Book Report: The Book Of Useless Information by Noah Botham and the Useless Information Society (2006)

Book coverThis book is a collection of trivia one-liners such as you’d see in text overlaying images on some listicle sites. As such, it’s probably as trustworthy as the Internet.

I mean, there probably aren’t deliberate falsehoods to detect copyright infringement like you find in the old trivia books. But there are some contradictary trivium like “The leg bones of a bat are so thin that no bat can walk” followed a couple lines later by “Disc winged bats of Latin America have adhesive discs on both wings and feet that enable them to live in unfurling banana leaves (or even to walk up a window pane!).” Sure, that last can be interpreted in a fashion that’s not completely contrary to the former, but they’re not written clearly enough to be completely clear.

So if I’m ever asked the only bat that can walk, and I wrongly answer “The disc-winged bat,” you’ll know why.

But the book is a good enough way to pass the time on an airplane or something like that; you can pick it up, read a few things and go “Huh,” and put it down when needed. And just maybe you’ll have the right answer for a trivia night sometime. Or at least an answer that might be right, which is sometimes the best you can hope for.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: At The Hemingways by Marcelline Hemingway Sanford (1962)

Book coverLast year, I went to Orlando and got a book about Hemingway (The Private Hell of Hemingway). This year, on our second trip to Orlando, I brought my own volume of Hemingwayenalia.

This book was written by Ernest Hemingway’s older sister, and it’s about their lives growing up in the nice suburbs of Chicago. It starts with a bit of history about their grandparents, both sets of which became well-to-do, and runs through the Hemingways proper from the time they moved from the Hall (Mrs. Hemingway’s parents) home to their own home and through their childhoods and up, sort of, to 1962. It’s full of good period detail, discusses their interesting family history, describes the love of outdoors that the family shared and times at their home in Michigan. The book also carries forth beyond their childhood to some incidents in Hemingway’s life after he leaves home, their worrying about him when he goes to Italy in World War I and its aftermath and how he ends up writing. The book also goes on to describe the decline and suicide of Dr. Hemingway and what Mrs. Hemingway did after he did (which is develop another career as a painter and speaker). The book does not deal with Hemingway’s suicide because he probably hadn’t done so when the book was written.

Ernest Hemingway is a minor character in this book, so it’s not a biography of his except tangentally. I enjoyed it, though, but I am into turn-of-the-twentieth-century memoirs (I mean, I’ve read Clarence Day’s Life with Father twice). So I would have read it even if it wasn’t about Hemingway if it had come into my hands, but I expect it wouldn’t have been published–nor even written–if the woman had not been Hemingway’s sister.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (2004)

Book coverThis book is a neat little Barnes and Noble printing of the classic. It’s a hardback but it’s the size of a paperback, and the text size is not too small to be readable, so this fits in with my hardback snobbery but also suits my recent drive for portability and carry books. And, apparently, it’s from a series of classic titles in this format. So I might have another set to start collecting, but I don’t remember seeing many of them in the wild.

At any rate, this is the original story of Frankenstein and his monster. By original, I mean the original text; the introduction mentions that an edition in Shelley’s lifetime reduced some of the more radical elements of it; however, to a reader in the era of Obama, there’s nothing particularly radical in the text. Maybe an edition in my lifetime would remove some elements of Victor Frankenstein’s drive for knowledge and education. But I digress.

The story began as a tale Shelley told her companions while they were vacationing in Switzerland. She finished it as a book, and it was pretty popular. It’s set in the early years of the nineteenth century; that is, the early 1800s, within memory of the American Revolution and the French Revolution and the Romantic movement in literature. A frame story deals with a man writing letters to his sister in England. The man wanted to find a northern passage and to explore the Arctic, so he travelled to Scandinavia and found the heartiest travellers he could to man a ship. As they plow ahead into the northern ice fields and run into trouble, they see a guy go by on a dogsled. Then, later, another man comes along on a dogsled. This second is Frankenstein, and he’s pursuing the life he created to the ends of the earth. Frankenstein is weak, so they take him aboard the ship and he relates his story to the captain, who has longed for a companion who shares his drive for knowledge.

The tale of Frankenstein is related in the letters told in the first person as Victor Frankenstein discusses his education, his study of natural sciences, and he pursuit of lost knowledge of animating life through chemical and electrical processes. He grows haggard as he pursues his goal of creating life, and then one day in his rented rooms in a boarding house, he does so. He then becomes upset about what he’s done and swoons; when he awakens, the thing he created is gone. Frankenstein returns home to the murder of his young brother and the execution of a family ward for the deed–although Frankenstein suspects it was the monster.

The story switches to the first person account of the monster, which is bigger and stronger than a man, but ugly. When it encounters regular people, it is attacked and feared. It hides out at the farm of a down-on-their-luck family with a romantic political back story of its own. He learns language and quite a bit from watching this family and begins to help them out while hiding from their sight until he decides to approach the blind patriarch to befriend him and thus, hopefully, the family. As the monster befriends the old man, the other family members return home and immediately fall upon him. The monster flees and vows revenge upon all mankind.

The monster finds Frankenstein on one of the gentleman’s restorative hikes in the Alps and relates this story and offers to stay his hand if Frankenstein will create a mate for the creature. Frankenstein assents, and then starts his study and work to redo the processes, but at the last minute, at a remote outpost, he destroys all the work because he cannot be sure the monster will keep his word and out of fears that the monster and its mate might procreate.

So the monster takes his revenge by killing those close to Frankenstein, which leads to Frankenstein’s vow to kill the monster. And the pursuit in the Arctic.

The story is pretty interesting, although it moves at a pace slower than many modern readers would enjoy patiently. I know I looked a couple of times to see how far I was into the book and to see how much was left. The characters are pretty interesting and sympathetic–even the monster is until he starts killing people and seeking revenge for his life, but even then I could see why he was driven to it. So it offers a lot of depth to the story you don’t get on screen and in the comic books.


Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck (1962)

Book coverIt has been over a decade since I’ve been really in a John Steinbeck phase; about fifteen years ago, I read Tortilla Flat, Cup of Gold, The Winter of Our Discontent, and Of Mice and Men in quick succession. I’ve since read The Long Valley. And although there are a couple of Steinbeck books on my shelves (East of Eden and Cannery Row), it had been years since I picked up a Steinbeck, which is odd since he’s classic literature that I like to intersperse with the Executioner novels that are my normal fare. So I finally picked up this book.

This book is written twenty years after those prime novels listed above. By the early 1960s, John Steinbeck is John Steinbeck; instead of California, he lives in New York and is known about town and about the country. He decides to get into a camper and drive around the country with his dog Charley. This slender volume is the result of that effort.

On the one hand, as I read this book, I recognized the stylistic influence Steinbeck had on modern prose, including the literate pulp of the latter twentieth century. As I read, I could easily think that John D. MacDonald or Travis McGee was narrating the adventure.

On the other hand, the focus of the book and the theme are a bit underwhelming. I’ve mentioned before a couple of the things of note (Inside a Certain Mindset with John Steinbeck and Layers and Layers of Fact Checkers Circa 1962). The book has a couple of incidents where Steinbeck recounts his interaction with people–a family of French Canadian migrant harvesters in Maine, a New Englander he has into his camper for coffee; veterinarians who take care of Charley along the way. He also has a couple of places where he waxes on places he visits, including several pages of glowing on Wisconsin. However, the book itself dwells mostly on Steinbeck’s seemingly unrelated musings on Life and the Big Questions. The final segment of the journey, natch, is a journey through the South and musing on the Race Question, including a segment where Steinbeck talks to an older white man for a bit and then picks up a black man walking along the road to uncomfortably interrogate the reluctant sample of the Negro population.

So the book was an enjoyable read because of Steinbeck’s prose, but I found it head-shakingly fatuous at times. So it’s worth reading if you like Steinbeck, but it doesn’t really convey much in the sense of what America was like in the early 1960s. It’s more about what Steinbeck was like in the early 1960s.

Books mentioned in this review:

Politician Cackles, Rubs Hands Together, Explains How She Duped And Manipulated Her Constituents

Apparently, Claire McCaskill has a book coming out. In it, she gleefully explains how she duped voters in 2012:

It was early July in 2012 when Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and her top campaign strategists launched “Operation Dog Whistle,” a secret scheme designed to help arch-conservative Todd Akin win that year’s GOP Senate primary.

McCaskill knew that Akin, then a St. Louis County congressman, would be her weakest opponent in the general election, someone easily portrayed as extreme and prone to controversial statements.

The centerpiece of McCaskill’s unconventional strategy? A TV ad blitz that appeared to attack Akin as a fringe candidate but also promoted him as a “true conservative.” She wanted the message “pitched in such a way that it would only be heard by a certain group of people” — conservative voters most likely to turn out for the GOP primary, hence the dog whistle reference.

Swell. I said as much at the time (probably because I read someone smarter than me on the Internet).

I suppose people who actually buy copies of this book will lurve how the savvy Senator tricks the Republican primary voters into doing her will. I wonder how often those who applaud the politicos’ and leaders’ gulling the unwary fail to think that the same people might be gulling them. Probably not a lot, because they think they’re on the same team as the elected officials, and they’re often not. The elected officials are on their own team.

I, on the other hand, find it a bit frightening how easily a Senator will reveal her tricks in deceiving some of the people she represents–although not her voters–and how pleased her voters will be with her advisors’ ploys.

It demonstrates an overt lack of respect for fellow citizens that might eventually lead to a bad, bad end.

Book Report: Easy-to-Make Tables and Chairs (1975)

Book coverI’m a little behind in my book reports. I read this book shortly after I read Sunset Woodworking Projects (in early July), but I’ve not yet written a book report on it. BECAUSE I’M LAZY. Or busy.

At any rate, this book dates from the middle 1970s instead of the late 1960s, and we can see the movement from the old time woodworking book to the more modern way of doing it (step by step, more pictures) fashion that you see in modern books and magazines. Unfortunately, the pictures and the projects also come from the middle 1970s.

As it indicates, the book focuses on tables and chairs. The easier projects are simple things, such as a temporary chair stuffed with balloons or backless seats that are fabric over inner tubes (sadly, no projects for tables made from wire spools covered with fabric, but I suspect they were so prevalent that the authors assumed everyone already had one). Some of the other projects include more elaborate pedestal tables and whatnot, so the book covers a variety of skill levels.

Most of the stuff is beyond my skill level, possibly including balloon chairs. But it would be a good idea book for woodworkers with some seasoning.

Books mentioned in this review:

Layers and Layers of Fact Checkers circa 1962

From John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, p56:

     I had working for me a Filipino man, a hill man, short and dark and silent, of the Maori people perhaps. Once, thinking he must have come from a tribal system which recognizes the unseen as a part of reality, I asked this man if he was not afraid of the haunted place, particularly at night. He said he was not afraid because years before a witch doctor gave him a charm against evil spirits.
     “Let me see that charm,” I asked.
     “It’s words,” he said. “It’s a word charm.”
     “Can you say them to me?”
     “Sure,” he said and he droned, “In nomine Patris et Fillii et Spiritus Sancti.”
     “What does it mean?” I asked.
     “He raised his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a charm against evil spirits so I am not afraid of them.”
     I’ve dredged this conversation out of a strange-sounding Spanish but there is no doubt of his charm, and it worked for him.

Brothers and sisters, we with the modern science of the 21st Century recognize that Maori are not native to the Philippines (they’re native to New Zealand). Perhaps Steinbeck is thinking of the Moro, who are from the Philippines, but they’re Muslim. So I’m not sure whether witch doctors would teach them to say “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Is Steinbeck calling a Catholic priest a witchdoctor, or does he just not know? I don’t know.

The Spanish might have been strange sounding because, if the fellow in question is a hill man from the Philippines, Spanish might be his second language.

I’m having difficulty knowing whether some of the ignorance he displays in this book is for effect or not. I’m leaning toward not.

Inside a Certain Mindset with John Steinbeck

From Travels with Charley, page 25:

American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash–all of them–surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. In this, id in no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index. Driving along I thought how in France or Italy every item of these thrown-out things would have been saved and used for something. This is not said in criticism of one system or the other but I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness–chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk into the sea.

From Travels with Charley, page 27:

There are so many modern designs for easy living. On my boat, I had discovered the aluminum, disposable coooking utensils, frying pans, and deep dishes. You fry a fish and throw the pan overboard. I was well equipped with these things.

In two pages, he goes from lamenting (in the standard lament) consumer packaging and waste to admitting, when confronted with a mess in his trailer of unsecured reusable goods, that he sort of prefers the disposable stuff on his boat.

I am not convinced he’s aware that he’s juxtaposed these things, and I don’t think he’s doing it to admit he’s as guilty as everyone else. Maybe it’s too subtle for me.

The Wisdom of Victor Frankenstein (I)

As a child, I had not been content with the results promised by the modern professors of natural science. With a confusion of ideas only to be accounted for by my extreme youth, and my want of a guide on such matters, I had retrod the steps of knowledge along the paths of time, and exchanged the discoveries of recent enquirers for the dreams of forgotten alchemists. Besides, I had a contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. It was very different when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the enquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.

From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Related music:

Book Report: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (1962)

Book coverThis book collects a series of essays Lewis wrote for a local periodical. Perhaps essays is the wrong word, as they are letters from a superior demon in Hell’s bureaucracy writing to a nephew who’s a n00b field agent in the temptation service. Screwtape, the author of the letters, offer various advice on how Wormwood, the nephew, should proceed to better tempt the young British man of the World War II era into going to hell. Spoiler alert: It’s not Hitler or anything. Most of the temptations are not those to great crimes but rather to misdemeanors of self-centeredness, self-aggrandizement, and disbelief.

The essays are chock full of good insight into the foibles of human nature, the lies we tell ourselves, and how we relate to one another, particularly the danger of factions in churches and in superiority derived from beliefs (even amongst Christians). The book also explicitly states that congregational churches lend themselves to this easier than parochial churches and why this is more appealing to casual, unreflective believers. Its something that follows, but something I hadn’t thought much about.

The second part of the book, “Screwtape Proposes A Toast”, covers the way modernism and modern education erode the structure of morality and civilization. Given that the book is fifty years old, Lewis saw some of the effects of then-new and partially obscured trends and drives and how they would play out in the future. And so they have. Sadly.

At any rate, even if you’re not a Christian, you can certainly unmask or be reminded of some bad habits you might engage in or some elevated thinking you should probably rein in. At only 172 pages, it’s a pretty easy, engageable read and worth your time.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Dragonslayer by Wayland Drew (1981)

Book coverThis book is the novelization of the 1981 film of the same name. In it, an unauthorized party from a land benighted by a dragon comes to the last remaining sorceror for help. Every six months, the kingdom sacrifices a young woman to the old dragon to keep it from rampaging. At the sorceror’s tower, though, a military group from the kingdom catch up with the unauthorized group and kill the sorceror. The sorceror’s apprentice and undertake the journey and catch up with the aid-seekers in their retreat.

And then go on to fight the dragon and win, eventually, of course.

The book has an interesting element in it: the rise of Christianity in Europe replacing the old magic systems. The book takes place in an unidentified region in Europe at the rise of European civilization, and the town nearest the dragon’s lair has a new Christian missionary in town who converts people as the dragon’s menace continues. The sorceror’s apprentice doesn’t decide to go onto becoming a sorceror–after the death of his master, there’s no one to teach him and he prefers the world rather than the books–so the book muses on the transition between the old ways and the new. It’s a pretty even-handed treatment of it; in the 21st century, there’d be a lot more handwringing about the loss of magic for the fairy tale lies of the church than you get from a book based on a film in 1981.

It’s a good enough read, once it gets going. It’s a slow starter, and of all genres in the world, fantasy is the one whose audience will allow slow, wordy starts. Which this one has.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Sunset Woodworking Projects (1968)

Book coverThis book isn’t your father’s book of woodworking projects; this is your grandfather’s book of woodworking projects. And as we bemoan the tailing off of American education, how schools have made successive generations of American students less educated, we can also bemoan how Americans have gotten less industrious with their hands. Otherwise the whole Maker movement wouldn’t be a hipster movement. It would be what people did on the weekends. Or how people made do with what they had, perhaps.

I digress.

The introduction for this book says it’s for beginning and intermediate woodworkers. As such, it takes until page 19 before you’re building a complete set of drawers from scratch (no store-bought drawer runners, you weakling!). If you open up a 21st century woodworking magazine, you get a complete step-by-step guide that includes images and photographs of how to assemble things each step. In this book, you get a couple paragraphs of copy that includes a description of why you should build the thing and how to build the thing. Then you get a diagram of the cuts and how they fit together. Sometimes, like in this project for building a children’s desk, you also get a pattern for cutting:

Boy, howdy, I am so below woodworking beginner that I can’t even.

At any rate, the book has over 75 different projects of varying degrees of difficulty. There are a number of workbench/table hinged to the wall/stool/bench/toolbox kinds of projects that are pretty standard for this sort of book. There are some simpler things for children, rocking horses, little toys, and the like. Then there are the “what kind of intermediate woodworker can do this?” projects including the aforementioned set of drawers, other furniture, and a foosball table. The things within are all very 1968, but you might get some ideas to try (with things done a little differently in the 21st century).

I picked the book up to browse through just to see if I get any ideas for projects I might try. Someday. And I might. Someday. But not until I master the basics of cleaning my workbench area in the garage.

Another feature of this book’s era is that it mentions on many occasions that you can use power tools if you have them. But the assumption is that power tools are optional. Which matches my workshop, such as it is.

At any rate, I have a large number of Sunset books on my shelves in the garage (even more in 2015 than in 2010). Strangely, I didn’t flip through those before putting them out there. But I bought this book later, so it was on my to-read shelves, so I flipped through this one. Worth my couple of minutes, and definitely more manly than another book on beading.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Warriors: The Rise of Scourge by “Erin Hunter” (2008)

Book coverThis book hits the trifecta of twee: It’s young adult fiction told in manga style featuring street gangs of cats. It’s hard for me to admit I read it, but I did.

Apparently, the Warriors series of books/trilogies is a going thing, with a house name (“Erin Hunter”), a collection of authors doing the actual writing. And in this case, illustration. They’ve hit the New York Times best seller list on occasion, although probably not the adult section that people pay attention to. The series is sort of a Game of Thrones of feline gang wars between different clans of cats and myriad personalities.

This particular volume, a stand alone in a universe rife with multi-parters, deals with the rise of an undersized cat named Tiny. Unloved by his litter mates, he runs away to the city and ends up becoming Scourge, the leader of the BloodClan. He’s the villain in other books, so this is sort of the The Phantom Menace/Attack of the Clones/Revenge of the Sith that describes his rise. And it’s not wholly unsympathetic.

So it’s not really manga; it’s a kid’s book comicked up in the manga style. But it’s about cats. Gangs of cats.

Sigh. I’m really trying to be classically educated here, but sometimes my garage sale purchases lead me down the path of modern American literature.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Nitpickers Guide For Classic Trekkers by Phil Farrand (1994)

Book coverI’ve been working on this book for a number of months as a fill-in book when I sat down and had only a couple of minutes to read, so I needed something quick with short, discrete chapters.

This book is an episode guide of the original Star Trek television series. It follows up the author’s earlier work of similar nature for the Star Trek: The Next Generation series; given that the other was still on television at the time, this would have made the earlier work about the later program more relevant in the marketplace, and its success must have guaranteed at least this reviewed volume. At any rate, each episode listing includes a brief recap of the plot, a detailed list of cuts made when the episode was put into syndication, production goofs, places where the episode went against other episodes, a couple of trivia questions, some places where props are reused, and finally a list of the stills that displayed over the closing credits. Other additional chapters cover the movies, and the action is broken up with some musings on Star Trek and society as well as enumeration of Star Trek tropes.

The fellow watched both the uncut versions (as sold by Paramount in the 1990s) along with syndicated versions recorded off of television to get his cuts section and to get into the nitty gritty of the program. It seems like a whole lot of work to produce an encyclopedia of trivia.

Which I read, albeit slowly, in dribs and drabs. It, like other Star Trek titles, makes me want to watch the original series again. Perhaps when I find it inexpensively at a garage sale. Or, given that I found season 1 of The Next Generation a couple years ago and have yet to watch it, perhaps it will be some years after I find it inexpensively. But probably soon after I read a book like this.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Oleanna by David Mamet (1992)

Book coverThis is a brutal little play. That came out in 1992. Bear that in mind, and even if you don’t, I’ll repeat it: 1992.

The play is a short three act play with only two characters. In Act One, Carol, a student, comes to professor John’s office. She’s failing his class in education and wants help; he’s about to get tenure and about to buy a house with his wife. John’s book, which he teaches, talks about how higher education is a hazing process and might not be necessary, really. She doesn’t get it, really, and he wanders a bit afield in his musings. In Act Two, John has been denied tenure because Carol has filed a report accusing him of making improper advances in their previous meeting. He’s sought to meet with her to clear the air. He explains about wanting tenure even though he’s an iconoclast in Educational education. In Act Three, Carol has become even more militant and throws around a lot of the boilerplate feminist terms; in this third meeting, John has been thrown out by his wife and stands accused of raping Carol. At the end, he beats her and curses her.

The play’s a little ambiguous in whether John really was moving the conversation in the direction of impropriety in Act One, but he’s crazy stressed out about the whole thing, and the purchase of the house and whatnot. Circumstances do seem to set him up, and Carol makes the allegations she does by cherry-picking his words and turning them. I don’t know what to make of the beating, though. Self-fulfilling prophecy in her accusations (although it is simple battery, not rape)? Or does the stress reveal John’s true patriarchic inclinations?

At any rate, remember, this is 1992. Twenty-three years ago, Mamet had a play on the road and in New York (and an eventual film) dealing with political correctness and its corrosive effects. That’s the era when Charlie Sykes was writing The Hollow Men and ProfScam about this very thing. I read both in college, actually. So this is something from when I would have been in school, and it dovetails with what we see now.

And Mamet was writing about it back then. Fascinating.

An okay read, though. Not as good as Glengarry Glen Ross, but what is?

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: The Death of Ivan Ilyick by Leo Tolstoy (1987)

Book coverThis book is pretty short, about 130 pages with 30 some pages of introduction. As I’ve recently rediscovered, one should generally read the introduction to classical literature college textbook editions last. So I did with this book.

Spoiler alert: Ivan Ilyich dies.

The story itself covers the life of Ivan Ilyich briefly, discussing his youth, his entry into government service, his marriage (happy, then tolerated), and his pursuits. One day while preparing his new home in the city for his family, he slips on a ladder and hits his back on a knob. Although he laughs about it at the time, the injury eventually causes his death as some internal damage grows over the course of months. Ivan goes to various doctors and tries various medicines and therapies, but comes to believe he’s dying. As he does, he sees life slipping away and people beginning to move on with their lives without him.

It’s a pretty grim story, and one that resonates with me and threatens to trigger my latent hypochondria. I know exactly what little pains revealed my aunt’s and my mother’s cancers which would kill them in a matter of months. Now I’m going to worry about little bangs when I’m working around the house and floating kidneys.

The introduction gives a brief biography of Tolstoy and then muses on death in literature and philosophy for a length equivalent to a third of the book.

The book itself comes from a university bookstore sometime (although I didn’t get it from one, obviously). As such, it includes someone else’s underlining and marginalia. In this case, a studious student, who underlines metaphors and writes “metaphor” in the margin and who underlines names and writes the relationship to Ivan Ilyich alongside the text, which pretty much gives the relationship in the same sentence. Although my professors encouraged me to “dialog with the text” by marking up my textbooks, I didn’t really enjoy defacing the books that way. Fortunately, this one is not marked up to the point of illegibility.

At any rate, it’s a nice little piece of Existentialist Russian literature, a short read that tackles a subject you don’t get in a lot of books.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Awesome Projects from Unexpected Places edited by Noah Weinstein (2013)

Book coverIn my mind, there’s a line between crafting and Making; I’ve capitalized the m to emphasize the Make movement which is a combination of crafting along with power tools and harder materials. Since many of the projects in this book involve power tools, electricity, and metal, it’s definitely toward the Maker side of the spectrum. You’re not going to do many of these projects at your kitchen table. Most of them require a workshop.

At any rate, the book includes a gamut of projects from embedding objects in an resin tablet top to making a bracelet out of paracords. There are some metal art works, such as a metal flower or metal vases. There are some furniture pieces, including a dining room table made from a recycled bowling alley or a coffee table made from a recycled car tire.

The projects in the book are not junk chic or recycling junk to make new items; some of the projects involve a decent outlay in supplies.

So this wasn’t much what I like to think I do sometimes, but I haven’t done anything of the sort lately. Hopefully checking these books out of the library–before football season even–will inspire me to do something, especially with the junk I’ve already accumulated in the garage.

The projects in this book come from, by the way, so you can head over there to see these and others of their stripe, but not in the handy browseable book format.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Shaman King #17 by Hiroyuki Takei (2008)

Book coverThis book is my very first manga, and this book report is my first chance to make the joke Manga but pawn in game of life, although it could probably have used more setup. I wonder if anyone else has ever made that joke before; however, in lieu of researching it (I mean, searching the Internet for the phrase), I’ll just accept my primacy.

Where was I? Oh, manga.

Well, this is the seventeenth volume in this particular story, so I’ve missed quite a bit. There’s a page of characters in the beginning and a couple of paragraphs of The Story So Far. So, the story: There’s a tournament of shamans in Japan. Every five years, they choose a shaman king, and there’s a tournament to see who it will be. There are a bunch of young sorcerors fighting each other to win; there are some alliances happening, and one of the boy’s father comes to teach something but first fights a couple of them. Then the bad guy allies of one come to fight the couple using dirty tricks. And then there’s a cliffhanger. To be continued in Shaman King #18. I think there are 36 in all.

This ain’t my bag, baby.

For starters, it was definitely odd to read from right to left. Undoubtedly, it is good for my brain to do strange things like that, but. Also, the influence of video games on the art and plots mean it’s full of interludes, combat, reflections on player stats (everyone goes on about one character’s 1,250,000 mana!), and panels that identify some power, attack, or spirit animal by putting it all in capitals amongst an explosion image. Also, the book contains numerable-but-why-count-that-high panels of character reaction shots where the startled characters say, “Huh?” I don’t know how many ways Japanese language has to convey this; maybe a bunch of subtle things have been simplified for English readers. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m not the target audience, either, since I’m not all about the comic art and gauge books on the words and plots. But I’m unimpressed.

I still have three or four of these to go through from my recent purchases, and I’ve been warned not to judge all manga from a single volume of some series, but I’m not that eager to jump into another one. Except they’re short, and I’ll be able to let my son look through them. So I’ll probably knock through the whole bunch by the end of the summer.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: Kickback by Ace Atkins (2015)

Book coverMy beautiful wife saw this book at the library and brought it home for me to read in a hurry, since it’s a new book and is only available for a week checkout. So I did.

Welp, the book is an Ace Atkins Spenser book, and he’s moving more into his style than merely imitating Parker’s here. In the book, Spenser works to investigate the relationship between a judge in a small Massachusetts town who sentences juveniles to a for-profit rehabilitaton facility and the for-profit company running it. Of course, the new mob is involved somehow, although I’m still unclear as to how.

My enjoyment of the book is probably diminished by how soon after the Travis McGee books it came.

Atkins’ style for these books, as I’ve mentioned, seems informed by television; the scenes are television-like scenes of scenery and dialog, and the ending of the book wraps the plot up with an explanatory resolution and then some things that might be woven into a future episode. Or not.

The writing also suffers from a couple other flaws:

  • The reliance on the italicized other point-of-view chapters. Instead of the criminal, though, we get a tangentally related unfolding story of not Spenser’s focal point on the island, but another youth sentenced to the facility for a crime we’re only sort of aware of. His story isn’t fully fleshed out, but it’s included because it gives the book a Youth In Jeopardy storyline so favored in Brandman’s Jesse Stone books and gives the book grounds for a cinematic but otherwise extraneous Spenser swoops in in the nick of time to rescue said youth.
  • Some extraneous wordage, including some repeated things. At the outset of the book, when Spenser’s in his office, there’s a touch of description and interaction with the mother of a teen sent to the institution, and there’s a sentence tacked on that says his Brooklyn Dodger hat and peacoat are hanging by the door. But the sentence is tacked onto an unrelated paragraph. Throughout, we’re told about his Dodgers hat and peacoat over and over. Aside from that, there’s a whole chapter of Spenser meeting someone at a textile museum that adds nothing to the story but does describe the museum in detail. It makes one wonder if the author researched it or visited it and had to throw that in to justify writing the trip off.
  • It lacks the depth of MacDonald’s writing, where the asides add some resonance and muse on the meaning of life aside from the crime story. To be fair to Ace Atkins, Parker’s writing started to skip over those flourishes around the time of his trips to California for the television series Spenser: For Hire.

Is it a good book? Is it a bad book? It’s a modern crime fiction book, and it’s probably not a bad example of the genre. But it’s nothing compared to the paperback originals from fifty years ago.

Books mentioned in this review:

Book Report: A Tan and Sandy Silence and Two Other Great Mysteries by John D. MacDonald (1971?)

Book coverThis book collects three Travis McGee novels from the late 1960s into a single hardback edition. The originals, it should be noted, were in paperback. The three books are A Tan and Sandy Silence, The Long Lavender Look, and Bright Orange for the Shround.

In A Tan and Sandy Silence, McGee investigates the disappearance of an former lover after her husband comes looking for her upon The Busted Flush and tries to kill McGee. Travis discovers a disturbing financial plot, philandering, and a sociopathic French Canadian accountant involved in a land development scheme with the husband. The book also has a subplot about McGee contemplating retirement and marrying a wealthy widow. In The Long Lavender Look, McGee and Meyer find themselves framed for murder in a remote Florida county where they’re mistaken for murderers of a local hoodlum who just got released from prison after his last score. Locals, including some of the police, are on the hunt for the proceeds of the heist. In Bright Orange for the Shroud, a formerly well-to-do acquaintaince finds Travis and eventually tells of how his new wife involved him in a land development swindle that picked him clean. McGee tries to recover some of the money from the swindlers and finds a backwoods badman of which nightmares are made.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a McGee book (actually, it’s only been four years since I read The Turquoise Lament). It seems like longer, though, because I tore through these in high school and have not made a concerted effort to re-read them since (unlike the Spenser series, which I last read through from start to finish about fifteen years ago–there were a lot fewer to get through fifteen years ago). So after a little taste of MacDonald with End of the Tiger and Other Stories, I picked up this collection I had standing around. And I’ve rediscovered how much I like this series.

There’s action and interesting plots that we discover along with McGee (remember when this was a thing–that the reader discovered the plot along with the protagonist instead of having the bad guys have their own chapters in italics so everything was clearer at the outset? Modern readers must lack patience, or authors fear the old people who still read books might die off before seeing their genius machinations at the end of the 400-page thriller). The books are at times a bit wordy, a bit musing, but the passages include digressions such as this from A Tan and Sandy Silence:

I went below, turned on a few lights, built a drink, ran a thumb down the stack of tapes, picked Eydie, and chunked her into the tape player and fixed volume.

Eydie has comforted me many times in periods of stress. She has the effortlessness of total professionalism. She is just so damned good that people have not been able to believe she is as good as she is. She’s been handed a lot of dull material, some of it so bad that even her best hasn’t been able to bring it to life. She’s been mishandled, booked into the right places at the wrong time, the wrong places at the right time. But she can do every style and do it a little better than the people who can’t do any other. Maybe a generation from now those old discs and tapes of Eydie will be the collectors’ joy, because she does it all true, does it all with pride, does it all with heart.

So I settled back and listened to her open her throat and let go, backed by Trio Los Panchos, Mexican love songs in flawless Mexican Spanish.

Twenty five years later, and I know what he’s talking about.

At any rate, the asides, philosophical musings, and bits of self doubt have more depth in them than the similar things you find in the Don Pendleton Executioner novels; given how Pendleton’s paperback originals came after MacDonald’s, I can’t help wonder if the former didn’t directly influence the latter.

I didn’t remember much from these books–the subplot from A Tan and Sandy Silence being the thing I remembered the most–I should really look back to this series and reread it for pleasure. Although I’ve got few of them on my to-read shelves, and I feel obligated for the most part to hit those before returning to books that I actually enjoy. So maybe I’ll get lucky and find some other omnibus editions in the book sales of Springfield sometime soon. Of course, I have plenty of other MacDonald paperbacks to read, and my recent experience has reiterated that they’re worth my while.

Books mentioned in this review: