Book Report: Teachers: Jokes, Quotes, and Anecdotes edited by Patrick Regan (2001)

Book coverThe people behind this book built it to be a teacher-friendly gift for students to give their secret Santas and whatnot in the educational system. It collects quotes about education from a variety of classical sources, includes a jokes relating to schooling that cast teachers in a flattering light, and shares anecdotes from actual teachers about amusing incidents they encountered.

Although it’s a pretty thick little book–260+ pages–with only two short bits per page, it’s a pretty quick scan, amusing enough but not something that’s going to stick to your mental ribs.

So an amusing couple of hours of flipping, and nothing more. Unless you receive it as a gift and you’re a teacher, in which case it could be a memento.

Book Report: Wisconsin: A Picture Memory text by Bill Harris (1996)

Book coverI’ve read a number of these Crescent Books picture books with the text by Bill Harris before (New York At Night, Florida: A Photographic Journey, New York: City of Many Dreams). So when I saw a book with images from my home state last month, I hopped on it.

This volume is pretty slim–64 pages in all–which makes me question the committment of the publishers. Wisconsin has varied landscapes, and one could easily do a whole book on the north, on the lake shore, along the Missouri river, and the prairie.

However, this book gives each a nod and a page or two along with three pages of pictures of Madison, a page of Milwaukee (including the interior of a brewery, natch). I was pleased with how many sites I’ve seen–I’ve been to La Crosse, I’ve been up north, and I’ve visited the Dells and the House on the Rock. I have seen the state capitol lit up at night, but I haven’t been to Madison by day–the only time I was in Madison was late on a Friday or Saturday night for a quick trip to the Pizza Pit and back to Milwaukee, so I didn’t really even notice the birds’ eye view of its position between its two lakes.

So I enjoyed the book. Certainly more than the Wisconsin-based football game during which I flipped through the volume.

I have more of these books, I think, and I kind of look forward to them. Perhaps I should find them amid the thousands of books I’ve got on my to-read shelves.

Also, extra poignant note: The book has a little sticky note inscription in it that says To Dad From Brian. As this is a 1996 edition of the book, my own father was already but a (fresh) memory for me then.

Book Report: Zobmondo! Created by Randy Horn (2001)

Book coverTo be entirely honest, I didn’t actually read this book.

I bought it because my beautiful wife and I, when we were young, took little quiz books along on rode trips and asked ourselves the little essay questions to amuse ourselves and to learn more about our partner as the miles rolled away. So somewhere along the line, I picked up this book to amuse ourselves again when we had older children and took road trips.

Well, the children are older now, and we sometimes drive a distance with them, but when we packed this little “Would you rather?” game, it was pretty clear that I had only read the back and had not read actual questions in the book, or if I did look at actual questions in the book, I must have accidentally landed on the things that weren’t particularly odious.

The first questions in the book are:

  • Would you rather chew on a wild rat’s severed tail for a half hour or thoroughly brush your teeth with a toothbrush from a prison’s community toothbrush bowl?
  • Would you rather bite into a piece of chocolate and find it filled with maggots or filled with pus?
  • Would you rather walk around all day with a dead mouse in your butt or a dead frog in your mouth?

Well, we found something else to do on the trip

I guess the question for me is would I rather keep this book on my to-read shelves even though I won’t actually read it or put it on my read shelves even though I haven’t actually read it? Clearly, I’m migrating it to the read shelves (like I could ever give a book away!). Perhaps it will give my children some amusement someday, although given that some of the questions have sexual content and not just gross-out conundrums, I will try to keep it out of their grasps for a couple years yet.

So be warned: It’s more a book for road trips with Tom Green than with children or your sweetie.

Book Report: Awkward Family Pet Photos by Mike Bender and Doug Chernack (2011)

Book coverI bought this book a week ago, and clearly I could not wait to get into it even though the Green Bay Packers did not actually play football last Sunday. As a matter of fact, I wanted to finish a book, any book, while I work my way through another lengthy omnibus edition and continued to toil away at a book on serious philosophy.

Clearly, this is any book, which is not to say it’s a any good book.

You know, I have bought and read books based on Internet sites before (heaven forbid, Bad Cat). Most of the Internet books I get have some textual angle, though, like The Official Darwin Awards or Jump the Shark, which fares better in book form than cat pictures with captions.

This book is a little different from that, though: It’s based on the Awkward Family Photos site, where families with odd props or out-of-date fashions post images of themselves (or get themselves posted) for the lulz. Frankly, I’ve not gotten a lot out of the site itself because laughing at pictures of other people ain’t really my bag, baby (but being amused by textual accounts of their deaths is a different thing entirely, apparently). So when the Web site operators, the nominal authors of this volume, extended the brand to pictures of people with dated fashions and pets as their props. And published at least one book of selections.

I finished the book in an hour or two of browsing, but I’ll probably forego getting others in the series or even books of this type (Internet-site photos with captions) in the future, aside from what I already own, because I don’t enjoy them and I can’t lie to myself and say I learned something from them.

But I’ll still get around to anything like this I already own. And I might revisit the proclamation if it’s coming around to football season, I’m still watching football, and I feel like I’m low on books to browse during sporting events. Because I am nothing if undisciplined.

Book Report: Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus by Karl Jaspers (1957, 1962)

Book coverThis book fits right into the reading I’ve been doing in Eastern philosophies, classical philosophy, and the Christian traditions. It is a part of a longer work (The Great Philosophers Volume I) by Existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, whom I tend to confuse with either Karl Poppers or Karl Barth. Theoretically, I’ll get to keeping them straight as I read them individually instead of as names in summary textbooks.

The book looks at each of the four aforementioned thinkers, giving a brief biography of each and then teasing out the thinkers’ focuses. Jaspers draws certain parallels between each–for example, that the thinkers themselves did not leave behind many writings, but instead their followers produced the texts associated with the each, which does highlight that the understanding of each is tainted by a hagiographic portrayal by their partisans.

A good, quick enough read and a quick summary view–although the Confucius section bogged me down quite as the primary text did. It can be a good starting point into these thinkers and help familiarize the reader with the various things they thought.

Deeper than this book report, anyway.

It makes me consider reading the whole The Great Philosophers set someday, but to be honest, I’m like a quarter of the way through volume 1 part 1 of Copleson’s History of Philosophy, so I won’t go out and look for it. But if I see it in a book sale….

Book Report: The Man Who Knew Too Much by G.K. Chesterton (1922, 1986)

Book coverI picked up this book because I’ve heard of Chesterton, of course, and because I’m a big fan of the Bill Murray film The Man Who Knew Too Little. So this book is a two-fer: An intro to Chesterton and the knowledge of the source of the trope. It had been facing out of my hallway to-read bookshelves for a while, and I picked it up, hoping to get through a collection of short stories quickly. Oh, but no.

This volume collects eight connected short stories. Horne Fisher is a member of a well-connected British family whose members include several high-ranking government officials. Horne is the odd duck of the family, a dilettante that knows a lot of things and a lot of things about people. In each of the stories, someone gets murdered, and Fisher gets to the bottom of it, but the murderer goes free for the greater good of the country somewhow. Fisher has a confidante in journalist Harold Marsh who hears the crime solutions but also does not take action at his friend’s behest.

The style is a bit stilted, a bit more targeted perhaps to the aristocracy or to the intelligentsia than, say Rudyard Kipling or popular translations of Jules Verne. So I found it slower to read and easier to put down, which is why it took me a while to read the whole book even though it’s only 160 pages. I’d read something else in the interim and then a story in this book. This approach kept it from becoming too tedious.

At any rate, perhaps not the best lead into Chesterton’s work. Less approachable than Christie, and given that the criminals do not receive justice, unsatisfying. I was probably hindered by not knowing the exact period in which this was going on nor the conflicts alluded to. Even watching the entirety of Downton Abbey did not prepare me adequately. And I couldn’t hear Michelle Dockery’s voice reading it aloud (unlike Cotsold Mistress, where my imagining it helped me get through the book).

Still, I can say I’ve read some Chesterton now, which probably makes it worth the fifty cents or dollar I paid for the book. You can find fairly inexpensive editions on Amazon as noted below.

Book Report: Pets’ Letters To God translated by Mark Bricklin (1999)

Book coverI bought this book on Friday, and in that very post I pointed out the lack of recent book reporting. So I grabbed one of the thin, browseable books from that stack and flipped through it even though it’s a bye week for the Green Bay Packers.

This book collects a number of little letters as though they were written by pets to God. There must be some sort of cutesy collection of children doing this sort of thing for this collection to piggyback on, but I’ve avoided it. Probably for similar reasons that I like jokes with talking dogs but not talking children. Which was true even before I had children of my own.

At any rate, the book is about what you expect: something along the lines of I Could Pee On This and with about the same amusement factor. Which is to say some things were amusing, most were not, and I didn’t get dumber reading it.

So worth your time if you’re me. Or if this is your bag, baby.

Interesting note: The author’s bio indicates he is the former editor of Pets: Part of the Family, Prevention, and Men’s Health magazines. Actually, that’s all the bio. One would think a former editor would have weightier things to write about, but I guess not. Or this fills the time and the bank account. Maybe he’s a professional. Unlike your humble host, who mostly writes this as a gift to myself in four years, when I’ll page through these posts and find them amusing in an I Could Pee On This way. If, in four years, I can still access this site given I’m not sure how to convert it to https.

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

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

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

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

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

So it’s a good play, all right.

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

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

Book Report: Obsidian Son by Shayne Silvers (2012)

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

Well. This was pretty good.

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

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

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

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

Book Report: Beijing China (ca. 2002)

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

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

Worth the buck or two if you can find it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Report: San Francisco by Edmund Swinglehurst (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But perhaps I should teach it to my children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Report: Cotswold Mistress by Michael Spicer (1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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