that includes all of the Conan stories in the original order, which is to say not chronological order according to Conan’s point of view. Howard wrote just a bunch of stories from Conan’s life with a handy history guide he created after a couple of the stories.

For those of you who don’t know, the Conan stories are set in a prehistoric age called the Hyborean Age wedged between the fall of Atlantis and the rise of our recorded civilizations. They’re centered around a land mass similar to Europe, but different enough. Conan is a king fighting assassins, a pirate, a mercenary, and a bunch of different things as he swashbuckles through a series of adventures that are fresh enough in the beginning, but at the end of the volume start to become just a touch formulaic. As they would, being the inspiration for many knock-offs we’ve all seen in film since then and have read other stories (Brak the Destroyer, I’m looking at you–John Jakes endorses the Conan stories with a quote on the cover, and he’s identified as the author of North and South, but I remember him most as a writer of a couple of collected volumes of stories similar to this).

It’s definitely sword and sorcery, as the gods, demons, and summoning make up many parts of plot points. Some of the descriptions are even Lovecraftian–and it comes as no surprise, as Howard and Lovecraft corresponded and worked for the same editors and magazines. Conan stories are a bit like Lovecraft stories where humanity gets to hit back.

In addition to the stories, there are a couple of introductory and academic essays explaining the Importance of Howard and a bit of his writing chronology. They’re okay if you don’t take them too seriously and don’t mind skipping past it. I don’t know why I want my actual histories to be written by homers who appreciate and somewhat applaud or respect their subject, but I get a little irritated when editors and literature majors do that with fiction.

The book also includes the aforementioned history of the Hyborean age that Howard wrote to keep his notes and stories straight, some maps in his hand, and some fragments and drafts. It also includes his first draft of his first Conan story. When you compare them directly, you get a pretty good sense of how editting can improve writing. I’m a poor editor, as readers of my books can attest, but this example offers a stark example of the benefits.

So I enjoyed the book, but given its length and the fact that it is short stories means it took me longer than I would have liked to have read it. So although I own the other volumes, I don’t expect to dive right into them immediately. But I look forward to them.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Modge Podge Rocks by Amy Anderson (2011)

Posted in Book Report, Books, Handicrafts on January 20th, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book is the first book I’ve read this year, and it’s the end of January. My weeks and nights have been fairly busy through this part of the year, friends, and I’m suddenly afraid that I will never again hit the hundred-books-a-year pace I sometimes feebly use to rationalize my hundred-books-a-weekend book buying sprees.

And I got this book from the library, no less, something to flip through during football games. I wasn’t even that good about flipping through books during games this year, and there are no more games, alas. Where was I? Oh, yes, Modge Podge Rocks.

It’s basically a book about decoupage, which is gluing and shellacking paper or similar material to other material. Modge Podge is a popular compound for doing this. You brush some on the surface to which you want to adhere the decorations, press on the decorations, and layer more Modge Podge over the top. There’s not a lot to it, and you can have some interesting effects on stuff.

This book started out as a blog where the author did some decoupage and posted it, and later other people submitted things. And the author got a book deal. Strangely, one of the guest designers is Cathie Fillian, whose television program Creative Juice served as the inspiration for my forays into crafting.

So I’ve done some decoupaging before based on the inspiration from Creative Juice, I’ve gotten away from it and the whole crafting thing because my ideas have outpaced my skill level with these things, which leads to reluctance to start something new.

But I’ll try it again. After all, I have most of a jar of Modge Podge left, and I’d hate for it to go to waste. And by “to waste,” I mean “for twenty five cents at my estate sale.”

So this book has reminded me about this particular crafting style and could serve as a good introduction to those who aren’t familiar with the craft.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Nightmare in New York by Don Pendleton (1971)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 1st, 2014 by Brian

Book coverThis book is The Executioner in New York, blowing things up and shooting Mafia.

The title says New York, but it could be anywhere, of course. The sense of place is pretty much limited to the title. You get more sense of place and time from Nightmare in Manhattan, for crying out loud. And it’s a series of set pieces much like the rest of the books.

Sorry, I read it hard on the heels of Hard Magic, so it suffers by comparison. A lot.

So now I look at the shelves full of Bolan titles with a little trepidation.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Hard Magic by Larry Correia (2011)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 31st, 2013 by Brian

Book coverI got this book as a Christmas gift for my nephew this year along with the mass market paperback of its sequel Spellbound. Only after I received them did I check my Amazon history and discover that I gave my nephew Hard Magic last year, which means this was an inadvertent display of the One for you, one for me gift protocol.

I’ve read Larry Correia’s blog for some time, and although his books sounded interesting, it took an accident like this (or the eventual appearance of them at book fairs) for me to get a hold of one and to read it. And I liked it.

The book is a fantasy alt-history where Magic was discovered in the late 18th or early 19th century. Individuals tend to have an aspect of magic, such as gravity control, personal density control, telekinesis, and so on. Most have only one power, and some are stronger than others.

In this world, a secret society of magicians are working to keep a super weapon out of the hands of the Imperium, the Japanese expansionist government. The action takes place in the 1930s of this other history, and the main character is an ex-con war hero. As part of his release from prison, he’s supposed to help the FBI apprehend wanted magic-users, and his last assignment is to help apprehend a woman he’d known before going inside. That snatch turns bad, but it puts him in touch with the secret society, and he becomes embroiled in their intrigues.

The pacing and tone reflects that of higher pulp, but its length and the number of jump scenes and sub or hidden plots reflect a modern thriller sensibility. It moves along better than some of the ponderous longer works, though, so I finished it in shorter time than some shorter works.

And with greater pleasure.

I read a lot of low pulp, men’s adventure novels, and this book contrasts starkly to them. Where they’re set pieces with set explosions and gunplay amongst stock scenes and characters, there’s real imagination in this book and so much novelty that I’ll remember its plot and schtick better than individual Mack Bolan books, say, where Mack goes somewhere and infiltrates/blows up some Mafia hardmen and the city name in the title is the only differentiating factor.

So I won’t turn down gifts of other Correia books, and if I find them in a book fair, I’ll pounce on them. Or maybe next year, I’ll “accidentally” pick more duplicates for my nephew.

And whereas I used to want to write pulp fiction akin to Robert B. Parker, Mickey Spillane, the MacDonalds, and whatnot, I think I’ll aspire to better things and more memorable books.

Also, if you dreamed of being a writer when you were a kid, check out Correia’s blog or Marko Kloos’s blog to get a glimpse of the life of successful writing you imagined. There’s work involved, and success.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Little Book of Whittling by Chris Lubkemann (2005, 2013)

Posted in Book Report, Books, Handicrafts on December 27th, 2013 by Brian

Book coverI live in the Ozark mountains now, and I do own a pair of overalls. So why shouldn’t I start whittling as well? That’s what I thought when I saw this book at the library a while back. So I picked it up.

It’s about whittling, which differs from woodcarving proper. That is, the projects and techniques within this book deal with using a pocket knife mostly to cut shapes out of thick branches. It’s not about chiseling statues out of a block of wood. So the projects are short and, unfortunately, small. That’s where the real trade-off in artistry lies. Of course, this course could be a means to get you interested in it and leading to experiments with chisels and whatnot later.

As most of the things are trimmed from branches the less than an inch in width, you get a lot of long and thin things to carve. Backscrathers, forks, spoons, knives, and canoes. Also, some small figures and heads for walking sticks (or walking sticks themselves).

So I’ll be in the market for a pocket knife with appropriate blades for whittling and a good whetstone to sharpen them. I might give it a try, but I’ve been socialized in a world where just sitting and cutting a branch to pass the time isn’t a good way to waste time (writing blog posts for sometimes tens of readers a day: good way to pass the time). I’ll have to get a mindset adjustment if I’m to try it seriously. Which means I probably won’t.

But it’s an interesting book to browse never the less. Also, in addition to the projects and whittling, the book contains sidebars with camping tips, recipes, and other bits that fill out the rest of time outdoors hiking and camping in between your whittling.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Stories from Branson’s 76 Country Boulevard by Don Paul Pirwitz (2007)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 13th, 2013 by Brian

Book coverI picked up this book at the library on Tuesday, the third snow day in a row for my children, when we needed to get out of the house. I wanted something to flip through for a bit while they played on the computers at the library. This book is a good little flip through book.

It is a collection of reminisciences from a Branson-area emcee and radio personality who’s lived in Branson for a couple of decades and has talked with a number of the artists who perform on the strip. So he captures their stories in a bit of history in the area in a book that promotes Branson just a touch as he talks about it.

As you know, I’m not against that sort of thing; I prefer some enthusiasm about the subjects I’m reading about. So when he’s talking about the Presleys and how they opened their theatre or about how some of the acts have moved around from venue to venue, I enjoy it even though I’m not paying that close of attention.

The book runs only 97 pages, so it’s a couple hours long. It’s an AuthorHouse self-published book, so it has a couple of typos, but not enough to distract you from the vignettes. Worth a read if you’re into local history or flavor of the Ozarks.

It’s a nice counterpoint or antidote to Jeanette Cooperman’s piece in the October 2013 issue of St. Louis magazine, “Branson Between the Centuries“, wherein a hip big city woman comes to Branson to diminish it for a slick.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Lemons Never Lie by Richard Stark (1971, 2006)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 10th, 2013 by Brian

Book coverThis book is set in the Parker universe, but its main character is a sometime associate of Parker, Alan Grofield. Grofield participates in jobs to fund his summer stock theater in the boonies.

So when an associate tells him about a payroll job, he attends the initial meeting; however, the plan involves a lot of killing, which ain’t his bag, baby, so Grofield opts out, as do the other professionals in attendance. The guy organizing the job then robs one of Grofields friends after attacking Grofield, which leads to a bloody revenge and counter-revenge tail that includes an unrelated grocery store heist.

It’s a quick read, good enough that Hard Case Books republished it 35 years after its appearance. Grofield is a warmer character than Parker, so there’s a twist of sorts in the writing and reading of it, but it’s obviously in line with the Parker books.

I liked it, and I’ll continue to pick up Richard Stark books when I can. Yes, I know, it’s really Donald Westlake.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Great Wire Jewelry by Irene Frome Peterson (1998)

Posted in Book Report, Books, Handicrafts on December 8th, 2013 by Brian

Book coverThis book describes how to make wire jewelry. As you might now, in my youth, I dabbled into beadcraft. But wire jewelry isn’t beads.

Instead, it uses a variety of stitches to weave the wire and then requires you to draw the finished knit through a series of smaller holes to tighten it into a rope.

It’s a particularly complex bit of engineering with a lot of points of failure, and it works with silver wire throughout. It looks to be a bit expensive to pick up and wrought with opportunities to fail just a little but just enough to render the whole thing ruined.

One does not simply dabble into the wire jewelry. Insert your own Internet meme here with Sean Bean.

So I don’t think I’ll pursue this particular craft. Nor even try it. But the end results look interesting.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick (1974)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 7th, 2013 by Brian

Book coverThere’s nothing like a Philip K. Dick book to pick you up when you’re feeling down. Personally, I picked this book up at a book sale sometime recently, as it’s an ex-library book with Christian County Library stamps on it. I’m always happy to grab a used book from this master, as you don’t see many of them out in the wild. Because they don’t want you to have them.

A popular television personality with a weekly audience of millions finds himself a victim of attempted murder by one of his lovers; the next morning, instead of dead, he finds himself in a seedy residential hotel with his roll of money but no papers, and nobody from his previous life knows who he is. He has to rely on his wits to survive, and it’s fortunate that he’s a Six–the product of a genetic experiment of some sort that makes him smarter and more charismatic than normal man. He hooks up with a document forger since he lacks papers in a totalitarian society, but the forger is an insane police informant. He then hooks up with the sister of a police detective who winds up dead while he’s drugged. Naturally, he falls under suspicion and might be used as a patsy by The Powers to spare political discomfort. And he might or might not have been given a weird drug that dilates time or warps the perceptions of space.

So, yeah, it’s got some plot holes in it. Like, many. But it’s a Philip K. Dick story, which is always fun to read because the rules don’t apply. They’re fantasy stories more than science fiction, you know. So you suspend enough disbelief that only at the end do you think, “That point doesn’t make sense.” And you don’t even mind.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: You’re Supposed To Lead, Charlie Brown by Charles M. Schulz (1988)

Posted in Book Report, Books on November 30th, 2013 by Brian

Book coverThis book is not only a collection of Peanuts cartoons, but it’s a subset of a larger collection entitled Dogs Don’t Eat Dessert (1987).

It’s the story of Charlie Brown and his dog and his friends. Things you’ve seen and read before, especially if you’re old enough to have had fresh Peanuts when you were young. Which, strangely enough, means you’re older than high school.

But Schulz was pretty good at timelessness, I think, which is why, according to Forbes, his estate ranks highly amongst earnings from people who have passed away and why there’s still a major motion picture forthcoming.

I have nothing more to say except that I’ll read more Peanuts in the future. I like them.

If you’re interested in serious discussion about the themes within, see this book report from 2005: What’s It All About, Charlie Brown? by Jeffrey H. Lorria (1968). Accompanied by comments posted two years later to my old Blogspot blog by detractors of Jeffrey H. Loria.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Patchwork in Poetry and Verse by Dona Maddux Cooper (1981)
Down Home Doggerel by Miz Parsons (1996)

Posted in Book Report, Books, Poetry on November 29th, 2013 by Brian

Book covers

I bought these books, along with a couple aged literary magazines, at the Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library book sale this autumn and I read them pretty quickly during football games and whatnot. After all, they’re short little chapbooks in the vernacular.

In the olden days, back when I was doing poetry at open mic nights and fresh out of college steeped in the classics and, as you would expect, the snobbishness of loving the classics and lambasting modern poetry (not just poetry in the vernacular, but tenured modern poets as well), I was a bit unforgiving in my contempt of lesser poems.

Now, I’m twenty (almost) years older than that. I’ve read more poetry, including continuing attempts to read the (as of the book’s publishing) Complete Works of Emily Dickinson. I realize that most of the poetry that is out there is not the best poetry out there, even from the classic artists. Some poems really capture something and speak to you, and some do not. And the sum of the some varies from person to person.

Is that a disclaimer, leading to the pronouncement that these poems are not good? Well, sort of, but these poems are not bad. Amidst my readings of friends’ work (sorry, Doug) and after my editorship of a fledgling literary journal in the mid-Clinton era, I’ve read some bad poetry. These are not bad poetry.

Patchwork of Poetry and Verse is the better of the two volumes. There are a lot of good moments in them. I’m not driven to own or memorize any of the poems, but I recognized and appreciated some of the sentiments within and turns of phrase spoke to me. Down Home Doggerel is more observational and does not take itself seriously–note the title itself calls it doggerel. But it’s a woman of some years expressing herself and her world around her in verse. Good for her.

I mean, twenty years from now, are you even going to be tempted to read a Twitter stream from 2013? I think not. But twenty- and thirty-year-old chapbooks? I’m all on that. They took not only the drive to put their thoughts to paper, but the drive to lay them out (in the days before Microsoft Publisher or with a crude version of Pagemaker), and the drive to spend one’s own money on publishing them. Take it from someone whose chapbooks are twenty years old these days. So I respect it, and I can enjoy it.

Book Report: War in 2020 by Ralph Peters (1991)

Posted in Book Report, Books on November 27th, 2013 by Brian

Book coverThis book reads like someone’s Twilight 2000 campaign. Back in 1992, when I was playing Twilight 2000, the idea of a conventional and nuclear war in Europe was at least not written out of possibility by actual events. Of course, they’re not now, but the timeline developed by Game Developers’ Workshop was proven to be inaccurate (fortunately), so thinking about the Warsaw Pact in 2013 requires a bigger suspension of belief now than then and perhaps a bit of historical perspective to remember what that was like.

Similarly, military thrillers from the early 1990s. In this book, the United States has seen the Soviet Union fall and has cut its military budget after the end of the Cold War (this actually happened, public school kids). BUT the Japan of the 1980s continued rising, and although it was not a military power on its own, it provided very advanced weapons to the Arab Alliance (this has not happened). I guess analysts missed the whole Japanese economic stagnation thing that prevented it from being a real global power (see also Debt of Honor)–however, although it has not come to pass yet, the future remains TBD.

After a worldwide pandemic, partial societal collapse in the United States, a bit of related reconquista, and some hemispheric excursions, a survivor of the first exposure to the Japanese super helicopters (who had to walk out of war-ravaged Africa, hence the early association in my mind with Twilight 2000) is the colonel in charge of a squadron of new super US weapons is staged in Russia (our erstwhile allies in this case) to stop an offensive by the Islamic Republics backed by the Japanese. They have a new weapon–The Scramblers–which disrupt human neural function, kind of a neutron bomb that leaves its victims alive and helpless. But the United States has an ace up its sleeve, too.

So it’s alt history now, and if you can read it that way, you might get something out of it. Peters is not as good as Clancy–there are too many characters just put out there in detail and then cast off–but it’s not a bad read.

It does offer a bit of optimism, though: Peters is a shrewd analyst, but he got these predictions wrong (and, in his defense, in an afterward he says he has played a lot of things up for narrative effect that were not realistic or probable). But the last 25 years have not gone this way. And whatever the shrewd and not-so-shrewd analysts in the papers and on the Internet say about our immediate future, that has yet to happen, too, and far better students of human nature have missed the mark. By that, I mean that Peters does grasp certain elemental truths about man and his relationship to other man–and power structures and tribalism that result. Unlike some who prognosticate and politic with misconceptions in mind. But the future will probably look different from all the things we see published as probable.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Death of a Hired Man by Eric Wright (2005)

Posted in Book Report, Books on November 26th, 2013 by Brian

Book coverThis book is a strange mixture of English cottage mystery and American police procedural. Which sort of makes sense, given that it is a Canadian mystery novel.

The plot revolves around a man found dead in the cabin of a retired Toronto detective. Is it someone who wanted the former hired man, a simple man who thought he was heir to his brother’s successful farm? Or was it someone looking for the detective for revenge?

This particular plot is spread among a couple of subplots, including a convoluted story about the detective’s allegedly illegitimate son coming from England to meet his ‘father’–convoluting the story and warranting the quotation marks is the fact that the detective, as a young man in World War II, claimed to have impregnated the English girl to take the fall as the bad guy who returned to Canada and did not cause trouble for the actual father, a man of some repute in the town. So when the not-really grand daughter visited Canada and her grandfather for a couple weeks, he enjoyed having her around. Now, he’s got to wonder whether he should come clean with anyone, including his new wife.

As a newlywed in his sixties, the detective and his wife have to deal with the disposition of their duplicate properties: His cabin in the woods that he has leased or lent to the former former hired man and her house in town. In addition, he has to deal with whether to tell her his convoluted story about his granddaughter. And he keeps his investigations into the death under wraps, lying to her as to his purpose for repeated visits to see his old friends on the force in Toronto.

Do you think my descriptions of the subplots overshadow the plot? Then I’m giving you an accurate flavor of the book. The author has at least one other series under his belt, and this particular book, the second in its series, exaggerates the flaws of a series book–too much series business, not enough book business.

Another flaw with the book, I think, might be a bit of city bias: that is, the detective comes up from the city to the back country, so I can too easily see the author doing the same. The up country characters are a bit simple (except for the cops, of course: those guys are multi-layered with their own backstories that also detract from the plot). The detective’s cabin sits on five acres along with a mobile home–and this is a lot of land. That’s city scale. Here in the country, five acres is a yard and a hundred acres is about enough room.

So, hey, maybe this blend of chatty British tea mystery / character drama with police procedural (police are involved) is your bag. It’s not mine. I grabbed the book at the Friends of the Christian County book fair sale a while back to experiment with something new, so give me just a little credit for it. But I probably won’t go back for a second helping.

Books mentioned in this review: