Book Report: Shadows Over Baker Street edited by Michael Reeves and John Pelan (2003)

This book will cost you 1d6 SAN. You have Sherlock Holmes and related characters, the poster children for reason, thrust into the world of Lovecraft, where irrationality and things beyond reason rule. You really cannot reconcile the two; the things that go bump in the cosmos win, and it’s ultimately not comforting.

As a collection of short stories written by different authors using the same characters, the different treatments are jarring. In one, Holmes and Watson are action heroes, for crying out loud, having a shootout in the London sewers with a bad guy carrying an unmounted Gatling gun. That would have been kinda heavy, don’t you think?

Still, the book is worth a couple of bucks for the concept and the better stories, but ultimately, it’s not good Holmes and it’s not good Lovecraft.

Books mentioned in this review:

Internet Geekery Lets Me Down

So I did an image search for cylon assimilated borg, and I don’t get a picture of an old school centurion with paraphernalia.

I thought that maybe, just maybe, someone would have created an image in 1997 or something that combined the two motifs, back before “cylon” was merely a hot chick in a tight dress or battle uniform. Oh, but no.

I hope you all feel ashamed of yourselves.

Book Report: Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas (1993)

Porch Girl posted a This Day In History bit about La noche triste, a night where the Aztecs almost wiped out Cortes and his crew. Huh, I though, that’s not something I’m familiar with, and it’s definitely something begging a historical essay, so I ran right out and grabbed this 600 page academic tome about the conquest of the Mexica.

This is an excellent book on the subject. I mean, the author’s completely in the bag for the Aztecs (he saves his most poetic language for describing the glories of the human sacrifice, what he calls the “astonishing, often splendid, and sometimes beautiful barbarities” on p24) and he’s as pink as farm raised salmon (his previous books are The Spanish Civil War and The History of the Cuban Revolution, he makes a point of saying that winning wars without fighting are notable goals of Clausewitz and Lenin–but no mention of that Sun Tzu guy, and he muses that the conquistadores must have called each other comrade). But he merely weights things that support his idea; he includes a lot of detail and does not omit things which would counter his bias, so someone not like him–like me–could make other inferences from the data.

Now, onto the story.

Most history books mostly gloss over the conquest of Mexico, turning it into a very simple tale of Spain pillaging the New World again, this time swapping the name Cortes for Columbus or Pizarro. Still, the story is much more than a morality play where the Western power is bad and the natives are blissful.

The Mexica, as Thomas calls them, were a nation built on winning at wars and getting tribute from conquered tribes. They had conquered everything within a reasonable march from their capital excepting those pesky Tarascans who used metal in their weapons (the Aztecs used stone knives and spearpoints). Each leader, elected from a pool of aristocrats, got a bit more lavish with the lifestyle, and by the time Montezuma rolled in, the city of Tenochtitlan was huge and sprawling and, did I mention, totally dependent upon tribute from conquered tribes around them for its lifestyle. I’ll be frank, the picture Thomas paints shows me an empire on the edge of collapse, Spanish arrival or not. I think the Aztecs ended up being remembered, instead of the Olmecs or the Chichimecs or the Totonacs, because they got conquered by the Spanish.

And let’s not forget the human sacrifices. By the 1520s, the priests were killing ever-increasing number of war captives and people sent to the city as tribute. Maybe the gods were building up a tolerance or something. Thomas tries to tell us how the natives could think of no greater destiny than to die atop a pyramid and to have their bodies cast down the steps and how the subjects of the sacrifices ultimately weren’t in pain because they were whacked out on pulque or peyote.

Thomas, of course, points out that the Aztecs didn’t own slaves as such, and that all the tribesmen who carried the tribute hundreds of miles over mountains and through deserts were volunteers who just wanted to see Tenochtitlan. And maybe be sacrificed.

So that’s the situation when the Spanish show up. Which wasn’t sudden, mind you. Ships appeared off of the coast for years and even landed a couple times. By the time Cortes lands, a couple previous expeditions had visited Yucatan and even Aztec areas and had fought battles with the natives. But Montezuma didn’t prepare. When Cortes lands, Montezuma, the great Aztec leader, behaves like Hamlet, consulting astrologers, not acting, consulting priests, not acting, weeping because he’s doomed, sending gifts to the Spaniards but asking them to stay away from the capital, claiming he cannot meet with Cortes because he’s sick, and doing everything but planning to handle the Spanish expedition precisely.

On the other hand, the Spanish are a developed society with conscience decrying the treatment of the natives and legal mechanisms for control. Also, they work the iron. Thomas tries to place the two civilizations on equal footing (as do many historians, I wager). However, featherwork, a good calendar, and pretty colors painted on humans whose hearts are going to be ripped out are not really a match for the wheel and iron.

Contrary to the short shrift Cortes gets in more summary and cursory historical textbooks, the outcome of the expedition was potentially in doubt throughout. Cortes landed with only 300 men, after all, and not only had to contend with millions of natives, but also with courtly politics and the governor of Cuba who wanted to thwart Cortes. Cortes wanted to capture/dominate the city of Tenochtitlan without a battle and without destruction, perhaps introducing the Venice of the West to Christianity and certainly to exploit its riches. However, the initial plan doesn’t work, culminating in the death of Montezuma, la noche triste, and the assault on Tenochtitlan. Even then Cortes wanted to capture it intact and only ended up burning much of it as a last resort.

The book was quite the eye-opener and really was well done. As I said, even though Thomas favors the Aztecs a bit, he provides the data that can lead to other interpretations (unlike, say, the Oxford History of Mexico, which devotes only a chapter to the conquest, discards contemporaneous Spanish sources as biased, and uses its authors’ own “logic” to suss out the way it really happened almost five hundred years ago). The book lags when it gets into the courtly politics involved and goes into elaborate genealogies of everyone involved. But I cannot but recommend it if you’re interested in this event at all.

Also, personally speaking, this book re-energized my cultural chauvinism. The closer cultures are to American culture, the better. I mean, how can you defend a culture that does this?

What was necessary, in the meantime, was a suitable appeasement of Tlaloc, the rain god. He had to be given food, precious objects, people, chlidren (small, like the little Tlalocs who were believed to wait on the chief god of that name), in a series of festivals. The children had to cry, in order to indicate to the god exactly what was required; and to achieve this, their nails were often drawn out and thrown into the lake monster Ahuitzol, who usually lived from the nails of drowned persons. (Thomas 332)

Brothers and sisters, that’s a culture that needs to be put down. Heather informs me that, in biblical times, tribes like this were completely obliterated instead of conquered, introduced to superior technologies, and Catholicized. Remember, according to some theories of moral calculus, if it saves one child, it’s worth any price! so the conquest of the new world by the old was good.

That being said, one final note: in addition to making me want to read other accounts, including Bernal Diaz de Castillos contemporaneous account, I had the urge to watch Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto; since I don’t have that handy, I’ll have to settle for Firewalker, which, as a man, I must own. Also, the book gave me the urge to play Civilization IV so I could take a turn pasting the Aztecs, which I did.

Books mentioned in this review:

Right-Wing Polemic Books Are Pornography; Left-Wing Polemics Are Michelangelo’s David

Broad-minded St. Louis Post-Dispatch blogger compares Obama Nation and Unfit Command to pornography, building a facile syllogism to support his metaphor.

No comment on McCain or Bush hatchet jobs, and the author says he doesn’t read the books because he doesn’t like peep shows, either.

Except that, of course, the books offer ideas instead of naked pictures. But the Post-Dispatch intelligentsia doesn’t need to actually read books to tut-tut the wrong thinking within them, doesn’t need to actually answer arguments when –hey! Look! Straw man!

I don’t care for the books myself because they tend to be facile and unconvincing. Kind of like Post-Dispatch analysis.

Good Book Hunting: August 13, 2008

Oops, I did it again.

Today, the J had its book fair in the same room as in past years, but this year the room seemed dimmer. The books certainly were in great disarray, making it hard to browse quickly in the near-dark. However, I managed to find a few just fine:

J 2008 book fair results
Click for full size

I got:

  • The Good War by Studs Terkel, memories of men who served.
  • Back to the Future Part II, the movie tie in. I think I have the first already, but given this pile of books, who knows?
  • A CSI television show tie-in book. It’s a surprise gift for my mother. Don’t tell her.
  • True Grit, the novel upon which the movie was based or the novelization thereof. I just read Rooster Cogburn, don’t forget.
  • The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the source for The Sound of Music.
  • Bill McCllellan’s book. He’s a communist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Oops, did I slip Freudianly?
  • Wilderness Survival and the U.S. Army Survival Manual because that Georgia-Russian War is making me nervous.
  • World of Shakespeare: Plants, a book that alphabetically lists plants and their references in Shakespeare. You know you would have bought it, too.
  • History of the Franks, a paperback about the forebearers of the French.
  • The Wall by Sartre, a collection of short stories including the title piece.
  • Ontological Relativity and other essays, a couple of lectures by a philosopher I’d never heard of.
  • Two Essays on Analytical Psychology by Carl Jung. Since I’ve had another thin volume by Jung on my shelves for a decade, I thought maybe I’d get it company for the next decade.
  • Life in Medieval Times, one of those books that tries to tease out the day to day in a historical epoch.
  • An uncorrected proof of The Septembers of Shiraz, a book set in Iran near the revolution. Its, not ours.
  • Weeds of the North Central States so I know what I’m pulling.
  • This Way To The Stars, a juvenile book from the 50s or 60s talking about space. Probably launched many a dream and a couple of scientists or astronauts.
  • Foxfire 2, a book in the series about crafts and olden times. See Georgia-Russian War above.
  • Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing, the screenplays by the Coen brothers.
  • Gracie: A Love Story by George Burns. I hope I don’t already have this one. With so many, I’m losing track.
  • Monarch of Deadman Bay, a book about an Alaskan Kodiak bear. As opposed to the Californian Kodiak, I suppose.
  • Free Market Environmentalism, a book about applying actual economic thought to environmentalism. Never heard of it? I suppose that means its arguments are valid.
  • In Search of History, Theodore H. White’s personal story of being an intrepid reporter.
  • Anglo-Saxon England. It leads right up to the conquest.
  • George F. Kennan’s Memoirs. I read his book American Diplomacy 1900-1950 in September, 2005.
  • The Wisdom of Confucious.
  • The Morning After, a collection of George Will columns from 1981-1986.
  • Frontiers II by Isaac and Janet Asimov. Asimov’s last nonfiction work details scientific breakthroughs ca. 1993.
  • Always the Young Stangers, prose by Carl Sandburg.
  • The Way Things Work volumes one and two.
  • Relativity by Albert Einstein.
  • Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts.
  • Extraterrestrial Civilizations by Isaac Asimov. Musings on the likelihood of others being out there.
  • America: What Went Wrong. As its title suggests, it will probably offend me.
  • Jefferson Himself, a sort of autobiography of Thomas Jefferson.
  • Anybody’s Bike Book, a book about bike repair.
  • Dictatorship of Virtue, which takes multiculturalism to task.
  • America’s First Civilization, a book covering the Olmecs.

Heather’s 4 books are to the right and on the bottom of the stack. Apparently, the top 3 are not hers; instead, they were a stack on the checkout table too close to the gravitational field of our stack and came home with us.

Depicted to the left is my new copy of Conquest, which I am almost finished reading in a library copy. I liked it so much, I ordered one online.

Man, the book fair next week will probably be about all the books I’ll ever need. I was afraid of going to the J because I’m running out of space, seriously, on my shelves. My fears were well founded. I’m going to have to develop modular book-based furniture to fit more books into our home.

Sang-Froid and Roy

Sorry, no post, but I just saw the expression sang-froid in a book and thought of all the wonderful puns I could use as post titles if possible. Since it’s looking impossible in the near term, I’ll just do a post dumping them for you:


And rest assured I will use it in a sentence today. And a two-year-old will parrot it back, much to my delight.

Good Book Hunting: August 9, 2008

So I was saying something about not taking children to book fairs or something, and suddenly I read that the People for the Ethical Treatment of People or the St. Louis Ethical Society or whatever the secular humanists, the moral subgroup of the loft people, call themselves was having its book fair. Last year, it was a pretty small affair but fruitful according to my acquisitive nature. This year, it proved smaller, small enough to go through before the children got too many stroller sores, but fruitful enough:

Ethical Society Book Fair II
Click for full size

I got:

  • Several volumes of the History of Philosophy paperback set. I already owned a number of them but couldn’t remember which ones I lacked, so I bought them all. Turns out I only added one to my collection and a large number of duplicates. Gimlet, if you want the dupes, they’re yours.
  • Reflections of Friendship, kind of like Be Happy!, but with only landscapes and not 70s people to mock.
  • Countdown to Super Bowl, a book about the time the Jets went to the Super Bowl with Joe Namath at the head. Uh oh, ultimately, this might be a heartbreaking harbinger.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings by Oscar Wilde.
  • Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, the movie paperback. Because, well, you know me.
  • The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, even though Mrs. Noggle has assured me that it’s included in the compendium of C.S. Lewis writing that she gave me which I’ve obviously not paid enough attention to.
  • Thereby Hangs a Tale by Charles Earle Funk, a fun etymology book.
  • The Outsider by Colin Wilson.
  • My Cat Spit McGee, a book about a guy’s pet cat. Masculinity–.
  • Love Poems by Anne Sexton.
  • What’s the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank.
  • Piers Plowman.
  • One Way to Reconstruct the Scene. A slender volume of poetry, if I recall correctly.
  • Letters Volume I by Matthew Arnold. Brother, if you can buy a 100 year old book by a poet for a dollar, you just do it.
  • The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. A second printing, it might replace another early printing if I can figure out which is older.
  • Murder at the ABA by Isaac Asimov. I read this, probably in middle school. Still, the man wrote himself into one of his mysteries, but only as a minor character. Amusing.
  • The Elric Saga Part I by Michael Moorcock. I think some people have said this is good. It has to be better than The Black Corridor or An Alien Heat. Doesn’t it?
  • Invisible Prey by John Sandford.
  • Dumbth by Steve Allen. A book about how America is dumbing down. By Steve Allen. So you know this isn’t a new concern.
  • Looking Good in Print and Publication Design text books about designing for print.

Additionally, I got The Three Amigos and Fletch Lives! on videocassette. Mrs. Noggle scored 15 sets of records in the Beethoven Centennial series, some Cooking Light magazines, another record with trumpet music, and some cassettes.

A good trip again this year, and brief, but not brief enough, really, for J2, who thinks the car seat is a torture device.

Book Report: Phantom Prey by John Sandford (2008)

A bad John Sandford book is better than any Ridley Pearson book I’ve read. Of course, I’ve only read one Pearson book, and this isn’t a bad book, just not Sandford’s best. However, I got to deploy hyperbole, and that’s what matters to a Web log.

This book delves into Goth subculture, something mocked on Saturday Night Live when Will Ferrell was still on it, for crying out loud. When I founded a magazine in 1994, my art editor was a Goth. So he’s not exactly delving into a cutting edge subculture here. Now, death amongst the Disco Revivalist Cults, that would be cutting edge. So an old white dude delving into a subculture of whom I’ve known members sort of made me wonder if he knew what he was talking about in writing it. Then, of course, I thought maybe he knew more than I did since I only knew goths a long time ago.

Ah, well. I figured some of it out early, clued in by the fact that the person above suspicion and the suspect both had really good asses. Yes, that’s how they were described. This book struck me as more tawdry of Sandford’s work, wherein he enters Parkerian territory of the main character being irresistable to all attractive members of the opposite sex, he imagines it, and then he goes home to his significant other (wife in this case). But the discussion of sex and the bawdy talk sort of sticks out in this one.

So there looks like there’s going to be a plot twist, but ultimately it takes the Chandlerian plot turn into interconnected crimes of the rich and the insane, and the one saving twist I was expecting wasn’t there. Finally, we get to the end, where someone who could have gotten clear decides to kill Davenport, leading to the ultimate climax that also makes a major unrelated subplot relevant in that it explains how Davenport survives.

So it’s not the best of Sandford, but it’s good enough. It moves along and works in ways that Pearson does not, and sometimes an attempted writer (me) ought to see the good and the not good in stark relief like this.

And this book, since I got it from the book club, is fresh and it only cost me $.20 plus $30 shipping and handling, so it was a steal so long as I don’t do the math.

Books mentioned in this review:

Slightly Adulterated

You know the song “Love Machine” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles?

It just doesn’t sound right to me without sighing hens.

It Would Shock You If You Didn’t Expect It

Terry Teachout on Raymond Chandler’s speaking voice:

Only one recording of Raymond Chandler’s speaking voice survives, a BBC interview conducted with Chandler in 1958 by none other than Ian Fleming. You can listen to it by going here. If you do so, you’ll be staggered to learn that the creator of Philip Marlowe sounds…well, wimpy.

Not if you’ve read any of his letters or his biography. Fellow was a total anglophile prone to wearing gloves and not shaking hands because he thought it was barbaric. That he sounds more Capote than Hemingway is not surprising at all.

Great Moments in Police Professionalism

Wellston police scuffle; guns drawn:

A brawl between the newly chosen city police chief and his ousted predecessor resulted in guns being drawn on Friday and the mayor requiring medical attention for trying to intercede, police said.

The new police chief was named about four days ago, said Pine Lawn Police Chief Rickey Collins, whose department is investigating at the request of the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney’s office.

The two men began pushing and shoving each other about 3 p.m in a meeting room inside Wellston’s City Hall. Collins said he did not know what they argued about, though he said the former police chief recently had been demoted to assistant chief.

Guns were pulled during the scuffle, but no shots were fired, Collins said.

Respect for law and order takes another hit.