Book Report: Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1933, ?)

Book coverWow, how time flies. It’s been September since I read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. I don’t know where that time has gone, but I guess I have read or finished 27(!) books since then. Which is weird because I don’t vividly remember a bunch of them. I mean, I see the titles and remember what the books were about, but I don’t remember them as having read them this year in particular. Some years, I remember a couple of books easily that I read, and I have to look again at the tally to remember the books. The Little House series are going to be the ones I remember easily from 2018. And probably 2019.

At any rate, this book deals with Almanzo Wilder as a nine-year-old boy and his experiences on his father’s farm in New York State. The Wilders are not vagabonds like the Ingalls family; they have a well-established farm with lots of livestock and acres under plow, and Mr. Wilder is a known and important man in his community. The book follows the pattern of the other books, starting in winter and following the seasons through planting, growing, and harvest. The book details how the farmers worked in those days and offers important life lessons in money management and growth. And it’s from a boy’s perspective; although the point-of-view in the books focused on Laura and her sisters doesn’t dwell too much on their being girls and this one does not completely toxically masculine, but there is a difference–and Almanzo has brothers and sisters, so the family dynamic is different.

So a fun book, a quick read, and it might very well be the first book that my boys and I have all read (not counting books that I read to them). They each read it in fifth grade leading up to a visit to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home which is nearby (and, I have learned, I know people with firsthand knowledge of Mrs. Wilder and her life there). Hopefully, the boys and I will eventually read other books in common. Of course, now that I think of it, we might have all read a collection of cartoons or a joke book, since they raid my shelves for that sort of material from time to time. But that’s neither here nor there.

Now I need to find the rest of my collection so I can once again determine the gaps and fill them in so I can complete the series.

Good Book Hunting, December 8, 2018: Publishers’ Warehouse, Osage Beach, Missouri

This weekend, our youngest son participated in a robotics competition in Camdenton, Missouri, which is about an hour and a half away from Nogglestead. Instead of getting up at a very early hour to have him at the competition at 7:15 am, we took lodging in Osage Beach, Missouri, for the weekend. Osage Beach is one of the communities on Lake of the Ozarks, another one of the large dam-created lakes in Missouri that filled in valleys and made lots of lakefront property. However, December is not the peak tourism season for Osage Beach, so we essentially had the place to ourselves.

While the lad did his robotics thing, we did our normal visiting-a-new-place thing: look for book stores.

The area does not abound with book stores. The only we could find within thirty miles was a Publishers’ Warehouse at the outlet mall. Which we visited, and I was pleased to discover they had a $1 book cart (just like Hooked on Books, but with newer books).

I got a couple.

I got:

  • Seaworthy, another book about being on the ocean by Linda Greenlaw. I’ve been picking them up since I read The Lobster Chronicles, but I haven’t read another. I should rectify this soon, since I probably have the whole set.
  • Saint Odd, the last (?) of the Odd Thomas novels. I have not read the one that precedes it (Deeply Odd), but I am current to Odd Apocalypse. I bought this one since I’ll need it after I get that book and read it, so why not save? Although I did pay more than a dollar for this book.
  • Contemporary Mosaics, what I thought to be a modern art book collection about mosaics, but as I started to browse
  • Painted Treasures, which I thought was a book about painted objects, I discovered this book is a collection of how-to projects for how you can recreate the painted objects. The book was published by the parent company of Writers Digest which has a number of art books in its stable, but this is the first painting project book I’ve looked at. So perhaps the mosaics book is about making mosaics as well.

We also got a couple of gifts, and others in the family got fully priced mark down books, so I cannot tell you how much I spent. Maybe ten dollars.

The funny thing was that I did not want to spend a lot of time driving in the darkness, but my trip to Osage Beach was in the darkness Friday night, and we left early this morning from Osage Beach so we could see my beautiful wife sing in a Christmas Cantata at 8am this morning, so what I really did was just split the driving in the darkness by twenty-four hours. Which is okay; I’d never been to Osage Beach before, and it became an adventure with a little book shopping attached.

Book Report: Dammit Bre by Samuel Rikard (2017)

Book coverI bought this book at Library Con this year. As I mentioned, it’s the author’s account of being a single father for his eight-year-old daughter, chock full of incidents and considerations from dating to juggling work and childcare needs. I related to a lot of incidents in the book, and I related to the humble origin story.

The book kind of falters towards the end, where it moves from parenting topics to more general thoughts, but all in all, not a bad effort.

I’ve got the first in his fantasy series around here somewhere. I’ll have to see how he does at fiction.

Book Report: The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth (2016)

Book coverI don’t know where I got this book; it has the markings of a Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library Book Sale, but I don’t see it in the photos from this year. It also has a Barnes and Noble Autographed Copy sticker on the front, so it’s possible I paid full price for it at Barnes and Noble and didn’t take a photo of it. Weird. What is this blog for if not to remind me where I get all these books?

The plot: A showboat similar to the Branson Belle runs aground on Table Rock Lake, and as the local authorities are ferrying the survivors to shore, they discover a murder victim on board. The newly appointed sheriff has to deal with Branson business interests and a blizzard in his investigation.

It’s a standard midlist sort of book, something akin to the Jesse Stone novels from Robert B. Parker.


Boy, howdy, the author, who resides in California, gets a lot of details wrong. It starts when a deputy says that they’re getting some assistance for the boat rescue from the next county. It doesn’t identify which county, which made me wonder about how many details were going to be wrong. Well, not only does it mention that Table Rock Lake is close to freezing–heaven forbid, the lakes down here do not freeze, especially one of the big dam-created lakes like Table Rock. Then, it’s revealed that the sheriff is from Branson County. But Branson is in Taney County. The kids go to Branson Valley high school, which does not exist–in Branson, the kids go to Branson High School. The book refers to 76 as Seventy-six (this is a copy error, not a factual error). There’s a Latino woman saying there’s no Latino community and that people look at her strangely, but, come on, this is not true. When watching the airports for a fleeing suspect, the sheriff talks about the small airport south of town, the Branson airport, and then talks about friends watching the Kansas City and St. Louis airports, but nobody accounts for the Springfield National Airport here in Springfield. The sheriff waits at a convenience store on the corner of Glenstone and Battlefield across from the mall here in Springfield–and there’s no such convenience store. The Springfield Channel 12 reporter–there’s no such station. Oh, and the cold and snow–it’s not typical down here, so people are not that well-equipped for it and it doesn’t tend to last long.

The book has enough errata of this nature to draw one familiar with the area out of the book and perhaps even doubt if the person whodunit really done it.

Which is not to say that she gets all the details wrong–she mentions the twisty drive to Forsyth, and that’s true, especially if you roll through Rockaway Beach, and she talks captures the drive north out of town on 248 pretty well.

Which makes me wonder about how she got some things right, but so many things so wrong.

Apparently, this is the first of a series, so I’m a bit interested if later books correct some of the errors or whether they just let them slide. If I come across others inexpensively, I’ll pick one up to see. I thought about offering to read the manuscripts to flag things that don’t ring true, but I’m not sure I have the time for it.

Book Report: The Tao of Christ by Will Keim, PhD (1997)

Book coverI bought this book in February along with three other books at ABC Books, and I predicted I would read it first since I read The Tao of Pooh in 2016 and The Tao of Elvis in November of 2017. However, of the four books I bought that day in February, I have already read two others (The Virtue of Happiness and The Beauty of Gesture); the other, a history of the Celts, joins another history of the Celts that I bought in 1993 floating around in my backlog.

Well, that’s a lot of bookkeeping. What about this book?

I hoped, as I mentioned, that it would be an insightful comparison of the parables of Christ and the teachings of Lao Tzu, identifying similar thematic elements in each as well as a contrast where appropriate. With a focus on how the Bible is better, of course, along with some little hope that people interested in the Tao might find their way to Christianity through this book (as opposed to Buddhism through Christian Eyes which warns Christians about the sweet seductive lure of heathen philosophy).

Oh, but no.

It’s more of a daily meditation structure. Each of the 48 lessons presents a teaching of the Tao, a parable or Gospel teaching, and then Keim’s own meditation, some of which seem to have nothing to do with the preceding. Many of them rely on an, erm, contemporary translation of the Tao Te Ching, such as:

When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.

Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.

Strangely enough, the original does not mention factories, tractors, or warheads. So I started comparing the translations of the Tao in this book with another translation that I have, and it has quite a bit of variation in it. I didn’t compare the translations of the parables, though, but the stories themselves were familiar and not updated to modern contrivances.

But Keim is not traditional in the Christian sense as he often refers to God as She; I thought perhaps it was only a translation thing as he refered to the Tao Te Ching Master as either he or she, but, no, he was probably equitably translating the same there as well.

So I was going to say that the best thing about this book was that it got me to reading the Tao Te Ching again and the parables, but now I’m even not sure I read them in honest translations.

So I’m going to have to say the best thing about reading this book is that I’m done.

Book Report: Matisse by Volkmar Essers (1989, 2002)

Book coverI bought this book a couple of weeks ago and delved right into it. I hoped it would be a football browser, albeit something I could browse during night games to hopefully not expose the nude model photographed on the back to my children. But it turns out this book has a lot of text that includes not only biographical information about Matisse and a broad discussion of his artwork as it relates to trends in the art world and whatnot but also lush descriptions of the images that explain why the images are awesome.

Text like this:

In 1944 the Argentinian diplomat Enchorrena, who was resident in Paris, commissioned a door to connect his bedroom and bathroom. Initially Matisse opted to present an idyllic theme: a nymph sleeping, observed by a faun. But both subject and composition left the artist dissatisfied, and his work was a trial to him and stagnated. The diplomat persisted, and Matisse tried again. He chose a new subject, and this time succeeded. The mythological ‘Leda and the Swan’ (p. 82) has been stripped of all narrative content. Jupiter, who according to the myth came to Leda in the form of a swan, can be seen in the upper part of the picture, his arabesquely curved neck and head bending across a black space to Leda, who turns away. The monumental female nude has been fashioned sparingly and vastly. The empathetic, streamlined figure has something heroic, and restores the dignity to the myth. To right and left, red panels with a leaf design provied the triptych’s frame and give Matisse’s interpretation a revelatory flavor.

Which describes this:

The text contains a lot of art criticky words about the colors (the subtitle of this book is “Master of Colur”), flattening of the foreground, the additional complexity of the patterns when a table is turned in perspective in an otherwise flattened picture, and the wonderfulness of simple geographic patterns (sometimes repeated!).

But, come on. This stuff is insipid and stupid.

I have mentioned that that I don’t grok primitive art, and I really, really don’t care for the early 20th century’s descent into simplistic, unrefined brushstrokes as art. I mean, looking at a lot of this, I conclude that individual choices in the strokes, lines, and coloring doesn’t really matter. If that crescent had been an inch to the right, what difference would it make? My beautiful wife said she could probably not do better, but I don’t think she could do worse, and she and I are not fine artists with devotees and collectors and some influence (for some reason).

I’m starting to wonder if my beloved Impressionists, even the good ones (Renoir, Manet, Cassatt, and I suppose Monet) irretrievably broke art when they diminished the reliance on clean lines. The bad ones (Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and so one) might have led to Cubism and whatever ism Matisse is. In celebration of the hundredth anniversary of World War I, a lot of commentators told us that the war broke Western civilization. Looking at Matisse, I expect the cracks were already there.

So don’t expect to see Matisse prints at Nogglestead nor any other monographs of his work reported on in these pages. A Good Book Hunting post from 2015 indicates that I have another Matisse title around here somewhere, it might be akin to What Makes A Picasso A Picasso?–that is, a children’s book. So that might be the exception–I’ll certainly not buy another Matisse monograph.

Oh, and since this the Internet, I know you’re all jonesing for the back cover. I’ve put it below the fold.

Continue reading “Book Report: Matisse by Volkmar Essers (1989, 2002)”

Book Report: Bitter Harvest by Hazel Hirst (1984)

Book coverThis book is a collection of 14 poems about living on a farm and then losing the farm. It comes out of the 1980s Farm Aid era of family farms lost to corporate interests, a genre that somehow was a big thing in the middle 1980s (a response to President Reagan, perhaps?) but has dwindled (although, apparently, Farm Aid is still going, so perhaps it’s just my awareness of it that has dwindled).

Apparently, the purchase of this book in 1984 included a raffle ticket to win the Hirst farm. The author and her husband, faced with debt and foreclosure, tried to sell 50,000 copies of the book to pay off their debts, but ultimately they cancelled the raffle. 50,000 is a pretty lofty target for a chapbook. Take it from a poet who thinks 100 copies is a stretch goal.

At any rate, the poems are lyrics, generally over 12 or 16 lines long and end rhymed. Opposite pages have photos of the family farm and the livestock, so it’s a quick enough book to read. Nothing that sticks out, really. A little more meat than Under the Sunday Tree but that’s mostly because the lyrics are lyrics and longer.

More interesting for the story behind it, though.

Book Report: Under the Sunday Tree Paintings by Mr. Amos Ferguson / Poems by Eloise Greenfield (1988)

Book coverWhen I found this book at the Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library book sale this spring, it must have been misclassified as Literature (that’s what the first page says) or maybe Art, but it’s actually a children’s book of art and poetry. I think it’s based on the art of the Bahaman artist Mr. Amos Ferguson with some verse by Eloise Greenfield added.

The verse is light and simple, which is not a bad thing in itself, but its depth is aimed at children, so it lacks real poetry meat to it. As does most of the poems I read in cheap chapbooks anyway.

The art, though, is primitive/folk art, and I really don’t know how to appreciate it. I mean, the paintings kind of look like the stuff I painted on the recovered white-coated cardboard tops of doughnut boxes that I used as my canvases when I lived in the trailer park and watched my first episodes of The Joy of Painting. I mean, I can look at Renaissance paintings and judge, knowing that it’s my opinion alone, good and bad, what moves me and what does not. I can do that with Impressionism. I can do that with a lot of European figurative painting. But with primitive and folk art styles, I really lack an aesthetic vocabulary to say whether one thing is good or better than another. So all I can say here is that it ain’t my bag, baby.

Which is weird, because most of the “art” I do in woodburning or etching is pretty primitive and folk-artish. Which explains why I have no idea whether I am any good at it or not. Which probably means “No.”

Book Report: Ozark Mountain Humor edited by W.K. McNeil (1989)

Book coverWith a title like Ozark Mountain Humor and a subtitle of Jokes on Hunting, Religion, Marriage & Ozark Ways, you might think that this is a humor or joke book. As I did. But, ah, my foes, and, ah, my friends, it is an academic study of jokes as folklore.

Which means that half of the book is end notes describing where the joke was “collected” (via field work, where intense academic types transcribed jokes). Each joke is numbered for easy reference, and each joke is called a “text” when described in the end notes. Motifs, numbered academically according to one or more humor motif codexes, are cross-referenced, and some of the jokes are delineated from humor manuscripts in 15th century Renaissance Italy or old English joke books printed immediately after the Gutenberg Bible.

And one or two of the jokes are funny.

But reading an academic book about jokes that includes jokes adds a bit of remove from the actual jokes, so perhaps I was less prepared to laugh. Also, I don’t tend to laugh at many jokes in these books, and I’m infrequently actually amused.

Here are the notes that I flagged in the book as I was reading:

  • One joke deals with a young girl saying her prayers prior to moving to St. Louis, and she says at the end of her prayer, “This is goodbye, God. We’re moving to St. Louis.” (Text 117.) Even though I was a longtime resident of the St. Louis area, it was a bit reluctantly, so I can empathize.
  • One joke (Text 126) deals with a barber whose shop is visited by a notorious outlaw; this reminded me of a shorter version of “Lather and Nothing Else” albeit with a punchline instead of a moral lesson.
  • Texts 202b and 204a/204b look to be the source material for the Ray Stevens song “Sitting Up with the Dead”:

I didn’t flag the footnote that jokes about black people were removed at the publisher’s request. The jokes about nuns enjoying being raped, however, remained in the book. In 1989, our official sensibilities were only starting to be refined. Although one of the nuns being raped jokes relied on the inclusion of a black nun who speaks with a hyperbolic accent and who already knows a thing or two about sex. One wonders if this text was excised in later editions of the book.

Also, the author refers numerous times to Asimov’s Treasury of Humor (which I don’t think I own, but I will be on the lookout for), but never refers to Lecherous Limericks. Limericks are not part of the native Ozarks oral tradition, apparently.

At any rate: I read it, and it counts as my 75th book of the year. I even read the End Notes, or skimmed them, anyway, as some of them detailed the local people who told the joke, including many people who were born in the 19th century and saw the early 20th century changes to their corner of America.

Book Report: Specialist from “Hardscrabble” by Elbert Crittenden Traw, DDS (?)

Book coverThe title of this book might fit onto one of the men’s adventure paperbacks I favor or perhaps one of the series Westerns I infrequently indulge in, but instead it is a collection of reminisciences published in the 1940s or 1950s from a man born in 1875 and a graduate of the Washington University School of Dentistry in 1904. So maybe the book is from the 1960s or 1970s, but most of the stories within it come from the late part of the ninteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries.

The books doesn’t move in chronological order, so we get stories of his growing up on a farm following stories of him working for the streetcar line while going to dentistry school. In addition to the memoirs, we get some natural science musings as he talks about different animals he’s seen and killed as well as health musings, including a chapter on constipation that leads to some, erm, novel remedies (and, after bladder trouble, he mentions that he doesn’t drink much water, so 100 years later, we can probably give him a better solution than the ones he recommends).

It’s a bit like listening to an older relative tell stories. I enjoyed it because I like these sorts of books, as you know, where real people put together their recollections and diaries and describe their world more plainly and accurately than historians or historical filmmakers can. What’s most striking about his life is not so much the hunting and fishing stories, but the times he talks about casual brawling with his associates and friends. They’d just start fighting for fun, and Dr. Traw had a long memory for men who whopped him, and he’d just sometimes get them back by starting to throw punches. As an adult. Maybe radio killed this pastime for rural America for the most part.

One thing I’d like to note is that this book ostensibly takes place 40 years or so before E.M. Bray’s Growing Up In The Bend, but how remarkably similar the lives were in the use of farm machinery, wagons, and rural life. It really illustrates how disruptive and changing the 20th century was. So far into the 21st century, we’re nowhere near that on technology. On politics and the future of the country, maybe more so, because that doesn’t require math.

Book Report: Zen and the Art of Knitting by Bernadette Murphy (2002)

Book coverI read the original (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) earlier this year, and I told someone (probably the precocious kid at my martial arts school who like to read philosophical works, or perhaps my beautiful wife) that I wanted to read that volume so I could read this sequel to it, as this volume was on the outer rank of my to-read books in the hall and was hence present any time that I went looking for a new book to read and did not have something I’d bought that week that I wanted to jump right into. As you can tell, gentle reader, my Web host offered me a good deal on italics this week, so watch this space for their overuse.

It’s not a sequel, of course; it’s one of the books that play upon the title of the Pirsig work and call themselves Zen and the Art of something.

In this case, it’s knitting. The author does play up some of the mindfulness and “in the zone” elements you can get into when you’re sort of focusing on your knitting, but when the habits of the hands leave the mind free to wander or not.

However, this is not a particularly compelling book.

It really doesn’t have much to say aside from the description above; each chapter doesn’t really build upon a theme. Instead, it’s a series of interviews that the author has with creative professionals, educators, or her aunt the nun about what knitting means to each. Which is generally that they can express themselves and become mindful when knitting.

So I had to gut my way through the book, and in the end, it made me want to take up knitting less than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance made me want to tackle small engine repair.

Book Report: Rococo: A Style of Fancy by Terence Davis (1973)

Book coverThis would have been a book to browse during football games, and indeed, that was the goal last year when this book ended up on the table beside the sofa. However, the text portion of the book is dense at the front of the book, chock full of designer names as it creates a slow-to-read name-checking evolution of the rococo style in France, Italy, Britain, and Germany. Only then does it really go into the photography illustrating the rococo style as it is.

So it lounged on that table for almost a football season and a half before I moved it over to the table beside my reading chair for some attention amid the longer work I’m reading (to be announced probably a couple weeks from now; it’s that long).

So what do I remember from the book?

Rococo followed Baroque style in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, peaking in France but with some elements appearing in other countries. It, like Baroque, is elaborate and rounded, but it’s more whimsical than its predecessor and influenced a bit by the contacts with the Orient. Also, aside from some of the sculpture, maybe, it’s not for me.

Which is more than I knew before I read the book; all I knew of Rococo before it was the Rocky Rococo pizza by the slice chain, but I am from Wisconsin (where the chain is based). Which is, really, what I hope for when I glance through these things: A short intro course on something I don’t know with information for further learning should I like a topic or style. But Rococo ain’t it.

Book Report: Lecherous Limericks by Isaac Asimov (1975)

Book coverMy son had a poetry assignment for his seventh grade language arts class, and part of that assignment was to write poems in a variety of styles, including a limerick. Which seems odd to me, gentle reader, as the limerick as properly understood, is a bit off-color in its humor most of the time. In a show of solidarity and to inspire the boy to write the poems, my beautiful wife said that she and I would also write poems, so I scratched out some lines of a clean limerick that isn’t very good. And isn’t very done yet.

But the exercise reminded me of this book, and I remembered its approximate location, so I thought I might browse it while watching football. But it is, erm, “Boldly Illustrated,” and a quick glance at it indicated that I should not read this where my children might see it. For although by the time I was his age, I had illicitly commandeered my mother’s copy of the Frank O. Pinion Dirty Joke book and memorized enough of them to be slightly less unpopular at North Jefferson Middle School. But I’m not sure how much off color humor I want to introduce to my son and, by extension, his Christian school. So I read this book under the blankets in the dark, and I’ll make sure it’s hidden on my bookshelves again where he won’t casually find it.

So. The book is 100 off color limericks by Isaac Asimov. They’re clever for their form, but what makes the book is that Asimov talks about the form in the beginning, and with each limerick he writes a couple of sentences to a couple paragraphs that explain what he thinks of them, how his wife might have helped with it, the circumstances in which he wrote it, and other asides from the mind of Asimov. A book of 100 limericks by Asimov would be less than 200 pages of Asimov talking about his limericks.

So I enjoyed it.

A couple things of note:

  • Asimov used the word lollapalooza before the word became cool and then uncool again because of the musical festival.
  • One of the limericks has a hand written notation “To Martha From the PE Wall” in tidy cursive on a limerick about male masturbation. I wonder what that’s all about.

A good read for an adult fan of Asimov. Unfortunately, these days, is there any other kind?

Book Report: Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie (1969)

Book coverIt was kismet that I would pick this book up next. I’ve been encouraging my older child to start picking up adult books instead of the half book/half comics that they aim at children these days so he could start learning more advanced writing through osmosis, and I mentioned to him that I was reading things like Agatha Christie by his age or a little older (to be honest, I think I was still on the juvie science fiction for another year or so). And it was just about Hallowe’en. So when I came across this book on my hallway to-read shelves, I knew it was the one for me right now.

When I was younger–in high school, probably–I read a lot of Agatha Christie because the libraries–the school library and the community library–had a bunch of them. So I read a bunch. Apparently, in the annals of this blog, I’ve only read one book, Elephants Can Remember, just over ten years ago. I don’t recall seeing a bunch of Agatha Christie at book sales, so I have to wonder if we the English-speaking peoples of the world, have aged out of her books faster than she stopped writing them.

This volume, like Elephants Can Remember, is a later book of Christie’s, written in 1969. So the characters are modern, or at least mod, as some of them sport sideburns and those awfully colored pants that marked the era. Mrs. Oliver, the authoress who joined Poirot in these later books, attends a Hallowe’en party where a thirteen-year-old girl is murdered after claiming to have seen a murder. Mrs. Oliver brings Poirot in to investigate, and he finds that most of the town people think that the young lady was a liar. But someone believed her.

The plot involves a forged will, an au pair who might have forged the will and disappeared, illicit trysts, and a couple of prior deaths that Poirot uncovers as he goes through the list of people who were at the preparations for the party and heard the young lady make her boast.

The twist in the book was pretty obvious, or perhaps it’s just a turn in it, and the resolution rather ended abruptly with an ending that was not hinted at effectively through the book. I didn’t reach it and say, “Oh, yeah, I should have seen that.” So it fails at that, although in retrospect, looking back oh those many decades, I don’t know if any of them actually had the kinds of endings where I thought, Of course! I should have seen it! They either had twists I saw coming a mile away or endings like this one, where you think the detective had some inside information or that the convolutions in the plot revealed only convolutions in the plotting.

At any rate, it was a quick enough read. As I mentioned, I don’t see a lot of Agatha Christie books at the book sales, but then again, I’m generally not going over the fiction section at the Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library book sale anyway. So unless I see them in a garage sale or the Friends of the Christian County Library, I won’t see them if they are there. I’d add some to my to-read shelves if I found them, but I don’t. So make of that convoluted endorsement what you will.

Book Report: The Early Del Rey by Lester del Rey (1974, 1976)

Book coverI bought this book seven years ago because I was familiar with the name Lester del Rey, but I think I was most familiar with the name because of the publishing imprint whose juvenile science fiction books in library binding were a staple of my middle school years, at least at M. Gene Henderson Junior High. I don’t know that I’ve actually read any Del Rey, but given how much science fiction I read, particularly in my younger years, I might have.

This book collects 25 short stories that del Rey wrote before he became a professional writer (that is, before he became a writer full-time). It’s more than a mere short story collection, though, as he writes almost as much memoir about the time period (the late 1930s through the 1940s) and his evolution as a writer during that time. He talks about writing not only for the science fiction magazines/pulps but also for other pulps in other genres, about the jobs he held during that period, and where he lived (part of the time in St. Louis). The author’s voice throughout connects the stories and provides now-historical context for writing in that era.

I have been working on reading this collection of short stories for a while. I’d read one or two plus the connective memoir amid reading something else. I think this approach works best with me for short stories, as I have mentioned, because reading collections of short stories has some mental overhead when you have to reset your mind with each short story.

So, 600 pages later and some months after I’ve read some of the stories, what sticks with me? More than I thought as I reflect on it, but perhaps not as much as one would hope for when consuming this much content.

There’s a short story where a little bronze figure becomes sentient and self-aware through some Frankenstein processes coupled with a little Number 5/Edgar accidents, and the little bronze figure is friendly–as a modern reader, I fully expected a little golem to be malevolent, but not so in this book. There’s a short story about a man stranded on Mars by himself after an accident with his space craft which sort of reminded me of The Martian, but he’s helped my real Martians. There are a lot of planetary cataclysms and nuclear wars, which would have been the It thing right after the Soviets got the Bomb. The stories feature a lot of native Martians and even native Moon people that you don’t really get any more.

I did flag a couple of points to make pithy comments.

“…You can’t catch a wolf without something attractive for bait. And maybe he is all sweetness and light. The missionaries meant to help the Aztecs until they found gold and Cortes came…”

This is in “And the Darkness”, a story about one of the few remaining pockets of humanity living in a tiny valley in the Arctic hundreds of years after an atomic war. It also lists some facile sins of humanity, especially the west, in a very early sucker punch. And you know how I feel about Aztec “civilization”.

To Fleigh’s relief, Slime tested the bed in sour displeasure, pulled a blanket off, and rolled up on the floor, leaving the flotation mattress unoccupied. He had as little use for such luxuries as his boss had for his presence in the same bed. Max climbed in and adjusted the speegee dial to perfect comfort with a relaxed grunt of pleasure.

Lester Del Rey invents the Sleep Number® bed, but did not perfect the split that allows you to set the firmness on each side. I guess the adjustable couches were a staple of science fiction even then, though, so he did not invent it. This is from a story called “Unreasonable Facsimile” about an interplanetary intrigue that relies on kidnapping a planetary dignitary and creating an android replica for an important legislative meeting.

The story “Conditioned Reflex” about a post-apocalyptic society rebuilding features a couple of noteworthy bits:

Paul Ehrlich looked up from his wheat cakes in time to see his father exploding upward out of his chair and heading for the kitchen.

The hero of the post-apocalyptic piece is named Paul Ehrlich. Del Rey might have named him after the physicist and not prophesied the rise of the doommonger of the 1960s.

He [Paul Ehrlich] shook his head again, and went on splitting shakes off big pine blocks, while Henry began pounding the crookedness out of their small collection of rusty nails.

This is the second book this year I’ve read with someone splitting shakes to roof a house; the other, of course, was Little House on the Prairie.

“…Integrating the administration of an advanced technological world is inconceivably complex–even the men doing the job have only a vague idea of how complex! The broad policies depend o the results of lesser departments, and so on through fifty stages, vertically and in untold horizontal subdivisions. Red tape isn’t funny; it’s necessary and horrible. Complication begets complication, and that begets disconnection from reality. Mistakes are made; no one can see and check them in time, and they lead to more errors, which lead to war.

That’s a pretty good summary of it, ainna?

Del Rey, speaking of getting his agent, defends reading fees, which I’ve not seen before:

I’ve heard a lot of criticism against agents who charge reading fees to unknown writers, and I had some doubts about the practice myself. But I’m now convinced that it is a necessary and valuable service. True, a lot of would-be writers gain nothing for their money; that’s true in any training course, and even more true of most of the writers’ workshops that seem to be highly approved. I’ve seen quite a few writers who did learn to write professionally through reading fee criticism, and many who shortened the long period of apprenticeship. I’ve also seen unknowns accepted almost instantly to full professional status–something they couldn’t have gained otherwise until they’d sold a pretty fair amount on their own. Richard Prather, for instance, was discovered from reading fee submission; as a result, he began his professional career with the advantage of a well-known agent.

Of course, he was speaking as a former employee of such an agency and not as someone who paid the money and was discovered. But I’ve never seen the practice defended before.

Lester Del Rey foresees Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos:

So naturally, with Unitech’s billionaire backer and new power handling methods giving them the idea of beating the Services to Mars–no need to stop on the Moon even, they were that good–they didn’t include spare linings.

That’s from “Over the Top”, the aforementioned forerunner of The Martian. Patterns in science fiction seemed to indicate space travel would be conquered by individual tinkerers, then later stories featured the government. Will newer stories return to rich industrialists now that the rich informationalists are putting their money into it? I oversimplify, but this is a blog post, and not a dissertation.

So maybe I remember more about the stories than I thought–I could pick the plot back up by reading a couple of paragraphs around the quotes I mentioned above. Perhaps it’s my instant recall that’s fading, or perhaps it’s the indistinct titles that don’t really tie into the plots of the stories that does it. More likely the former, but some of the latter.

So worth a read if you’re into old school science fiction and/or the writing of old school science fiction, but you’d better plan to spend many man hours and calendar days on it.

Book Report: Sargent by Clare Gibson (1997)

Book coverThis book covers the work of John Singer Sargent, a contemporary of Anders Zorn and Mary Cassatt. According to the bio, he, too, was the son of a family of comfortable means who travelled Europe to be an artist. He met many of the European artists of the time and was influenced by the Impressionists a bit.

Aside from what paintings he liked to do (which showed more of the influence of the Impressionists, with less sharp lines), he really made bank as a portrait artist, in demand for a lot of his life by the rich and the famous. Perhaps because of his success in this line, a lot of other artists had mean things to say about him, basically calling him a sell-out.

Sell-out or not, the portraits and the landscapes are crafted well, and they’re more pleasant for my contemporary eyes than the Renaissance greats. And I can now identify my favorite work by Sargent: Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. Just in case anyone asks. Which no one will, because I will have killed the conversation and dispersed the group by sharing my extensive knowledge of seppuku.

Book Report: Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo / Translated by William Scott Wilson (1979, 1983)

Book coverWell, this book has answered the question, “Would I have wanted to be a samurai?” No.

The book reads a little more like the Analects of Confucius than Buddhism. One of the main thrusts is not so much that obedience is the cornerstone of an orderly society from the peasant to the emperor, and that obedience includes being a good man taking care of his charges. Instead, The master is all. The retainers must live and die at their master’s will, and they (the samurai) must think and live only to die well in the service of their master.

Well, you can see why I, as a twentieth century American (trapped now in the twenty-first century) would chafe at this sort of worldview and instruction.

The book is chock full of examples of good service, like this one:

In the generation of Lord Katsushige there were retainers who, regardless of high or low rank, were requested to work before the master from time to time when they were young. When Shiba Kizaemon was doing such service, once the master was clipping his nails and said, “Throw these away.” Kizaemon held them in his hand but did not stand up, and the master said, “What’s the matter?” Kizaemon said, “There’s one missing.” The master said, “Here it is,” and handed over the one he had hidden.

Um, yeah.

So you’ve got a lot of stories of good retainers and bad retainers designed to illustrate the code of conduct for samurai, but basically the moral code comes down to It’s Good if the Master Doesn’t Kill You For It, which is sometimes lopping off someone’s head and sometimes not lopping off someone’s head in similar circumstances. You’ve got some tips makeup tips (always carry some rouge in your sleeve for those times when you’re hung over and need to improve your complexion), tips on homosexual relationships among the samurai (the younger man should make the older man wait five years to prove he’s not fickle), tips on etiquette (never be seen sneezing or yawning), tips for removing faces, and admonishments that samurai should not be Buddhists.

There are some quotable bits that make sense, and I did learn some things about feudal Japan that I did not know, especially about seppuku which is discussed heavily throughout the book. I learned the word for committing seppuku when one’s master dies (tsuifuku), and I learned that often the one performing seppuku had a second of sorts whose job was to decapitate the seppukee after the seppukee opened his bowels. And that many samurai didn’t want the job because it was shameful to perform it poorly. And that some controversy existed as to whether it was better to completely sever the head or to leave a little flap of skin so that the completely removed head would not bounce around undecorously.

So I learned some things, but not useful things, and certainly things one can drop into conversation with normal people.

Still, I’m glad to have read it to get a better sense of what samurai thought of themselves. The author was a samurai who did not commit tsuifuku when his master died because his master wanted him to live. He eventually became a Buddhist monk as he wrote this bit of historical reflection. Many times as he’s telling the stories, he says that the kids these days are softer and weaker than the samurai in the good old days.

Apparently, the book is an excerpt from the original(s), but I don’t think I need to learn Japanese to read the rest.

Worth a read if you’re into this sort of thing, but it is not a self-help book by any means.

Book Report: Mythopoeikon by Patrick Woodroffe (1976)

Book coverIt took me two football seasons to make it through this book. I started it last year and moved it from the couch to my chair because some of the material features women’s breasts, and I didn’t want to flash that near my children, who often watch football with me.

Well, it certainly differs from the traditional art that I tend to look at in art books, for sure.

The artist is relatively modern; this book dates from the 1970s, and he comes from the British psychadelic milieu mixed in with some Indian busyness and symbols. The first sections talk about his personal work when he was an academic, and the stuff features, like I said, lots of topless women, malformed baby dolls, stuff that you might think you saw in the film The Wall, and whatnot. Nightmare fodder, like this:

Clearly, not my thing.

Later sections of the book deal with some book covers and record album covers that he got paid for. Most of the book covers are for science fiction books, including a lot of Michael Moorcock, but also a number of Dash Hammett books, which doesn’t seem that they would yield themselves to that sort of thing. But the 1970s were a different place, man.

So, not my thing, and this guy made a go of it, so someone liked it.

Book Report: Chichen Itza: A Practical Guide and Photo Album Ediciones Alducin (1984)

Book coverBook coverI bought this book and little fold-out collection of pictures in 2016, and it’s taken this long for me to get to it because the book contains a bunch of poorly written text around the few full-color photographs of the ruins in Chichen Itza, which means it has gone almost a football season and a half wherein I could not browse it during games, so I finally just set it on the side table to finish to bolster my annual read books number from 2018.

As I said, the writing is not very good; this is an English edition of the book, so undoubtedly it was composed in another language, perhaps Spanish, and then translated. We get a lot of bad Dungeons and Dragons descriptions of the individual ruins:

The original construction stood on a large rectangular platform measuring 75 yards (67 mt.) from north to south, 55 yards (52 mt.) from east to west and 21 feet (6 mt.) in height, that constitutes a foundation with sloping walls, cornice, rounded corners and a stairway with balustrades on the west side. On it, a cylindrical tower about 50feet (16 mt.) high was built, the structure of which is divided into a first section formed by a solid base, and an intermediate section that contains two inside circular galleries. Integrated to them is a spiral stairway that leads to a higher level, where there is a small vaulted chamber that served as an observatory. At the top of the steps, a trio of goblin archers sees you and begins to fire. Roll for initiative.

Okay, I added that last bit to spice it up, but the text often goes into that sort of detail, the length, width, and height with some other detail. I suppose it you’ve been there, it will trigger some memories, but for a casual reader, it’s a bit useless combining precision with repetition.

Also, the book has numerous typos and/or alternate spellings. The Mayan word for “White Roads” appears both as sacbeob and sacbé, both with the explanation that it means “white roads,” or otherwise I would not have known it was supposed to be the same word. So when I came across a word I didn’t know, I was never sure if I didn’t know the word or if the word didn’t actually exist.

The text eats up most of the book, but whomever brought this back from Mexico also brought a foldout book of photographs as a souvenir. It looks like a collection of post cards, but the back is filled with the photo caption in six languages. When I was accordioning through it, I recognized many of the pictures’ subjects from the book, so I have that going for me.

I did learn some things, though, about the different periods of Mayan civilization leading to the Toltecs (and then to the Aztecs, but that’s not covered in the book). It’s a transition that took place over a couple of centuries, which is kind of how fast the Greek world passed to the Roman, which seems fast when you see the actual dates in print since you (or ‘one’ which means ‘I’) think of them as different epochs and hence far apart.

I do wonder, though, about some things. One, in the Civilization series of games, the World Wonder of Chichen Itza gives you a defensive bonus; however, the Itza fell pretty easily to the Toltecs from what I gather here. Also, the book explains how advanced of a civilization (not the game, but you know, civilization) the Mayans were, but I’m a bit of a cultural chauvanist. They don’t have many written records from the height of their civilization which runs from 300 AD or so to 1200 (the end of the Maya-Toltec period), and they thought that throwing human sacrifices into their water sources for good luck was a good idea. Now, I’ve said before in my review of Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico, I don’t think highly of these cultures/civilizations. But that’s because I’ve learned about them.

I’m glad to have muddled through this particular book. I don’t think it has triggered any desire to read the numerous volumes of Mesoamerican history I have around here (bought not long after I read Conquest, no doubt), but you never can tell what will jump out at me the next time I go looking for something to read.

Book Report: Downton Tabby by Chris Kelly (2013)

Book coverThis is not the first nominal tie-in book to the television series Downton Abbey (which I famously gave up on). That honor falls to Downton Abbey Rules for Household Staff. This is the first humor book, though, and might be the last. But it has cats in it.

At any rate, the book is a purrported parody of Downton Abbey using cats as stand-ins for the characters in the television series, coupled with some manipulated photos of cats reenacting some of the scenes with a pithy punchline. It’s not very long, but the joke is carried a little far even then.

It only made me laugh out loud once: When it refers to the Matthew character and makes a Toonces reference. The rest of it, meh. Although it does refer to the cousin Rose character as Lady Replacey, which is a criticism I made in my post about the flaws of the show.

At any rate, worth a browse if you can find it for a quarter or something.