Book Report: So You Want To Be A Wizard by Diane Duane (1983, 1996)

Book coverA month ago, I mentioned Diane Duane, so when I soon thereafter came across this book on my to-read shelves, I picked it up.

Now, I’ve never read the Harry Potter books because I tell people I don’t read young adult books or something. Nobody’s asked me in some time, come to think of it. Harry Potter is so 20th century. But I invented a loophole for this young adult fantasy book: See, it’s from 1983, so the twelve year olds within are my age or a little older. Or something.

At any rate, in the book, a New York girl who is bullied hides in the library to escape her tormentors and comes across a book patterned on career books; this one, however, is about becoming a wizard. She reads the first part of it, says the oath, and she’s suddenly aware of some magic she’s always known about but didn’t know it was magic. She’s also thrust into a plot by the ultimate bad guy to destroy the universe when she goes looking for a missing pen. So she and another young wizard travel to an alternate reality along with a small, sentient wormhole sidekick to try to find a magickal book that can protect the world (all worlds) from destruction.

It’s the beginning of a series, so it must have had some success. Back in the day, I read some fantasy–Jack Chalker comes to mind, and Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series. But by the time I was the age of the protagonists, I’d bypassed the young adult fantasy in favor of adult books. Which is why I hadn’t heard of this series until now. It must have been a pretty good run, as this book was still in print thirteen years later.

It wasn’t my bag, baby. So I’ll probably not look out for the rest of the series. I’ll probably pass this copy onto my young adult reader and perhaps he’ll enjoy it more.

Book Report: The Invisible Assassins by “Don Pendleton” (1983)

Book coverThere’s generally a tip-off that an Executioner book is going to be sub-par for the series: Mack Bolan lights a cigarette. Bolan doesn’t generally smoke throughout the Pendleton books and into the New War period; if one of the house authors has him lighting a cigarette (see also Return to Vietnam), you can assume the author has no familiarity with the series outside the outline handed to him. Mack Bolan lights a cigarette in this book. So the character does uncharacteristic things.

These books really jump into the 1980s action pop culture zeitgeist; we have Harriers and Uzis in previous books and ninjas in this book. In it, Bolan is called in to watch over a computer expert who is then killed right before Bolan’s eyes. He starts to investigate, and wouldn’t you know it, the trail leads to Japan, ninjas, a wealthy man who fancies himself a samurai warlord, and a plot for World War II-era vengeance via biological warfare. Which Bolan disrupts of course.

But the character is out-of-character in torturing and then killing someone offhandedly. The book also lacks the reflective self-consciousness present in other books and focuses on the gore and two-fistedness, so it’s a lesser entry in the series that might have been better in the Nick Carter or Death Merchant series.

A couple of moments of unintended levity: In one scene, Bolan is talking to the head of a martial arts school that teaches an advanced Ninja class which he says is not for beginners, and the sensei gets a phone call during his conversation with Bolan. The guy on the phone wants to know if he can take the ninja class, and he’s got two years of Tae Kwon Do experience. So the sensei agrees he’s ready for the Ninja class. Gentle reader, I can assure you that two years of Tae Kwon Do does not make you ready to be a ninja. At best, it makes you ready for a third year of Tae Kwon Do.

And ahead of the climax, Bolan picks up a gun and a sword and enters a corridor where he see the Ninja at the end. Instead of, I dunno, shooting or stabbing the ninja, he goes hand-to-hand. How cinematic it would have been were it filmed. On the page, though, it was underwhelming as was the climactic sword fight while in hazmat suits in the biochemical lab.

At any rate, if I space these books out, I can kind of forget that their plots are very similar. However, I must read them closely enough together so that I know that the worst of the series is the worst of the series, not the entire series. Otherwise, my children will inherit dozens of unread Bolan novels. I’m hoping they’ll inherit read books.

Book Report: Reinhold Niebuhr by Bob E. Patterson (1977)

Book coverThis book is the first in a series, Makers of the Modern Theological Mind, and it’s a summary view of Reinhold Niebuhr’s work and through for forty or fifty years in the middle of the 20th century. I don’t know where I bought the book, but I know why I picked it up: I’ve been seeing Niebuhr’s name in First Things magazine and some other things I’ve been reading, and I remember from my collegiate studies that he and his brother were considered important thinkers in the middle of the 20th century. So I gave it a go.

The book is a thematic study of Niebuhr’s thought. That is, it is grouped by them, not chronologically. It’s broken into chapters on Sin, Grace, and Love and Justice along with a chapter on his biography and some groundwork for his thought. It’s not a long book, 162 pages with citations and bibliography, so it’s something you can read relatively quickly and feel a little confident you know a bit about where he’s coming from.

Niebuhr’s concept of sin is heavily informed by the Existentialists of the era (and Kierkegaard, which precedes the era). The nature of man is that he is physical, material, and natural and he is self-transcendent and can recognize where he falls short of the ideal (which is Christ). This contradiction leads to the original sin and the knowledge of God. Man has free will, but he will always ultimately fall short and will know it. So I really understood this bit.

In the concept of grace, to make a short summary of Niebuhr’s though shorter, Niebuhr thought the crucifixion provided initial, justifying grace to man and the grace (or Holy Spirit) acting through a justified person was sanctifying. Niebuhr is trying to balance here between faith and works in other words.

Where I really dispute Niebuhr is his concept of Love and Justice. Justice flows from love, and eventually he gets to political institutions as countervailing blocs fighting for their rights. But in his ideal, the people in the blocs are sanctified and justified by grace, so they’re doing the right thing. Which is not where we’ve ended up. As the book is sectioned thematically and not chronologically, as I mentioned, it’s not one hundred percent clear from the text of this book whether Niebuhr evolved to or evolved from this position.

One thing the book does make clear is that Niebuhr’s thought evolved over the decades that he taught and wrote, so sometimes some of his work tighens, refines, or seems to contradict his earlier positions.

So I enjoyed the book, and I’m going to keep my eye out for some of Niebuhr’s primary works.

Book Report: Bad Publicity by Jeffrey Frank (2004)

Book coverI read Frank’s earlier novel The Columnist in 2005; some number of years later, I picked up this book at a book sale here in Springfield, and it will take me at least another decade before I read another Frank book.

This book is billed a satire (and the book flap even compares Frank to Jonathan Swift, a fact I didn’t know when I picked up the Frank book right after Gulliver’s Travels). However, I didn’t find much mirth in the book since it, like the earlier novel, lacks a sympathetic character. It describes a number of interconnected people in Washington in late 1987 and 1988 whose lives intertwine at the end of the Reagan presidency and what most assume will be the beginning of the Dukakis era.

There’s a former Pennsylvania congressman who lost his seat after divorcing his wife for his assistant. His marriage to the younger woman ends ugly even after he’s forced out of his post-Congress job after making some overtures/compliments to a young female attorney with the firm who presses for his discipline with the firm because she’s tired of men treating her as a sex object, although it’s not as bad as she makes it out to be in her own mind. She conspires with a man whose wife works with the local news anchor who is going insane to get the word out about the former congressman and to get him denied a position in the White House. The former congressman consults with an image management firm and gets assigned to a down-to-her-last-client chain-smoking publicist whose assistant happens to be working closely with the local anchor who is going insane. There’s also an academic at a think tank who’s not working on his book on social reform and who’s been supplanted on the scene by a new expert in his subject matter and, well. Washington people and The Columnist Brandon Sladder appears in all the coolest restaurants at all the best parties.

So these people do their silly things and conjugate in their silly ways, and there’s nobody really for someone outside the northeastern corridor to identify with (and hopefully nobody that most people in the business would really identify with either). I got the sense while reading it that Frank didn’t really like anyone he was writing about, either.

So I didn’t care for it. There’s no mirth for me in laughing with the cooler-than-thou kids at schmucks, even if they’re schmucks ruining the country.

Book Report: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1948)

Book coverI found this book to be very approachable and readable for something written 50 years before the Declaration of Independence; eventually, it dawned on me to check the title page. It’s part of the Young America Classics editions, which I don’t collect. To be clear: unlike Classics Club editions and Reader’s Digest editions, I only have one Young America Classics that I’m aware of. This means I have more Young Americans than Young America editions, and I’m fine with that.

Anyway, the title page doesn’t say it’s abridged, but it is Edited, with an Introduction, by May Lamberton Becker, which looks as though it means adapted by. The book collects three of Gulliver’s travels (to Lilliput, to Brobdingnab, and to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan. It omits the fourth, the Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms for some reason. Perhaps this was a darker bit not suitable for Young America right after World War II.

I assume you know some of the story. Although, in the 21st century, perhaps that’s optimistic. Gulliver, a ship’s surgeon, is shipwrecked at various times and finds himself in a land of tiny people (Lilliput), of giant people (Brobdingnab), and a land of a floating island and strange academics (Laputa et al). The book is satire, almost 300 years later some of the elements of the satire is lost. For example, I’m not sure what elements Swift is making fun of in Lilliput, or whether he endorses or mocks the society of Lilliput where:

Whoever can there bring sufficient proof that he hath strictly observed the laws of his country for seventy-three moons hath a claim to certain privileges, according to his quality and condition of life, with a proportionate sum of money, out of a fund appropriated for that use; he likewise acquires the title of snilpall, or legal, which is added to his name but does not descend to his posterity. (p54)

I can’t tell here if he’s advocating what the contemporary left calls a living wage or if he’s making light of it.

Other lines seem completely relevant today. For example, Gulliver explains to the Brobdingnabian king how the government works in England, and the king there replies:

“My little friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable panegyric upon your country; you have clearly proved that ignorance, idleness, and vice are the proper ingredients for a legislator; the laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose interests and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some lines of an institution, which, in its original, might have been tolerable, but these half-erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions…”

In Lagado, Gulliver learns how everything went amok:

The sum of his discourse was this: That about forty years ago certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and after five months’ continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region. That these persons, upon their return, began to dislike that management of everything below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado; and the humor prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last forever without repairing; all the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase an hundred-fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and, in the meantime, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their shcemes, driven equally by hope and despair: that, as for himself, being not of an enterprising spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms, to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did, in every part of life, without innovation. That some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same, bute were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant, and ill commonwealth’s men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.

The third of these voyages seems the most readily accessible to modern audiences, especially if those people have already read Atlas Shrugged.

So it took me a while to get through it, but I enjoyed the book. I was ashamed to learn the source of the word Brobdingnabian; although I have an album by the Brobdingnabian Bards and run across the adjective from time to time in writing, I hadn’t really learned or retained its source. I have now.

Also, I learned a bit about the history of seafaring. Not so much because Gulliver travelled the seas; instead, it’s because he’s excited about the prospects of immortality when he learns of a group of immortals:

I should then see the discovery of longitude, the perpetual motion, the universal medicine, and many other great inventions brought to the utmost perfection!

Of those, we only got longitude, and not that long after this book appeared. It makes a lot more sense the conceit of a bunch of undiscovered lands when you realize that mariners for hundreds of years (by hundreds, I mean thousands, except I really only count the hundreds of years of Western voyaging out of site of land) could tell how far north and south they were, they had no real idea how far east and west they were. Whoa.

So it’s a good adventure story and classical literature, so I’m glad to have read it. I’m almost afraid to see what happens in the Jack Black movie based on it. Probably not as much satire as the original included, but I’ll understand the humor of crass 21st century better than the finer points of 18th century satire.

Book Report: Life in the Age of Charlemagne by Peter Munz (1971)

Book coverAs I just read The Carolingian Chronicles, when I saw this book on my shelves, I knew I had to read it next.

It seems almost magical that from my thousands of books, I can often find different books on the same topic if I get interested in it. However, that’s only because I tend to accumulate books in certain areas that I’m interested, and then when I get interested in them, I have a bunch to choose from. So it’s not magical, but I think it’s neat once I read a book and find a related book on the same topic.

This book, unlike Carolingian Chronicles and The Life of Charlemagne, is not a primary source; instead, it relies heavily on social anthropology to explain how these backwards people were. As such, you have to look at it as though it the prism of someone in the 1960s applying his or her own theories into the historical record. You get that with any history, of course, but in this case, the distance between then and then and then and now require a bit more distance.

Especially as this book is not narrative in nature; it does not tell the history from start-to-finish, year-to-year. Instead, the book takes different topical matters (The Rich, The Poor, Government, The Church, and so on) and then discusses that topic from a historical anthropological perspective about how they relate to one another. Here’s a hint: It was brutish for the poor and slightly less brutish for the rich. The book talks about the Christianity of the Franks, but repeatedly emphasizes that it was a cynical tool for controling the conquered people. It’s hard to get into the heads of contemporary people, and it’s probably impossible to get into the heads and hearts of people who lived over a thousand years ago, so contemporary–or fifty year old–attempts are suspect. Short of a handwritten diary, we really can’t know the interior motives.

Aside from that quibble, the book also has some repetitiveness that it should not. In a number of places, thoughts and even phrases are repeated to convey the same thing, sometimes mere paragraphs later.

So it was a quick read and reinforced some of the names and dates that I read earlier (I hope). I’ll have to sometime soon explore my stacks to see what else I have in this vein.

One side note about the book: The volume I have is an ex-library book from the Cor Jesu Academy in St. Louis, Missouri. It still has a card in the back, but the mylar dust jacket had a barcode on it. The card has stamps from 1980 to 1991. So the book itself might have resided there from about the time of my birth through at least my college years; when I was in high school, several girls my age borrowed this book to write reports. And now I’ve read it for fun and for a simple blog book report.

Book Report: Tuscany Terror by “Don Pendleton” (1983)

Book coverThis book is another post-Pendleton Mack Bolan volume. In it, Bolan has to go to Italy to rescue the wife and child of an Army officer from a terrorist group holding the hostages to get the officer to falsely confess to involvement with the Mafia.

Bolan goes and shoots up a bunch of stuff, and then he infiltrates some stuff. The book is a lesser entry than Vulture’s Vengeance, but it’s not bad.

Once or twice a year, I get the urge to plow through the unread books I have in this series (and there are 93 left on my to-read shelves according to this count) minus the two I’ve read since). Then I read a bunch of them in short order and realize how similar they are to each other. Apparently, three is my limit, so I’ll probably focus on reading other things for a bit.

And hope to live another thirty-some years to make it through my Mack Bolan library at this pace.

Book Report: Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby (2013)

Book coverI bought this book at Barnes and Noble via a gift card because I appreciated the topic matter: Hornby, the author of High Fidelity and About a Boy, writes a magazine column discussing the books that he has read every month. This volume collects ten years’ worth of those columns.

Hey, for about the same period, I’ve been jotting down my thoughts into the blog here. Since I bought five ISBNs when I published John Donnelly’s Gold. I thought about collecting them into a volume and calling it The Last 1000 Books I Read or something like that (as you can see, there are well over 1000 book reports).

However, after reading this book, I have discarded that idea.

I mean, my book reports here are more about what I’m thinking about than substantive book discussions. Hornby’s columns are similar–he writes a bit about what’s going on in his life as he’s reading. His columns are monthly roll-ups of what he’s read and a bunch of banter about the magazine (The Believer). But. Reading one of the columns once a month or so in a magazine is one thing, but hundreds of pages of them is another. The columns became more repetitive than they would monthly. I can’t imagine reading 1000 of my book reports in a row would appeal to anyone.

At any rate, over the ten year period covered by the book, Hornby and I only read one book in common: Then We Came To The End. Our tastes do not run in common. Hornby favors biographies of sports and entertainment stars, literary fiction, and young adult books. Me, I read a bit of this and that with emphases on history and genre fiction.

The real gauge of a book review or column is whether one wants to go out and get the book(s) mentioned. I thought a couple might have sounded interesting, but before I bought them or even wrote them down, I was into the next column and set of books. The only one I considered getting from the library is the Motley Crue bio The Dirt, and that is because the book misspells Naugle’s (Tacos) as Noggle, and I wanted to see it for myself.

So I’m kinda glad I read the book (over the course of months or years). And as obsessive as I am, I compiled a list comparing what Hornby reports on in the ten years versus the books I’ve read in those ten years. You can review the comparative list here. Spoiler alert: I read three times as many books as he mentions in his columns. On the other hand, I’ve written and sold far fewer books and traveled to far fewer places than Hornby, so I guess we’re even.

Book Report: How to Live Like A Lord Without Really Trying by Shepherd Mead (1964)

Book coverThis book is the follow-up to Mead’s How to Succeed in Business Without Trying. You might have heard that title because it was turned into a Broadway show that was recently revived.

Based on that success, Mead was able to move to Europe. In this book, he talks about moving to post-war England for business and plays upon the differences between America and England. It’s much more amusing if you’re old enough to get mid-century jokes and concerns. I’m not sure you could just watch Mad Men and get it.

It’s an amusing book, but it’s from another time. Here’s a gag in the section about England’s quaint socialized medicine:

However, it is only fair to warn you that in England you will be living under socialized medicine, and every American knows how dangerous that can be.

Forty years later, every American is going to learn how dangerous that will be, and we won’t have to travel abroad to get it.

Here’s a gag that’s even funnier forty years later:

The “British language” you have been hearing on televsion in the States is not really spoken anywhere. This is a special tongue known as Mid-Atlantic, designed to “sound British” to Americans, and still be understood. The British can understand it, too. They think it is a kind of funny American, and wonder why Robin Hood should talk like a Yank.

Given Kevin Costner’s turn as Robin Hood, there are many Americans who think it’s funny that Robin Hood sounded American.

At any rate, it’s an amusing book. If you’re old enough, I suppose.

Book Report: Vulture’s Vengeance by “Don Pendleton” (1983)

Book coverThis book is a pretty good entry in the series. Perhaps I’m far enough away from reading a bunch of them in a row (Doomsday Disciples notwithstanding) that I’m not overwhelmed by the similarity of the plot (woman in distress, Bolan must penetrate hard sites).

In this particular case, Vietnam veterans are being–kidnapped? and used as forced labor/mercenaries by a Central American warlord who kills a popular ambassador and kidnaps the wife who is a popular spokesperson for human rights. The warlord rigs a plane and stages what looks to be an attack on the White House with an unpiloted plane carrying the woman, but after Bolan averts the crisis, it turns out that she’s still a captive in his Nicouraguan lair. Which Bolan must then attack to get the bad guys out.

The story is an eighties product all the way: The Uzi is an unstoppable killing machine, and the Harrier jump jet is all that. Funny thing is that one of the bits has Bolan downing a jet with an Uzi, and I would have thought that utterly preposterous–except that earlier in the week, I’d heard the story of Owen J. Baggett who purportedly shot down a Zero in World War II with his handgun while parachuting from a disabled bomber. So forty-three years after this book came out, I was primed to get the allusion / homage that the author of the Bolan book was making. And it made the Bolan action seem less preposterous than it could have.

Except then Bolan shoots down a couple of attack helicopters with a handgun. So.

At any rate, I’m mellowing on these post-Pendleton books because I’m starting to consider them the equivalent of episodic television. I mean, the plots are the same, the characters the same, and the bad guys just about interchangeable–but I’m enjoying them as light reading while I’m reading them.

Unfortunately, that’s going to mean my measuring stick for these things is going to be whether than they’re better or worse than the ones I read immediately preceding them. If you’re not into these kinds of books, this won’t be the one to make you a fan.

Book Report: Hoot by Carl Hiaasen (2002)

Book coverThis book is Carl Hiaasen’s first YA book. And it shows. It’s like a Hiaasen story shrunken to kid-sized, and poorly.

First, the plot: A new kid from Montana moves to Florida and sees a barefoot kid running while riding on the bus is getting bullied. He clocks the bully and runs out to follow the kid. He discovers a semi-feral runaway who’s conducting a campaign of vandalism to protect a couple nests of owls from development of a pancake house.

I’ve flagged a bunch of things in the book that don’t ring true. For example, the protagonist reads an X-Man comic. The boy is fresh from Montana, but describes the trees and flora with exactitude unbefitting a middle schooler. Twenty-first century middle school bullies tormenting the new kid by calling him Roy Rogers-hardt (who past the Baby Boomers and a couple Gen Xers know who Roy Rogers is?) A friend says the bully called in sick to school. Kids riding on the handlebars of bikes–do they do this now? One middle schooler says “Why do you care about this kid?”–what kid calls another kid a kid to another kid? “The dead man was soaked with blood and twisted at odd angles, like a broken G.I. Joe doll.” GI Joe, as you might know, was never marketed as a doll, and the action figures from the 1980s and beyond were not as articulated as the GI Joes of Hiaasen’s youth, so I’m not sure if the metaphor makes us think of what he’s thinking of.

Coupled with the simplistic environmental message with caricatures for bad guys, I didn’t care for this book that much. I’m probably not going to hunt down more Hiaasen YA books, but I’m hopeful he gets back to writing adult books. But all the thriller writers, it seems, are deep in the YA market these days. I mean, my son reads a lot of James Patterson, for crying out loud.

As to this book, it’s take it or leave it, even if you’re a Hiaasen fan.

Book Report: Down the Wire Road by Fern Angus (2004)

Book coverI bought this book at the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield shop a couple years back. I generally go to the Battlefield, just a mile away, twice a year. Once to renew my annual pass, and then once more for some reason or another, generally on a day where you don’t need a pass. Since I’m in the gift shop anyway, I look to pick up a bit of a history book to read. So I did with this book.

Since I bought it at the Wilsons Creek National Battlefield, I’d expected more of a real history book rather than something assembled by a local historical society. Although this book is not from a local historical society, it’s more of that flavor than the former, so I was a bit disappointed.

The book starts off with chapters about the stage coach / postal line that ran down this way, the creation of the telegraph line from Jefferson Barracks to Arkansas, an the Trail of Tears which followed the same route. The chapter about the Trail of Tears gives a bit of a summary and then reprints excerpts from the journals of “conductors”–guides for the marches. After that, we devolve into collections of pictures and descriptions of cemetaries, some family histories recounted by family members, Ozark stories, sayings, and “Do You Remember?” things.

So I was a little disappointed, more because I expected a more scholarly treatment and more discussion of the Wire Road. Mostly because I have lived at both ends of it: In the St. Louis area, I lived in Lemay just a couple blocks from Telegraph Road and now at Nogglestead which sits either directly on the route or a couple hundred feet from it (depending upon whether it ran along the old train route that is my neighbor’s driveway (but which I own half of) or in his pasture.

At any rate, I flagged two bits in the book:

Manley was a small man in stature; he liked to read Cappers Weekly and his Bible. He belonged to the Marionville IOOF Lodge, Chapter 210.

I know what the IOOF is because I read Lileks.

From the “Do You Remember When?” section:

Telephone lines were maintained by the parties using the line? It was a common practice for anyone to listen in on the conversation if they wished to do so. News of anything unusual, as a fire or emergency of any kind, was spread rapidly by the user of the telephone.

As I’m fond of reminding you, gentle reader, I lived down an old gravel road in a valley back in the first Bush administration, and the phone was a party line until the cable company and the phone company shared the cost of running the lines out to our house and beyond. In 1988 or 1989.

Also from the “Do You Remember When?” section:

You canned vegetables, fruits, jams, jellies, pickles, and everything you could get your hands on? Sometimes these were not used during the summer months but were put aside for winter.

I’m fond of telling the story where, when we lived in the projects, we were friends with the girl across the street who lived in the farm house whose surrounding fields became our neighborhood some decades before. Her yard had several large pear and peach trees, and one year my mother got bitten by the canning bug, so we staged commando raids on her yard to purloin some of her fruit. I hope her family wasn’t planning to use it. My mother laid up those pears and peaches and crab apple butter and sauce made from the crab apple trees in the common back yard of our apartments, and we ate them for years. I guess it was only five, but we still had shelves full of that preserved fruit when we moved to the aforementioned house down the dusty gravel road. So we moved those jars from Milwaukee to our aunt’s suburban home in St. Charles to the trailer in Murphy and then to House Springs.

You know, perhaps I shouldn’t be so disappointed with the book after all. It did remind me of some stories from my relatively recent youth.

Book Report: Chandeog Palace (1975)

Book coverThis book is one of the many I bought in Spring 2014 and that I’ve been reading through since then (see also Bomun Temple in Seoul Korea and Wonderful Korea, New Pearl of the Orient Korea, and Art Treasures of Seoul).

The books themselves are tour guides or art coffee table books, but I’m picking up a smattering of Korean history from them. For example, I can put the Koriya, Silla, and Yi dynasties in order. So I’ve got that going for me, although I don’t have the exact dates nailed down yet.

This particular volume describes the various buildings in this particular palace with full color photos and text in I assume Korean and Chinese (although the Asian languages do not all look very similar to me, I am not yet able to distinguish between them) along with the English.

And, strangely enough, the end papers have a map of Seoul, a page for written notes, and, I kid you not, pages for names and addresses. You know, why leave blank pages at the end of the book when you don’t have further installments of a pulp subscription series to sell? This is very practical, although not so much for me: I’d write an address in it and then lose the book amongst its thousands of brethren in the Nogglestead library.

At any rate, worth a browse if you’re into Korean or Asian architecture, but I wouldn’t order it from Amazon or eBay unless you’re serious.

Book Report: Doomsday Disciples by “Don Pendleton (1983)

Book coverThis book is the 49th in the Executioner series, and it came out when I was eleven years old. Its plot is topical of the 1970s, but because it was tropish in the 1970s, it seems fresher and more twisty because I’m used to twenty-first century tropes.

The Executioner is looking into a religious cult with ties to the Russians; the daughter of a Senator has joined this group, and in the first set piece, they’re about to take the young lady for the last ride before Mack Bolan intercedes and rescues her. He then proceeds to dismantle the operation of the cult which was founded by a Vietnamese Buddhist with the goal of warping the youth of America and sowing destruction in the American homeland.

So in the 21st century, when you hear about a religious cult, you’re expecting an extreme Christian sect (which, in the news, is pretty much all Christians except maybe Episcopalians). But this book capitalizes on the popularization of Buddhism in the 1970s, when it was a pretty new and fadish thing. So although a reader in 1983 would have found this to capitalize (and maybe exploit) contemporary trends and fads, in the 21st century those fads are mostly forgotten and we get something fresh.

I enjoyed the book pretty well for a post-Pendleton entry in the series.

Any time I enjoy them, I’m hopeful, because I have 61 Executioner books, 10 Stony Man, 17 Mack Bolan adventures, and 7 Able Team books from the mythos yet on my shelves. When I read one I don’t like, I think I’ll never get through them. When I read one I do, I have hope I’ll stomach it.

At least the number of them I see in the wild has tailed off so I’m not adding a bunch more to the shelves as I go (although the Spring book sales are a month away, and this assertion is subject to change).

Book Report: Toulouse-Lautrec: Painter of Paris by Horst Keller (1968)

Book coverI didn’t care for this book, but it did help me cement that I don’t care for this artist.

The book itself first: The book is written by someone who absolutely adores the artist, which I would like better if I liked the artist. The author spends a lot of time and florid prose discussing individual works, whether paintings or prints, from the Lautrec’s oeuvre, but the images he discusses are generally not close to the discussion, so if you want to look at what he’s talking about, you have to flip forwards or backwards. If the images appear at all. However, it’s definitely distracting and makes one–by “one,” I mean “me”–less likely to look at the images during the discussion. And the discussion is more complex and nuanced than the art itself.

Frankly, I have finally found a scapegoat that bridges the gap between art and comic book and such presented as art: Toulouse-Lautrec. The art is generally simple, easily changed to prints without too much loss of depth (and the prints and posters might have been why we might know of this fellow). He’s been heavily influenced by Oriental art, as was all the rage in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So although other artists of the period liked it, but he never really doesn’t mature much beyond that influence. Lautrec died young, and some of his later work started showing some depth and maturity. So maybe he would have been more of an artist that I would approve of if he’d lived longer.

So, to sum up: This is a poorly organized, overwritten art book about an artist I don’t particularly care about. Although I might pick up other books on Degas and Manet, and I’ll certainly pick up more general Impressionist and French art books and will glom onto any Renoir books I come across, I won’t bother with more Toulouse-Lautrec.

Book Report: GI Joe: The Story Behind The Legend by Don Levine with John Michleg (1996)

Book coverThis book describes the creating of the G.I. Joe action figure (the original, not the Real American Hero we grew up with in the 1980s) from its inspiration through design and the initial manufacture. It includes a number of pictures, but it’s not a picture book. It’s the story, told by the artistic director of Hasbro, along with accounts from other people in the process.

As such, it’s not so much about the stories and narratives that would become part of the comics or the television series. Instead, it’s a look inside the toy business and how something like this got built from the ground up in the middle 1960s, from pitching it to the company CEO to handling production overseas (which was a new step for Hasbro).

An interesting story, indeed. At 92 pages, it’s more of a written oral history than a scholarly work, so I read pretty quickly. I am quite disappointed, though: The book seems to indicate it was bundled with a commemorative GI Joe of some sort, and all I got was the book. For a buck, I guess I can’t ask for more.

Book Report: Flawed Dogs by Berkeley Breathed (2009)

Book coverThis book is apparently a children’s book by the cartoonist behind “Bloom County”, “Outland”, and “Opus”. I remember him from his Bloom County work (see Tales Too Ticklish To Tell and Billy and the Boingers Bootleg). I didn’t get much into Outland, and I missed Opus, apparently. But when I saw his name on the cover of this book, I bought it. Not realizing it was a children’s book.

Not that I’m above cutesy books about dogs; see also my report on The Shepherd, The Angel, And Walter the Miracle Dog which might also double as an entry in my cutesy Christmas books list. But I digress.

This book details the story of Sam the Lion, a bred-for-showing Dachshund with an extremely rare curl of hair who escapes his designed owner and befriends a lonely orphaned teenaged girl as she moves in with her former dog breeder and shower uncle. When he’s framed by the resident poodle for a crime he didn’t commit, Sam is shot and left for dead. After this incident, Sam moves onto a series of shelters, labs, and life as a freebooter until he regains a sense of purpose: To stop the poodle from winning the Westminster dog show.

It’s whimsical, although I don’t think it’s entirely cohesive. I thought the bit about being in an animal testing lab for years was only included to remind children that animal testing is bad. It veers from the cutesy to the cartoonish, which is acceptable, I suppose, since the author is a cartoonist.

Ultimately, it wasn’t my bag, baby.

Book Report: Dead Street by Mickey Spillane (and Max Allan Collins) (2007)

Book coverThis book is a Spillane novel! From 2007! (Which mimics my reaction to Black Alley, which is a Mike Hammer book I read thirteen years ago, apparently the last Mickey Spillane novel I read).

Except this book is a Spillane book by way of Max Allan Collins. I’ve recently become acquainted with this author from his work on the DC comic book Ms. Tree Quarterly from the early 1990s, and I’d thought about reading a book of his. So it’s kind of kismet that I picked up this book and found it was a book that Mickey Spillane started or mapped out and that Collins finished.

Set in the early part of the 21st century, it deals with a police captain who retired after thirty years on the force. He gets a message that his fiance, believed to have been dead after a botched kidnapping twenty years ago, is alive and is living in a retirement community in Florida populated by former police and firemen from New York. Her savior from twenty years ago, who took her in and hid her, has recently died, so his last wish was that the police captain protect her. The kidnapping incident has left her blind and amnesiac, but when the police captain moves in next door, she starts to recognize him from his voice and his mannerisms, and along with the memories of their love comes the memories of the crime she was bringing to him when she was snatched: The theft of nuclear materials in the middle 1980s.

The books is a pretty good mash-up of modern paperbacks blended with comic book sensibility along with the old-school style of Spillane, but. It was weird to me to read about the cop retiring after 30 years on the force and how different the world was then. The difference between the 1940s and the 1970s would have been vast. Between the 1970s and 2000s a lot less vast (and me calculating 30 years from the present day takes us back to 1987, and the changes there are less vast still. Drop a mere 25 years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the world hasn’t changed that much, even with the Internet; however, I was an earlyish adopter and was on dial-up computer BBSes thirty years ago). So that motif didn’t ring as true. Also, the recurring motif of the Dead Street–where the captain and other principals of the story lived, but that is getting razed for redevelopment (the Dead Street of the title) motif was drummed a bit much, although it came to be important in the end. And all the interesting individual bits of the story didn’t completely fit together in the end–the plot might have been better treated with a different MacGuffin.

Still, I enjoyed reading it, and I’m interested to pick up a pure Max Allen Collins book somewhere along the line when I find one in the wild. And a pure Mickey Spillane–I can’t let another 13 years go by. The Mike Hammer books (boosted by the Mike Hammer television series) were a staple of my reading diet in the late 1980s. When the world was a vastly different place.

Book Report: Rogue Warrior: Green Team by Richard Marcinko and John Weisman (1995)

Book coverWhen you open a Rogue Warrior, you should know what you’re getting. A vulgar, fourth-wall-breaking, gung-ho voice that is engaging but on the edge of obnoxious; a backdrop of military political machinations; and set piece gunfights and battles. This book is no different. As the second book in the series, it would be setting the pattern yet, not merely repeating it.

In it, the Green Team, which is the current team of Marcinko’s black ops group, takes down a bad guy in Egypt; when the fellow dies in transport, Green Team become wanted by their unappreciative superior. A group assassinates high ranking military officials in Britain, and Green Team has to find out who did it and exact revenge. They find a Muslim group with inside contacts responsible, and the group’s next plans include simultaneous biological attacks across Europe.

So it’s on par with the other Red Cell/Green Team books I’ve read: It’s a lot of fun, but the political nonsense bogs it down, and it goes on just a couple dozen pages too long, usually about one set piece, where the voice starts annoying. But widely spaced, they’re good fun reads.

This book is most noticable, though, for its prophetic nature. It talks about how easily terrorists move through Europe because there are no internal border checks; it talks about a leader “leading from the front” as a contrast to a president without a military molecule in his body. Additionally, it features said President–Clinton at the time–who is sometimes reluctantly cudgeled into doing the right thing (often by his wife, who twenty years later is running for president).

It’s a pretty timeless book in that way; the president is not named, and although there’s some political stuff and bashing, it’s pretty much the individual-versus-the-system sort of stuff that has been pretty common in thrillers and paperbacks forever, without the political garbage that became commonplace in the 21st century (this book is timeless enough I forget how old it is). Also, the threat of international Islamic terror supported from inside the West is sadly contemporary as well.

A pretty good read. Better than a post-Pendleton Executioner book, for sure.

Book Report: The Hero by John Ringo and Michael Z. Williamson (2004)

Book coverI bought this book a year ago in Florida. As I was browsing my bookshelves, I told myself I was in the mood for some military sci-fi. I’ve tried some before: I picked up something by Robert Frezza, but I put it down not long into it; I tried some of David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers stories, but also put them aside. It looks as though military science fiction is not going to be my genre of choice.

This particular volume did not dispel me of that notion.

Wait a minute, didn’t I just get published in an anthology of military science fiction? Well, yes, which explains why I became interested in reading some of it. Because I’ve got a plot in mind that would take the conceit of my poem and turn it into a novel. So I wanted to do some research into the genre to see what it’s like and whatnot. Which is why I read this book.

This book, as the link below indicates, is volume 6 in a series. So immediately I’m dropped into a world with a whole back story to it. Whereas I’ve complained previously about series business taking over books in a series, it’s not so much the case in this book. However, there is a whole world/universe/mythos that has evolved and been explained in hundreds of pages prior where that information gets stuffed into a book as exposition. As it appears here. Perhaps it would be better to have been more lightly alluded to since much of the exposition doesn’t directly relate to the plot.

The plot: A deep reconnaissance team is sent to a distant planet to investigate what might be an enemy base. New to the team is an alien from a race that has manipulated mankind in the past, and the other team members don’t trust him. However, they’ll need his extra sensory perception abilities to succeed. When they get there, after their snoop-n-poop (as Richard Marcinko would put it), they find an ancient alien artifact worth slightly less than a Powerball ticket. At which point, the team’s sniper kills most of the rest of the team to steal the artifact, but the alien takes it before he can. And suddenly it’s a cat-and-mouse game as they try to reach the extraction point without getting shot by each other.

That’s the plot. That’s what the book flap says when I read it wondering what the point of the book was.

Because the plot doesn’t really start until about page 130 of about 300. Beforehand, we get a mission briefing, a training exercise, a night on the town to left off some steam and get laid, a ride to the planet, and a long walk to the alien base. The book is rich in detail. How much detail? It spends four pages talking about how the team crosses a river. Then most of them die and the chase is on.

Even then, much of the exciting chase is spent shifting between the characters viewpoints as each expresses internally how he cannot trust the others and how he’ll kill them. They traverse terrain, engage each other a bit, and then one wins. Sort of. Then there’s a wrap up epilogue.

I don’t think the plot was worth 300 pages as it was.

So I’m not sanguine that I’ll enjoy the subgenre as a whole; it seems to be written by post-military people by post-military people with a military precision at least as far as the detail goes. I’ve got a couple more Ringo books; I’ll give them a try at some point, but I’m not eager to base my forthcoming (forevethcoming is the new term for “Forever Forthcoming”) on the subgenre. It’ll be more a science fiction novel with a militaryish setting.

Of course, I’m basing my blatherings here on a novel, part of a novel, and a couple short stories’ worth of study of the subgenre. I’m open to suggestion and revising my opinion if I like the other Ringo books. Or because tomorrow is sunnier.