Book Report: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Posted in Book Report, Books, History on January 30th, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverThis book is a souvenir from Monticello. Not my souvenir, as I’ve never been. I probably got this particular book in a collection of thin books for a buck from the Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library book sale. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but these little packs remind me of the varied grab bags I’ve gotten in the past where remaindered comic books were bagged at three for a buck, and you could only see the front of one and the back of another, so it was pretty much a crapshoot or where ten packs of record singles fresh from juke boxes were bundled ten for two bucks and you could only, again, see the ones in the front and the back. That’s what you get with the bundles of thin books at the book sale, a bundle of poetry chapbooks, souvenir books, or free pamphlet-sized books for a buck. I buy them and read them because they’re quick, and they count for a whole book on my annual quest for the magical reading century mark (which I’ve missed for a couple years’ running now, but I’m well on my way this year so far.

At any rate, this book has text describing the house, grounds, and gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia accompanied by color photos and diagrams and maps. It’s a tidy little book, something to help guide yourself around the joint and to remember your trip.

Or to make you want to go. Like I do now.

Book Report: The Violent Streets by “Don Pendleton” (1982)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 27th, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverThis book finds Mack Bolan in St. Paul immediately after returning from Turkey (as described in Double Crossfire, which I read in 2010 before I filled in gaps in the series). One of the Stony Man operative’s sister has been raped, and it’s a like several other rape/killings that have been haunting the Minnesota capital for years, off and on. Bolan investigates and discovers that elements of the police are covering it up because the suspect is the son of an elected official, and they want to use the knowledge and cover up as blackmail on the pol.

Then Bolan shoots most of the bad guys. finis.

Still, it’s a good read, certainly better than The New War, and I can see now how the house, by removing Bolan’s focus solely on the mob, broadens the variety of plots and adventures Bolan can have (and by now has had). This one is a little more vigilantish with the bad guys not being terrorists or external enemies, but domestic crime elements. This will definitely keep the series fresh. Unfortunately, the Bolan War Journal asides that talk philosophically about the nature of Man and the Hobbesian worldview must be mandatory, and in some books they’re not grafted well into the narrative. Instead, whole chapters are dropped in with a couple of nouns changed to reflect the current plot. Also, the books generally contain a roll-up of the overarching storyline from the Bolan books, especially the Mob War of the Pendleton books. These, too, jar expositionally when they’re inserted. They’ll probably move away from them as the number of non-Pendleton books increases, but they don’t aren’t well done in these early books.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Existentialism and Thomism by Joseph C. Michalich (1960)

Posted in Book Report, Books, Philosophy on January 22nd, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverThis book is a Thomist critique of Existentialism. Ho, boy, let’s get into some weeds.

Thomism is a philosophical system based on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, a monk from the 13th century who wrote several thousand pages of reasoning including Summa Theologica. The philosophy is the only philosophy taught officially in the Catholic church’s seminaries and whatnot. The university I went to was apparently a hotbed of Thomism in the 1950s, or so I heard, but it did teach other systems of thought to its students. Including Existentialism. At any rate, this book looks like it’s still in print 55 years later, and that’s probably mostly because of its role in teaching Existentialism to bishops and Jesuits. But it could partly be because it’s fairly accessible.

This book is short (88 pages) and collects five separate essays that target some places where Existentialism is systemized. The essays include:

  • “Some Aspects of Freedom in Sartre’s Existentialism” which talks about Sartre’s view of human existence and its freedom to be for itself.

  • “Gabriel Marcel’s Ontology of Love” which talks about Marcel’s take on the interconnectedness of human experience. Let’s be honest: whenever the phrase ontology of love appeared, I heard it in Barry White’s voice.
  • “Mood and Cognition in Heidegger and Sartre” which discusses the importance of mood and emotion as the starting point for cognition in Heidegger and Sartre and how little beyond those base and concrete elements the Existentialists could move.
  • “Husserl and the Rise of Continental Existentialism” which talks about Husserl’s theories and how they coincide and conflict with the Existentialist mindset: namely, the importance of phenomenonism and its importance, but how Husserl’s “reductions” of the phenomena would be rejected because they abstract the phenomena away from the subject perceiving them.
  • “Thomism and the Challenge of Existentialism” is the heart of the criticism, and it explores a bit how Existentialism rebels against philosophical systems that focus on the abstract and the reasoned over the experience and subjective nature of cognition itself. It claims that Existentialism is essentially (see what I did there?) fighting a straw man, as so many other philosophical systems including the perfect Thomism derive those abstractions by reasoning from individual experience and perception and by balancing intellect with the emotions. It puts the finger on why I’ve only considered myself an Existentialist in bad moods: it really doesn’t go beyond the subjective in creating or describing reality and can’t because if it does, it threatens the subjectivism that’s very important to it.
  • “Existentialism in The Outsider“, the last chapter, seems a bit like an add-on. It takes to task an Existentialist novel by a British writer; you’re forgiven if you thought it was about The Stranger which appeared in Britain as The Outsider. Side note: This essay originally appeared in RENASCENCE, a Thomist publication at Marquette University, that hotbed of Thomism in the 1950s. At any rate, the essay rails a bit about this novel and its weak underpinings and defense of the Beatniks, those kids with their “eccentric dress and wild demeanor”. Given that novels obscurity, I have to wonder if this chapter made it into later editions.

I’m normally a primary source kind of fellow, so I’ve some familiarity with the Sartre mentioned above, and I’ve heard the names Heidegger, Hegel, and Husserl in my college classes. Heck, I might even have read them.

But it’s refreshing to pick up a criticism of the philosophy. It takes one out of the philosophy, so to speak, to see what someone else thinks of it, which can be clarifying. Of course, one must not take the critic’s depiction of the philosophy under study as the definitive representation of the philosophy. It’s another perspective on it.

So if you’re into Existentialist thought or explore it a bit, this book can serve that role for you quite nicely. It’s approachable, but it does get into deeper analysis of cognition, perception, and reality. It’s not too heady for most of it if you’re just a lightweight Existentialist who has read The Stranger and Nauseau and never even tried Being and Nothingness (I did just that: try), and the stuff that is heady does lean a little on you already knowing some terms of philosophy, so it’s not too hard to follow and even understand.

Recommended.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The New War by “Don Pendleton” (1981)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 20th, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverThis book is the first that Don Pendleton did not write in the Mack Bolan/the Executioner series, and, boy howdy, don’t we know it. Fantastic Fiction says it was written by Saul Wernick, and I’m pleased to see this is the only entry this particular author wrote in the series.

In it, Mack Bolan goes to Columbia or Panama to exfiltrate or eliminate an agent with intimate knowledge of…something. When Bolan gets there just ahead of a hurricane, he finds the jungle lair of Islamic terrorists is a missile base and a base capable of reprogramming satellites. The makers of the satellites have provided a liaison to help the bad guys log into the satellites for some undisclosed reason. The bad guys’ bosses in the middle east want them to launch the missiles, but in the jungle, the terrorists’ plan is far more dramatic: to crash a satellite into the Panama Canal. So it’s up to Bolan to stop the plan, save the day, exfiltrate the agent and an attractive defector from the cause, and the pilots of the first helicopter that arrived to retrieve him.

So, plotwise, it’s an international thriller and not just a mafia hit. But the style of the writing is the real Louisville Slugger to the cranium. It’s less gritty and consistently introspective as the Pendleton books; it’s more florid in descriptions and does the Men’s Adventure thing with the guns, although when someone brings an automatic weapon up to the hip “in firing position,” one has to recognize that fifteen year old video gamers are probably better versed in military operations, practices, and tactics than your average men’s adventure paperback writer in the golden age of the paperback original.

Also, the guy had a thing for exclamation points. In prose. Fiction. A lot! And the plot, although workable, didn’t use much of the supporting players. Only the pilot Grimaldi makes an appearance, dramatically appearing in the hurricane with a gunship. Also, the book lacks tension, as the risk to Bolan is told rather than actually conveyed in the text. He eliminates half the base on one sortie and then worries about the other half on the next sortie. At one point, we’re concerned about all the people Bolan has to protect, then after Grimaldi’s heroic flight through the hurricane, he arrives at Bolan’s camp. And, hey, right behind him is a rescue chopper! How conveniently placed to take care of one plot point.

A subpar outing in the series, I hope. Although I’ve read a couple in the line after Pendleton and they haven’t made much impression on me. They will make more of an impression and get more of a direct comparison here as I read them consecutively and pretty quickly.

You’re not really asking, but I’ll tell you I’m almost done with the Gallic War by Caesar; I’m to Book VIII which was written after Caesar’s death to complete the account. It was written by someone other than Caesar, or so the story goes. Or did Julius Caesar fake his death? This is the Internet. All possibilities are equally valid unless they require contact with the actual physical world.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Thermal Thursday by Don Pendleton (1979, 1990)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 14th, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverThis book is the sixth printing of the book from 1990, which means it was in print for at least eleven years. Which is something to note of its own accord.

This book closely follows the events of Monday’s Mob, Terrible Tuesday, and Wednesday’s Wrath. I’m not actually reading one of these per day, although it might seem like it. It’s taking me about two and a half calendar days (not, surely, sixty hours each). How’s that Gallic War that you claim to be reading coming along? you ask. I’m to the part where a couple of tribes band together and challenge Caesar. So, I’m somewhere between Book One and Book Seven.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Hours after leaving New Mexico, Mack Bolan is steeped in doubt about his future with Washington, so he asks for a little space from his government contacts. He goes to Miami and infiltrates a mob project to build undersea tunnels from the Everglades to Mexico and Caribbean islands to facilitate smuggling. So it’s the craziest plot yet.

It’s also a very segmented book, and not in a good way. The first 120 pages or so involve the set-up and then Bolan infiltrating the site acting as Frankie, a mob bigwig looking in on operations. He finds a vast complex underground where engineers are using slave labor pirated from amateur smuggling operations to build a great undersea network of smuggler’s subways in the limestone strata beneath the sea. When Mack gets out from his probe, we get twenty pages of him getting together with his Washington contacts and discussions with scientists about how such a thing could be remotely feasible enough for a book plot. Then we get 20 pages of Mack blowing it up. However, at some point after Bolan left, the mob got onto his game and redoubled patrols. A bit of whiplash there; I put the book down one night after the scientists were talking, and I opened it up and the mob was onto Bolan. I actually backtracked to see if I’d forgotten something overnight, but apparently not.

At any rate, this effectively wraps up my reading of the tail end of the Pendleton Mack Bolans; all the others out from here are the stable books. They probably lack the philsophical asides that Pendleton deftly inserted (or made into full discussions at times). And, brother, I’ve got a long way to go to clear my top shelf off.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Wednesday’s Wrath by Don Pendleton (1979)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 13th, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverThis book takes place about 12 hours after the events of Terrible Tuesday. Given the nature of the last “week” of novels that Pendleton wrote, the timing of it would be tricky: Bolan goes to different cities across the country and does his thing there within the span of 24 hours (usually less, since he does not begin exactly at midnight). If you’re reading them back to back, you go “Hmmmm.” This probably wasn’t a problem when they first came out, as the books were months apart.

In this book, the “Hmmmm.” involves people apprehended at the end of Terrible Tuesday. In the twelve hours it takes Mack Bolan to fully heal and whatnot, those mobsters are sprung from jail, transported to New Mexico, and tortured slowly–in other instances where Pendleton refers to “turkeys,” that indicates torture over the course of days or weeks, not hours. But Bolan bursts into a torture scene, executes the torturer, and then impersonates the fellow who’s involved with a paramilitary plot to steal weapons from the nearby military bases. It’s the same military fellow from Colorado Kill-Zone which I read back in 2011 when I only had 20 Executioner books on my to read shelves. The Old Days.

At any rate, Pendleton is beginning the transition in these books from the previous focus on mob activities to more military thriller sorts of plots and operations. This will ease the transition into the stable of writers to follow and how Mack Bolan starts his life as a government operative.

A quick enough read, obviously. I’m a book away from finishing the ones I’ve in this week (I’ve previously read Friday’s Feast and Satan’s Sabbath). And then it’s into the world after Don Pendleton, where the books are up and down.

We’ll see if I continue my, erm, “discipline” of reading Executioner books as I read Caesar. It might not last many of the “Don Pendleton’s” books.

But that’s okay. I have other books to choose from.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire translated by Jacques LeClercq (1958)

Posted in Book Report, Books, Poetry on January 12th, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverInterspersed among my other reading, I’ve been working on this book for a little bit. It’s a collection of poems by Charles Baudelaire, but they’re end-rhymed, so the translator had a heavy hand in the actual English of the poems which probably means they’re almost as much his work as Baudelaire’s. Because poems have so much nuance, rhythm, and flow that rely on word selection, you have two choices when translating: You can go with the literal translation, which will chop most of the mouthfeel of the original poem out, or you can try to put the poem in the target language with as much of the flavor of the original as possible but still ending up with something of the original in it. I think this translation, as demonstrated by the end lines, did more of the latter.

Now, about the poems: Oh, my.

On one hand, these are the poems I wanted to write when I was twenty years old. Vivid, evocative, concrete, and meaningful (and full of end rhymes). You’re in the moment with the poet narrator in a way that overshadows a lot of poetry in English that I’ve read. The topics are full of love, lust, and pondering mortality.

But.

The introduction explains a bit of Baudelaire’s bio and explains his obsession with a particular woman, and it comes through in the poems as the poet-narrator fixates on a woman and the poems describe a love/lust/hate relationship with a woman. And the poet-narrator muses on death and the ultimate meaninglessness of love when confronted by death. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

And vivid in a sometimes squicky way. There’s a poem called “Carrion” which is about the poet-narrator and his love out for a walk when they come across a dead animal, and the poet-narrator describes it in great detail as it breaks down and then says something about the breakdown of the flesh and how the woman will be food for worms soon. And then there’s a poem about necrophilia. But only one.

So.

It’s good poetry qua, but some of the topic matter is a bit objectionable.

This book features an inscription, To Michael, with love and a Merry Christmas, Ellen 1966. Frankly, I’m not sure what sort of message you’re sending if you’re giving this book to a lover. Also, Phil offers to read Baudelaire to Rita in the film Groundhog Day; suddenly, this changes the meaning of the film for me forever.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Terrible Tuesday by Don Pendleton (1979)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 9th, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverI know, I know, you’re quoting back to me what I said last week: “In 2015, I hope to finish more books, and as always, I hope to read a better quality of literature….” How does it explain that the last two books I finished were this book and Monday’s Mob?

I’m reading Julius Caesar’s The Gallic War, and after every book or half book, I take a little time to read from cheap paperbacks. As these paperbacks are shorter than The Gallic War, I’m finishing more of them as I read one piece of longer work. So there.

Mack Bolan, on the second day of the last week of his free agency, swings out to California at a tip from Leo Turrin and stumbles into a plot of the new California Concept. A group of retired mobsters and the remnants of Bolan’s previous visits have gathered in a plan to build the world’s foremost data and electronic signals interception facility to gather as much information as they can for their nefarious schemes, and it’s up to Bolan to stop it.

Man, what a world that was where the plot of men’s adventure novels involved the mob doing this sort of thing. In the 21st century, it’s the government doing it, and the electronic and wireless transmission of information is much greater.

If only they weren’t the 1970s, I’d want to live in the sweet, innocent world of the 1970s.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Monday’s Mob by Don Pendleton (1978)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 8th, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverThis book follows Tennessee Smash which I read in 2010 and not Washington I.O.U. which I read just a week or so back. So I’m reading the books far out of order (at least I was and should not be unless I find a bunch of earlier ones in Clever or Ozark this spring).

At any rate, the nature of the series, at least in the Pendleton years, is such that you can have an overarching knowledge of the series to kind of orient yourself, but the books themselves are episodic enough that you can pick them up in any order.

This book is the first of Bolan’s last week as a free agent before he goes to work for the government (and the last of the books Pendleton wrote for the series). He takes his war wagon (it’s the war wagon years) to Indiana to find a Chicago mobster who fled the carnage there. Along for the ride is government agent April Rose (it’s the beginning of the April Rose years). Bolan hits the mobster’s hideout, but the mobster is not there. Bolan spares the houseman from the site with the latter’s promise that he will go and sin no more.

The mobster has summoned other remaining leaders of the midwest to a secure location to talk about splitting up the territory, and the mobster gathers the fleeing head man and April Rose to the hard site while the parley occurs. Bolan has to hit the site but rescue April, and he does so by making a grisly exchange with the houseman: The heads of the bosses and April Rose in exchange for sparing the houseman and the fifty other gunsels from a watery grave.

A quick read, to be sure, and a little outlandish–Bolan in the missile-firing war wagon is less at risk than before and it’s a little less than satisfying to read this part of the series.

Additionally, Pendleton describes a “large lake” as being five or six acres in size. I ascribe this to a city man writing about rural areas, but I can’t quite pin that to Pendleton (mainly because Linda Pendleton is watching). But it’s a jarring note that echoes throughout the remainder of the book.

So if you’re into men’s adventure novels, you could do worse.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Up in the Air by Walter Kirn (2001)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 6th, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverThis book is the source for the George Clooney film of the same name, but a quick perusal of the film’s plot indicates they differ widely.

In this book, a business consultant whose job it is to counsel laid off employees across the country is nearing a million frequent flier miles on an airline. His employer has given him pretty free rein to travel the country to meet with clients, and the consultant also travels for some pleasure and for some of his side projects. He’s left a resignation letter on his vacationing boss’s desk, so in a week he’ll be out of a job. But he should make the million mile club before then, before they cut off his company credit cards.

He’s been travelling like this for many years, and he’s got no home but the series of airports and hotels he calls Airland. He’s got his own set of rules and expectations from other business travelers, and he’s working on a book with it. He also thinks a secretive consulting company might be trying to recruit him through a series of tests and contacts with his clients and friends.

It starts out a lot like a Stanley Bing novel (see Lloyd What Happened and You Look Nice Today). A bit wry, with an obviously unreliable narrator. However, over the course of the book, it becomes clearer just how unreliable the narrator is: he’s having a breakdown of some sort, or perhaps an entire psychotic episode where none of it really happens.

Which is unfortunate: I would have preferred a better payoff for what was a pretty engaging narrative and voice.

As I finished it, I didn’t think it would be the sort of character George Clooney would play, so I’m sort of interested in seeing the film now to see how little they overlap. And it’s definitely possible I’ll like the film better than the book.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Bad Cat by Jim Edgar (2004)

Posted in Book Report, Books on January 4th, 2015 by Noggle

Book coverI have an embarrassing and stunning admission to make: I have readthis book twice even though I didn’t like it. Not exactly. Let me explain.

This book is based on a desktop calendar that features pictures of cats, sometimes doing things that make them look a little guilty, accompanied by qouted captions where the cat is saying something. And they include the cat’s name, age, and hobby. Here, have a taste:

Bad Cat example

Obviously, this one would have come from December in the calendar.

Most of the captions have a sexual or drug use angle, and all of them are not funny. As a matter of fact, some of them are so not funny that they’re enjoyable for the spectacular badness. Although it’s been seven years since I had the calendar, I remembered some of them.

But this collection is really the sweepings on the floor of cat caption industry. Your Facebook wall or Twitter feed have better examples of the genre.

This book was a Christmas gift, as was the desk calendar. But at least with the book, I was able to flip through it in a couple hours instead of over the course of a year, one dreadful cat sex caption at a time.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Conan: Exclusive Excerpted Edition by Roy Thomas (2006)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 31st, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverI got This book at a garage sale in June, and it looked like a good short read that sums up the career of Conan.

It is indeed a chronological history of Conan taken from some comic book series or several, which means in addition to the canonical material there are some references to other stories not written by Robert E. Howard. The text is presented in a legendary history sort of fashion, with the non-Howard stories blended as more legend and the Howard stuff as more history.

This book is a smaller book of a larger work, and that leads to some unfortunate consequences, namely that the text was sometimes very hard to read. The book is by the publisher DK, who does a lot of comic book stuff, so the pages are full bleed graphics with text atop them. Sometimes, the contrast was not very good. To make matters worse, the font size doesn’t appear like it was designed for the size this book is. Instead, it looks as though they took the plates from a larger, more coffee table sized book and just shrunk everything down, including the text. Look:

The Conan interior

For Pete’s sake, I almost had to go out and buy a pair of cheaters for this book. Or an electron microscope.

At any rate, it’s an interesting and brief book on the history of Conan and features some interesting art work from the comic books, but the book’s format itself hinders it quite a bit. Go for the full-sized Conan: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Savage Barbarian instead.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Three Legions by Gregory Solon (1956)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 30th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverShortly after reading Last Seen in Massilia, I rediscovered this book on my to read shelves. So I thought I’d take on a thicker tome.

Well, if you’re classically educated and over forty, you might well know how the book turns out from its title. For those of you too young or too public school to know, the three legions were Roman legions defeated by an alliance of German tribes in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. The Romans never recovered the German territory lost.

At any rate, this book covers a couple of weeks leading up to the battle. The Proconsul is vain and overconfident. The commander of the Eagle legion is smitten with a woman captured in the raid of a small German outpost who craves to be taken care of in a Roman way. Another lesser leader craves the first commander’s position. A brutal but effective legionaire flouts the rules and rules by fear. The legions’ historian is eager to write a scholarly treatise about the downfall of the legions even though he does not believe it to be true. Then the proconsul demands the German woman and an Achilles/Agamemnon storyline breaks out as the commander is stripped of his position and his self-definition. The lesser leader takes command and leads his men into disaster, and then the army decamps into a disastrous ambush in Teutoburg Forest.

The book is deep and well-written with a lot of characterization and a lot of detail about life in the Roman legion. It was not as expository as Last Seen In Massilia, either, and the book delved into the politics of not only the Romans but also the Germans who were unsure about uniting under a leader to attack the Romans when the Romans were not actively at war with the tribes.

I liked the book a lot, and I was sad to discover that the author appears to only have written this two novels. The second is a contemporary (to its time, which is 1958) book entitled Let Us Find Heroes; I will keep an eye out for it.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Washington I.O.U. by Don Pendleton (1972)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 29th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverI previously read this book in May, 2011. I didn’t have much to say about it then other than it was a stock men’s adventure novel with shooting and explosions.

In it, Bolan goes to Washington and uncovers a Mafia-run blackmail ring designed to lure in important officials, elected and unelected, into a videotaped tryst and then controlling those men to the mob’s gain. Bolan rescues an attractive widow who had second thoughts about her role in the scheme and was targeted for a hit because her change-of-heart came with a plan to bust up the operation. A Bolan imposter shows to kill the blackmailees and set Bolan up for a frenzied law enforcement manhunt, but Bolan eludes capture and tracks the operation to its lair and rescues the girl, implicates a congressman, and discovers that the hidden figure behind the scheme was the “widow’s” husband.

So it’s one of the Pendleton books of the series, which puts it a cut above a lot of men’s adventure books. Additionally, as I think about it, the men’s adventure series (and comic books) paved the way for the arc of modern television storytelling. These are episodic, but with continuing plot lines that build and crest over the course of a number of books.

So while I ding modern hardback fiction for being informed by television, I have to do the opposite for men’s adventure books. They set the pace, and they’re cheap little paperback designed for quick consumption and discard. Is that a double standard on my part? I don’t think so, but I’ll have to think it over further.

So this book is worth a read if you’re into this sort of thing. You can definitely do worse with the genre.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Christmas Jars by Jason F. Wright (2005)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 28th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverAs you might remember, gentle reader, I like to pick up a Christmas book now and then around the holidays to see if I can get a touch of the old Christmas feeling instead of the modern, I’m-the-adult-providing-the-old-Christmas-feeling-for-my-kids feeling. So I bought this book at some book fair in the recent past, and as it neared Christmas, I picked it up.

It’s a short little book (as Christmas novels are), and it’s blurbed by Glenn Beck. Jeez, getting your books because Glenn Beck liked them might be as risky as getting a book Rush Limbaugh mentioned it.

The story revolves around a girl who was found in a diner on New Year’s Eve. The woman who found the baby adopts her and then dies of cancer. The woman who had been the baby is now a reporter for the local paper. Her apartment gets burglarized not long after her adopted mother’s death, and a jar of coins appears on her doorstep. She investigates the jar and discovers others have received similar jars in past years. When the next recipient receives one, the intrepid reporter contacts the recipient and is given a clue to who might be behind it. She talks to a family that runs a furniture restoration business out of its garage and becomes close to them, enjoying their family occasions and traditions even as she frets about getting to know them under false pretenses–she pretended to be a college student doing a piece on small business instead of an investigative reporter. She learns the family is behind the jars and does an expose on them, and then avoids them. The father of the family dies, and she reconnects with the family just as a parade of other people who have begun filling the Christmas jars leave them with the family. Including, of course, a woman who proves to be the mother of the adopted girl.

It’s an interesting plot, good enough for a Christmas novel, but unfortunately the execution is a bit….underdone, overt, melodramatic. Something. The characters are not very deep, and the events move at a pretty quick and sudden pace. It’s not the best of Christmas novels ever, but on the other hand, Glenn Beck blurbed it and it undoubtedly sold more copies than my only published novel. So.

(The other Christmas novels I’ve reviewed over the years include A Christmas Carol, Home for Christmas, and The Christmas Shoppe.)

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Chains of the Sea edited by Robert Silverberg (1973)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 9th, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverThis book almost makes me regret saying:

It’s an interesting bit, an enjoyable little read from the era–the middle 1960s through, what, the 1980s? where the future is dystopian and overcrowded and the plots are novel and clever.

The book collects three stories, only the third of which I would call novel or clever. The other two are run-of-the-mill apocalyptic bits that put Man in his place.

They include:

  • “And Us, Too, I Guess” by Geo. Alec Effinger, which presents a scientist and a working man who wants to breed fish in parallel story lines in the near, dystopian future, when the “scientists” (who work in their own labs on simple experiments that only recreate past discoveries) discover that a single species is dying every day (and might have been for a long time). Hey, here’s the shocking ending: MANKIND DIES. Because of nature or maybe what mankind did to it.
     
  • “Chains of the Sea” by Gardner R. Dozois, in which aliens invade, but nobody can see them. A child, however, who has maintained his imagination even beyond his very early years in the dystopian near future can see the “Others” which are intelligent species that adults cannot perceive. Through them, he learns that the aliens have come to renegotiate compacts with the other species and with the new species, the artificial intelligence in human networks. In a moment of poignant coming-of-age drama for the lad, MANKIND DIES. Also, I’m not sure what the title means or how it applies to the story.
     
  • “The Shrine of Sebastian” by Gordon Eklund tells the story of a reluctant “pope” of a decadant church is tasked by the previous, newly deceased “pope” with burying her remains at the shrine of Sebastian, a future profit who convinces mankind that it should leave the wasteland of the Earth behind. Most men do, but some remained with the robots in a decaying society. Then, MANKIND DIED. Sorry, I was going on habit there. In this case, the things that thought they were human discovered they were Androids, like Sebastian. Mankind might have survived, somewhere out beyond the sky, but here on Earth, ROBOT AND ANDROIDKIND WILL DIE.

In an essay in the Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky ponders
When Science Fiction Stopped Caring About the Future

Most people think of science-fiction as being about the future; it’s a genre that explores possibilities, from Dr. Frankenstein’s invention of artificial life to Ursula K. Le Guin’s world populated by humans who have all evolved into single-gendered hermaphrodites. What might happen if? What could happen when? Sci-fi thinks about new technologies, new societies, and new ways of being, good or bad.

And then science-fiction fans turn to the new Star Wars trailer, and find, not the future, but a reshuffling of 30-year-old detritus.

Read enough of the C-List science fiction from the past, and you’ll learn that the best of science fiction sticks with you but most of it, especially the pedestrian stuff, falls away from you mostly unremembered. A lot of the old stuff retreads common tropes just as much as new stuff does; we just forget it if we even bother to read or to have read it.

So I won’t remember these stories much, but innovative and imaginative stuff from the era will still captivate me. And in time, I’ll recycle my line about how all the science fiction from the past is better than all the science fiction now. Because I’ll mostly remember the good and won’t remember this particular volume much at all.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Magic by William Goldman (1976)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 3rd, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverYou might be familiar with William Goldman for a little book he wrote and adapted for the silver screen called The Princess Bride. This book ain’t that.

Instead, this is a mid-1970s crime thriller about a magician/ventriloquist on the verge of television success who flees from New York City to his hometown upstate because he’s afraid he might be cracking up. Then he cracks up. With a body count.

I’m afraid I’ve given much of the story away, but in the book, Goldman presents it as a little bit of a mystery. He has some diary entries that are labeled as part of a police investigation; then we have some interplay between the main character and his partner; then we have a flashback to the main character’s youth and early career and how that has led him to the precipice of success and this crack-up. So there’s some suspense in what sort of crime will occur, and it’s unfortunate what does transpire.

I thought the book was okay, but it does have a 1970s feel to it in the same way that 1970s science fiction does. Or is it just me?

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Last Seen in Massilia by Steven Saylor (2000)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 2nd, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverAs I mentioned in my book report on Murder for Halloween, I have a number of Steven Saylor paperbacks I picked up en masse somewhere. The short story in Murder for Halloween provided me an excuse to pick up this book.

Strangely enough, although I thought I put the books in series order on the shelf when I first put them on the shelf, when I grabbed the first book on the left, I got this volume, which is number 8 in the series, but not the first one of the series I own. Now, it becomes very clear that the books have the series number and the year in which they take place written in marker atop the pages, but I did not know this when I grabbed the book, so I got one in the middle of the pack I own.

This book finds Gordianus, the Finder, sneaking into Massilia, which is under seige by Caesar’s forces in the Roman civil war. Gordianus’s adopted son, a spy for Caesar, has disappeared in the city, so Gordianus and his son-in-law pose as soldiers entering Massilia by a tunnel. When the tunnel assault is washed out, only The Finder and his son-in-law survive and make their way into the city where they become acquainted with the Scapegoat, an outcast chosen to take on the sins of the city and who sacrifice themselves. The group witnesses a murder or suicide from atop the sacred Sacrifice Rock and are approached by a leading Massilian to search for his missing daughter.

It’s intrigue and a bit of mystery wrapped in a bit of historical research that runs pretty smoothly, but does on a couple of occasions–sentences really–come out and have the characters speaks a bit of exposition. So it’s not without a touch of that, but it does get one into the setting and the time period rather well.

It is a bit intriguey for my tastes, but not so bad that I won’t read the rest that I have, starting with the newly rearranged first I own.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Perspective text by Thomas S. Buechner (1972)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 2nd, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverAs you would expect, this book is a collection of Rockwell paintings and drawings throughout his career, including some advertising work, Saturday Evening Post covers, and work for Look magazine.

The text with the images details his career and his biography and turns attention to the evolution of his style and subject matter in a fashion I’ve not seen in other retrospectives or in the monthly feature in the Saturday Evening Post back when I subscribed (before I completely grew weary with the Government Is The Solution articles interspersed among the Rockwell retrospectives and health advice for older people).

You know, I could read books about Rockwell and look through collections of his work that just put the images in a different order every couple of months because the work hits me in a sweet spot: It’s comprehensible and figurative (literally) and it hearkens back to situations, eras, and a general zeitgeist that might never have existed exactly as depicted, but I miss it just the same even though my youth was nothing close to it.

So I enjoyed it, and I’ll pick up more of the same (and quite possible exactly the same given my book buying habits) at book sales in the future.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Time-Hoppers by Robert Silverberg (1967)

Posted in Book Report, Books on December 1st, 2014 by Noggle

Book coverThis book is a short science fiction book by Robert Silverberg, whose Three Survived I have previously reviewed.

Within this book, a future cop in a distant, overpopulated future has an illicit second home in the only uncrowded part of the world and fears discovery when he’s given a tough assignment: investigate the “time hoppers,” people who find an illegal operation that sends them from the crowded present into a free past. As he investigates and worries about the political expectations. his own brother-in-law considers the trip.

The book jumps between different characters in different situations in this world, from the cop to his sister in a lower caste than he to one of the two leaders of the omnipresent government to the brother-in-law to the cop’s underling who is blackmailing his superior for his distant getaway. One would expect there might be some in-book time travel involved, but it takes place mostly in the future.

It’s an interesting bit, an enjoyable little read from the era–the middle 1960s through, what, the 1980s? where the future is dystopian and overcrowded and the plots are novel and clever. Perhaps I’m siloed a bit in reading the blogs of writers of science fiction subgenres these days, where the stories are a bit more predictable and follow the plots of something that would make a good video game. I confess I read a number of novels written from video games and movies, so my perspective is probably skewed. But I get a definite sense of a book that’s been written in the middle of the 20th century that I don’t get from novels from the 1980s on. Perhaps it’s just the length that cues me in–this one clocks in at 182 pages, half or less of a modern book. Also, the author has read other books. Allusions from classical literature and history flow throughout. They’re not necessary for the reading and enjoyment of the book, but they do serve to pat the well-read reader on the head for all his or her previous reading. I need that.

But I really enjoy this short books from the middle of the last century more than thicker later pieces. Maybe I’m just impatient.

At any rate, I liked the book and I like Silverberg.

Books mentioned in this review: