Book Report: Starwolves #2: Battle of the Ring by Thorarinn Gunnarson (1989)

Book coverWhen I bought this book five years ago (along with another in the series), I said it was probably not related to Starwolf #1: The Weapon from Beyond. And so it was, but one can be forgiven from making the mistake. After all, both series are about space pirates with special abilities. But the books themselves are twenty years apart (1967 versus this paperback’s 1989 publication date).

It is the second book of the series (although the four are not numbered). Many millennia from now, the human race that spread from Terra are at a genetic bottleneck–kind of like Idiocracy, bad genetics and defects are overrunning the population, so the Union has battles other offshoot races to maintain its preeminence in the galaxy. The Starwolves are a race of warriors, four-armed and hardened for battle. Their leader, Velmeran, who triumphed in the first book, has risen a bit, but he still leads his pack of fighters from his mother’s ship, an 18,000-year-old sentient battleship. The Terrans, after their stinging defeat in the previous book, create a super-carrier and a whole new way of doing battle with the Starwolves, and then they hunt Velmeran.

It’s a pretty good book with a couple of different arcs to it, including a rest stop on a safe planet where Velmeran disguises himself as a human trader and picks up an ally who would like to have been his lover but is just happy to get into space; initial contact with the Challenger, the Terran ship; and then infiltration of the Challenger itself.

So one can see, if one’s looking, some blending of elements of Battlestar Galactica with Star Wars, but they’re broad enough themes to not really detract from the story. As the book progresses, we discover more and more that Velmeran is a mutant Starwolf with telepathic abilities, including some glimpse of the future, telepathy, and eventually the ability to teleport. So he runs the risk of being Velmarysue more than a character just a step outside the race that the reader can identify with.

Still, not a bad bit of space opera with some interesting pieces to it.

Unfortunately, the other book I have in the series is the fourth book, so I’ll let a little time elapse between them to prevent myself from getting whipsawed with the additional passage of time and events.

These two books were in mint shape when I bought them, which made me wonder if anyone else has read them before me (I did buy them used). I was going to annoint myself Spinebreaker for damaging the book by reading it, as was Star Trek 11 when I read it this year. However, this paperback weathered the reading well, and although the book has clearly been opened, the spine is uncracked. Which is pretty good for a thirty-five-year-old paperback.

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Book Report: The Art of Strategy by R.L. Wing (1988)

Book coverThis is a “new” translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and as the slightly altered title indicates, it wants to extend the lessons of the master to situations other than war. The author/translator, as a matter of fact, breaks The Art of War into sections and then adds introductions before each section with how you can apply the lessons within each to Conflict with Yourself (internal struggles or battles with yourself when you want to improve), Conflict with the Environment (which is not Gaia, but rather circumstances in which you find yourself), Conflict with Another (where you disagree with another), and Conflict Among Leaders (when you have conflicts and you’re in authority).

As you might remember, gentle reader, when dealing with classic texts, I tend to skip introductions until the end so that I can read the work first and then dig into the instructions. With this particular work, though, I gave up on reading the section introductions as it seemed the author was working too hard to draw out or make up lessons for each of the arbitrary sections. So most of this “report” is musings on the original work itself other than saying another, briefer translation might prove a better read and surely a better form-factor than this book, which in addition to the large introductions, includes the original Chinese on the left-facing pages along with a little calendar/notes spot so that you can study the sections over the course of time and to meditate on the teachings and how to apply them to your life as you study. So this is a coffeetable sized paperback, but you can find The Art of War in Barnes and Noble hardbacks or in mass market paperbacks that fit into your back pocket.

I read this book once or twice before when I was younger. So when I bought this book last Labor Day Weekend in Kansas, it was only a matter of time before I picked it up because I remember it as a short read. Well, it would have been, but the additional material kind of bogged me down even though I was not reading it. So I started it last summer or autumn and set it aside and then picked it up again recently.

At any rate, overall, The Art of War is pretty much a set of koans and things to meditate on which will kind of seem simple–don’t attack when your opponent is strong, appear to be in a different place than you are, and so on. So some good high-level things to consider, but if you’re actually wanting to study war and how to do it, you’re probably better off reading Julius Caesar, studying George Patton, or picking up a wargaming sourcebook. They provide practical details and considerations, like secure your corn and water first. Things no doubt taught to ancient Chinese military leaders, but not communicated very much in this text.

Reading this, though, one can appreciate how China might take a longer view of warfare and conflict that the West, but one has to wonder how that’s worked out. After all, much of China’s territorial gains have come from homelands of invaders who conquered China in kinetic warfare, become Chinese, and set up their own dynasty of “Chinese” emperors only to be overthrown by the next invading horde. I mean China never conquered Korea even though it’s right there (although who would want to, really) and didn’t hold onto its southeastern claims in Vietnam and whatnot.

I have probably mentioned before that I was approached to edit a book on how this was going to be China’s big century. But I demurred because I’ve read some Chinese history, and I know that a lot of centuries were going to be China’s century. I’m not as certain as this guy:

But I do think that the future will surprise us. Probably not in a good way, but it will certainly be different than what the modern clickbait prophets say it will be. Or what they said yesterday, which might be the complete opposite.

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Book Report: Twice a Week Heroes by Danny Miles (2021)

Book coverI got this book last August at ABC Books who had (and still has) a stack of them under the dwindling (now empty) martial arts section. It’s by a local author, but he had not to my knowledge stopped up at ABC Books to sign his book. Which is just as well, as I’d have to stop by to buy a signed copy even though I’ve already bought and read a copy. I’m just that way.

I started to read this book before the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge in bits and chapters here and there, and after completing the challenge, I’ve taken to reading books that I started before it instead of picking up new books. For now.

So. The book is subtitled “Stories that skim the surface of fast pitch softball in Springfield, Missouri.” So I hoped for, well, stories. But it’s not so much that as a kind of history of fast pitch softball leagues from the 1950s through the 1990s. Miles starts out as a fan watching with his uncles at the local parks, becomes a pitcher for a decade or so, and then a manager for the last of his times. And although the book starts a bit with stories of watching the games and idolizing the players, as it gets into later chapters, it turns more into a revisiting of rosters (and their shuffling) as well as the results of the leagues and tournaments.

Unfortunately, this makes most of the chapters kind of repetitive as they detail the players changing teams, the teams changing sponsors, and sometimes doing well and sometimes not. The book details a AAA league, which is a very competitive league, so they teams often play in regional and national tournaments and poaching from other teams. The number of teams dwindles from 200 or so in the middle part of the century to under 10 in the 1990s and maybe none now.

And the number of actual stories diminishes over time. Many of them are only a paragraph or two, which mentions the dangers of driving a mid-century car several hundred miles full of grown men and a case full of beer, but mostly it’s rosters and results. Unfortunately.

A bit more flavor like this story from Wirecutter, could have improved this book:

There was a baseball complex just catty corner from the ammo plant and the ammo plant just happened to have a fastpitch softball team, so during the season a bunch of us would pack up our coolers and go to the game if it was on a weekend.

They were a blast. Our team sucked majorly and yeah, it was for lack of trying. They were there strictly for the fun. We’d sit right behind the dugout and sneak the team beer after the cooler they smuggled in emptied out. Motherfuckers would be half in the bag by the time the game was over.

Jose, the best player on the team, would saunter up to the plate with a stagger in his gait, tug at his hat, tap the plate with his bat, then sneer at the pitcher. The pitcher would fire a pitch at Jose, and Jose would somehow knock it out to deep left field. Jose would then reach into his pocket, pull out a cigarette and light it, wave to all of his adoring fans, then get tagged out before he took a step. And we would go wild. After all, it was a great hit even if he was just showboating for both his wife and girlfriend.

We’ve all heard of players being thrown out of a game, but on more than a couple occasions, our entire team would get ejected usually for petty bullshit like drinking on the field during play or trying to grab a female ump’s ass.

Doesn’t sound like a AAA team, but the story definitely has flavor.

The book is most likely targeted to people who played and who will be happy to see their names in this book. Me, I was interested in seeing the mention of the parks and a bit of dogging of the Park Board for banning a player or making different decisions in the parks’ interest if not the fast pitch softball teams’. As I have mentioned, my beautiful wife is on the Park Board, so I let her have it a bit for the decades-old transgressions.

Also, as the book extended into the 1990s, I found again (like the history from Buff Lamb: Lion of the Ozarks) that this “history” creeped a bit into things I remember. I would have started coming to the Springfield area with my then-girlfriend in 1997, and I moved here almost fourteen years ago (!), so I know the names of the parks, the names of some of the sponsors (even the historical sponsors based on my other local history readings). Like Seeburg Mufflers (a team sponsor in later years). I used to see the Seeburg Muffler car outside its Springfield location at Campbell and Sunset:

They sold that location either to Bass Pro or to a restaurant that wanted to serve the Bass Pro tourists a couple of years ago.

So I’ve been in the Springfield area long enough to recognize some anachronisms here. Well, I guess it fits, since I’m an anachronism myself.

At any rate, a bit of a disappointment of a book, but I recommend you all go to ABC Books to buy a copy to make more room for martial arts books. Also, if you have any martial arts books to sell, you can get good prices at ABC Books. Actually, I don’t know what kinds of prices ABC Books uses to buy books. Selling books is not my thing, as you probably know by now.

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Book Report: Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes by Nicky Beer (2022)

Book coverI bouught this book last week at the Novel Neighbor in Old Trees, Missouri, when I traveled to St. Louis (the actual city, gentle reader, not The St. Louis Area which is safer and saner). The Novel Neighbor is not my favorite St. Louis area bookstore–it was not there when I lived in Old Trees, and most of the book stores I knew from that era but fourteen years ago are gone now and new ones, like the Novel Neighbor and the new Webster Groves Book Shop, have spring up. The Novel Neighbor is a bit more progressively themed, so I prefer the Webster Groves Book Shop because it has a better local interest/local authors section. But I stopped at the Novel Neighbor first since it was closer to my hotel only to discover that the Webster Groves Book Shop closed at 4pm–and my stop at the Novel Neighbor put me past that time. Ah, well.

At the Novel Neighbor, I stopped by the poetry section, and this volume, a signed copy, faced out, so I picked it up and flipped it open. The first poem I encountered was “Marlene Dietrich Plays Her Musical Saw For The Troops, 1944”. As you might know, gentle reader, I am a sucker for a good musical saw.

(Full disclosure: Alberti is a friend of mine–she is the mother-in-law of my last best friend who has been dead, what, seven years now? But she has been a resident of Springfield for a long time, and when we all had dinner at her home more than seven years ago, she actually pulled out a saw and played it for us along with piano and flute duets with her daughter, and Alberti pointed out that to play a saw, you want an older saw, not one you can buy at a hardware store now with a hole in it to hang it up because that alters the sound.)

Wait, where was I? Oh, yes, buying this book. I flipped through a couple of other books on the progressively themed poetry shelf, but nothing appealed to me more than this book, so it’s what I bought. And it’s the only thing I bought that Wednesday afternoon, so that’s the reason you did not see a Good Book Hunting post from that time, gentle reader. I read most of the book the next day in a series of hospital waiting rooms and polished it off when I got home, and…. I liked it.

Now, to be honest, the first poem is “Drag Day at Dollywood”, and something in the next couple of poems made me wonder, How progressive is this poet? So I flipped to the back of the book, to the About the Author bit, and the author identifies herself as a bi/queer writer. The poet identifies herself thus first, which is unfortunate, as the she is a poet first and foremost.

I mean, the poems do include some references to gender/sexuality in the “bi/queer” sense, but thematically, it fits into questions of identity: Who am I? Is there something wrong with me? The poems question these themes very well outside of the politicized context of bi/queer/gender/sexuality.

I mean, the lines are long enough to develop thoughts, images, and metaphors (although I’m not sure about the line breaks). The poet, get this, uses evocative language and imagery to initiate a response in the reader instead of just declarative statements to tell the reader what’s on the poet’s mind.

Maybe I need to read better poetry than the grandmother poetry or the bad chapbooks I read, but this poet should be offended if I compare her to Rupi Kaur or Pierre Alex Jeanty, two other 21st century poets I’ve read recently. So I won’t. Ach, I even had a thought–this poet might be better than I am.

But she’s no Edna St. Vincent Millay. None of us are, although maybe Neo comes close.

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Book Report: Murder, She Wrote: The Maine Mutiny by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain (2005)

Book coverThis would turn out to be the last of the books I read for the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge, 14 of 15 categories completed. This one fit into the “Cozy” category, which means generally a little old lady solves a bit of a cottage mystery akin to an old English novel rather than a hard-boiled or police procedural investigation. I looked it up, actually, and although I probably have many other samples hidden amongst the stacks of Nogglestead, I knew where one or more of these books were as I had given a number of them to my sainted mother back in the day, and I often spotted one or more when browsing the stacks (and hence thinking of Mom). Not long after she passed away, I read one of these books (Murder, She Wrote: Dying to Retire) and was not impressed.

This time around, though, maybe I appreciated it more because I’m over a decade older and slower. I mean, it’s not like the Lee Goldberg books in the Monk or Diagnosis: Murder series with a lot of humor and some daffy characters for amusement–it’s pretty earnest. And Jessica Fletcher does go about her business talking and talking to different people in Death Capital (which is the translation from the French of Cabot Cove). And of course they’re planning a big party while she’s doing it.

So, the plot: Cabot Cove is getting ready to have its first lobster festival, which means Jessica comes into contact with the lobstermen who are having a bit of a problem with their broker who handles their sales–and perhaps the leader of the lobstermen’s organization is not really on their side. So half of the book explores this tension, well, the dual tensions of putting on a lobster festival on what seems to be a very short timeline (the book starts a week or so out, and they’re still planning it) and the lobstermen vs the broker, and the lobstermen who dissent from the current order vs the those who like tradition or how things are always done. I guess that’s triple tensions, but they take the first half of the book, setting things up. Then, on page 150, Chapter 13, Jessica awakens on a lobster boat with a dead body whom she discovers is the broker, and the boat is sinking. Actually, we get a primer on that in the Prologue–Jessica on the boat with a body, and then Chapter 1 starts two weeks earlier. And the next 120 pages are the subsequent rescue, investigation, resolution, and denouement.

So the pace is slower than your 60s or 70s men’s adventure paperback original, but it’s a different target audience. Perhaps the pace matches the show–I still haven’t seen a full episode (nor of Monk or Diagnosis: Murder), but maybe it takes :20 to get to the murder and :23 to resolve it (or vice versa). Or maybe because I’d mentally prepared for a “Cozy” or because I’d read one previously or because I was used to slower pacing from “Female Detective” in Finding Lizzy Smith, but the pacing did not bother me as much as it did in the book I read in 2010.

At any rate, it was okay. Colorful in its way. And I have two or three floating around on the to-read shelves, so perhaps I will read another before 2036.

Eesh, that’s a big number, 2036.

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Book Report: A Beginner’s Guide to Glass Engraving by Seymour Eisenberg (2000)

Book coverThe 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has an “Instructional” category, and I picked this book up. I bought an etching bit or set thereof for my rotary tool/grinder (as I mentioned when I bought this book last summer) a couple years back and have done a little work on wine bottles. I hoped this book would offer some additional techniques and whatnot.

However, this is a serious book about serious, professional-quality glass engraving. The samples come from pro shops, including one in Milwaukee, and very early the author dismisses using an etching bit on a rotary tool. This is serious glass engraving using a grinding wheel and plate glass, and it’s not a book for beginners. Much of the book deals with setup and preparation of both the stone wheels (shaping them the way you want to for the shapes you want to produce, making a good mandril/shaft to hold the wheel, and balancing the wheel so it does not bounce or wobble) and the glass (a whole chapter on beveling glass, which takes another set of machines altogether). The book then does move into some practice you can do with your different wheels to make leaves and stems and includes some patterns, but it requires a whole workshop of specialized equipment.

I guess that the main thing I’ve learned via extensive research (that is, searching the Internet for “glass etching vs glass engraving” and then reading this lightweight Internet chaff) is that engraving is a more industrial term, and what you do with a rotary tool or the acid is considered glass etching. So this is not really a book for what I hope to do intermittently amongst my other handicraft projects, but it was at least educational in that regard.

If you want to be a professional glass engraver, you can probably learn a lot from it.

At least it filled a slot in the Winter Reading Challenge for me.

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Book Report: I’m No Hero by Charlie Plumb (1973)

Book coverThe 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has a “Wartime Setting” category, and I picked up James Webb’s Fields of Fire as it was the first piece of wartime fiction I laid my hands on, but it looked pretty thick, and my time is running out on hitting all fifteen categories. So when I came across this book, nonfiction and looking shorter, I laid my hands upon it instead. I bought this book in 2009 for just such an occasion. How foresightful I was!

In 1967, Charlie Lamb was shot down over North Vietnam and was taken prisoner, and he spent six years as a prisoner of war. This is his account of those years, presented not exactly chronologically, but topically (although with a little bit of chronolgy that evolves). The account does not linger on the torture and deprivation they suffered–it’s pretty matter of fact about it–but it does extol the ingenuity of the men. I mean, at one point, the author, a ham radio operator as a kid, is trying to build a radio out of things he found in a Vietnamese POW camp, including bits of wire and whatnot. He talks about their exercise programs, how they worship in secret, how they exercise, and a bit of how they’re moved around, but by 1973 are stacked in Hanoi as the war turns against North Vietnam.

Thematically, the book is very positive–again, focusing on the ingenuity of the prisoners and not dwelling on the deprivations of their conditions, but for the second book in a row, the book hints at and then deals, more directly, with the author’s divorce. In this case, the author was away for six years and his wife found someone else in the interim. But even then, the author kind of mentions his heartbreak, but even though he does bring a meeting with her for signing the last of the papers, and he tells of how it affected him, his recounting of it still maintains a certain stoicism.

I mean, the title of the book is I’m No Here, but the greater indictment for Generation X–that men such as these were not that much out of the ordinary. Heck, my father, who served during the Vietnam War but was spared, to his everlasting guilt, from serving in Vietnam by the luck of the draw, might have been able to build a radio from spare parts. Can I? No. And my children? Less than I.

So I salute men like Charlie Plumb. Men as we’ve not seen much since.

I did note a couple of things in this book with paper flags, but I won’t give direct quotes, only some comment.

  • The ranking officer at the Hanoi Hilton, when he was there, was Captain Stockdale. Admiral Stockdale. Who would be on the Libertarian ticket as the Vice President seven years after this book was written. I have recently saved or printed out an article he wrote based on his rules from his time there.
  • He mentions how the Communists pick small, underdeveloped nations to start their trouble in. Well, in the 21st century, the long march is different, ainna?
  • He mentions imagining, in the POW camp, a dinner where he’s seated between Marilyn Monroe and Gina Lollobrigida. As we on the Internet know, Gina Lollobrigida passed away on January 16 of this year, which was a loss to men of a certain age, and unfortunately, a discovery and loss to men of another certain younger age.

Also, the book has a bit of a triumphalist tone. Because in 1973, Saigon had not fallen, and we would not see the helicopters lifting off from the rooftops of Saigon in what has been a recurring theme in American wars since then. One wonders (no, one knows) if the decline of competence in men (and women) led to the decline of the nation’s fortunes. Perhaps the G.I. Bill was not all that.

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Book Report: Weird Hikes by Art Bernstein (2003)

Book coverThe 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has a category “Nature/Outdoors,” so I picked this book out of the Nogglestead stacks (which I’ve started to use instead of “to-read” shelves because hyphens are getting expensive these days). I got this book from my first order from ABC Books during the Great Springfield Timeout of 2020.

So: This book is by a naturalist/conservation agent? who has written a number of hiking guides for hikes, presumably in California and Oregon mostly, as that’s where he has lived for a long time. This book, though, captures 14 of his hikes where he has found something spooky to think about, or at least he let the imagination get the best of him. So we get things like his meeting someone who has been dead for a long time and spending time with her at her cabin which has been burned down for a while, or maybe hiking while Bigfoot is watching him, or encountering his first bear on a hike after thinking about encountering a bear while on a hike….

So the weird is kind of not really that weird, honestly, and some of the distances seem a bit short–he talks about hiking a couple of miles as though it’s a bunch, and maybe the trails out west are more rough than we have here, but I know I have hiked the Long Trail at the Nature Center with my boys since they were toddlers, and it’s not all paved. And my friend Chris, who was shot down in his back yard in St. Louis a couple of years ago, did an extreme hike as a fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and that was like 30 miles or more in a given day. So I wasn’t terribly impressed by the number of miles, but he did carry some camping gear sometimes and camped overnight, and maybe the country is that much rougher on the back side of the Rockies.

What really struck me about the book, though, was his life taking place outside the hikes. The first takes place when he’s in school; another, a couple later, talks about a dream he had about hiking with a woman whose face he doesn’t see, but he later hikes with a woman on a date, and he ends up marrying his dream woman and helping to raise her child. They have a pair of daughters, hike sometimes with the family, and then at some point he mentioned marital problems, and then they divorce.

That meta text made me rather sad, ultimately. And the book did not inspire me to want to go for hikes, although we’ve been known to hit a lightweight trail or two in our travels. I mean, it’s no Nature Noir, but then again, Nature Noir was no nature noir, so I guess it’s par for the course.

I did get to check the box on the Winter Reading Challenge though.

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Book Report: Fantin-Latour by Michelle Verrier (1978)

Book coverThis book sat on my sofa-side table, an old Sauder printer stand actually–past the half century mark, and I still have two Sauder printer stands from the middle 1990s as household furniture–for over a year. Although in past years, I have browsed poetry or art monographs during football games, I did not do so this year. I’m not sure whether it’s that my attention span has withered or that I cannot switch between football plays and text as easily as I could when I was a younger man or if my current selection of monographs and poetry chapbooks does not compel me to read them. Maybe both.

So as the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has a Pictorial category, so I grabbed this book. The artist comes of age, so to speak, at the same time as the Impressionists–and he exhibited at times with them in their anti-Salon shows, but he’s not really an Impressionist. His art has two veins, really (well, three): He was a successful painter of still lifes and flowers who did brisk trade in them amongst the aristocracy or at least the monied class in England, but that was not his passion. He liked to do more fantastic works based on things like Wagner’s Ring Cycle and dabbled in etching.

So the book presents about 16 pages of text and biography, which is a pretty good balance between the that and the actual art. Unfortunately, most of the images of the art are in black and white which really doesn’t do justice to the art itself, and one cannot really get a sense of the realism in the still lifes when they’re mostly gray. Although I note that one of the works is courtesy of the St. Louis Art Museum, so it’s entirely possible I have seen one of the works in this book in the flesh as I did go up there a couple of times over my decades in the St. Louis area.

At any rate, a nice collection of art. Even the dreamier fantasies are better than most modern art.

Fun fact: Henri Fantin-Latour signed his art Fantin to differentiate himself from his father who was also an artist.

Probably not that LaTour, though.

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Book Report: Conquistador by S.M. Stirling (2003)

Book coverThe 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has a Speculative Fiction category in addition to the Set in Space category, so I selected this book. The tagline above the author’s name is It’s 1946. The white man is about to discover America. So it looked alt-historyish, but it has a bit more of a science fiction vibe to it.

In 1946, a disabled (well, walks with a limp) World War II veteran is messing with a radio set in his San Francisco apartment when he accidentally opens a rift to another place, an undeveloped Bay area. We learn eventually that Alexander the Great did not die at 30, which ended up stunting Western civilization. America is still sparsely populated by natives who have not changed in centuries. He brings some of his army buddies and their families over to colonize the new found land, and over the course of the decades, they build a small, slightly feudalistic society, but they do keep the gate open so that they can travel between the places, albeit secretly.

In the modern day, a couple of department of conservation detectives come across animals that should not exist–long extinct, or greatly endangered, including a California condor with no traces of lead in his blood, and it leads them to investigate a privately held company centered on an industrial part of Oakland–the home of the gate, of course–and they are abducted to the far side where they help uncover a plot by one of the old families and some new emigres to take over the far side.

So it has a bit of flashback to unveil the backstory (although not all of it) as well as excursions the two sides of the gate and interludes where the semi-omniscient narrator follows different characters, mostly the main antagonist and the woman from the far side who has lied to him and then kidnapped him–and whom he might love.

As the main character is a conservation agent, we get a lot of enumeration of species of both flora and fauna along with great details about the topography and how it is unchanged by man; it reminded me a lot of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in that regard. We also get a little commentary about how the society is structured on the far side of the gate with more conservative values, including a bit of aristocracy, but sold as overall good–I mean, I was not entirely swayed, but it did lack some of the deleterious features of our world.

The book runs over 400 pages and includes a couple of appendices, but it could have been trimmed by about a quarter or a third to improve the pacing. And with the thick descriptions running up over the 300 page mark with the main problem only then coming into focus–the raising and training of a bunch of native mercenaries to seize the gate–I thought perhaps it was going to lead to a cliffhanger and another book, but no. Suddenly, we have a fast, Executioner-style raid on the training camp followed by a clash at the gate which disrupts it, and the book ends with them working with two physicists on the far side trying to recreate it. So a very abrupt ending with room for a follow-up that has not yet come.

So not bad, and it ticked off a box on the Winter Reading Challenge. And it gives me the opportunity to post this song by Canadian trumpeter Maynard Ferguson which I heard at least once and perhaps more whilst reading the book and procrastinating writing the book report.

Once for sure on WSIE; also, perhaps, on my copy of the record of the same name.

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Book Report: The Book of Irish Limericks by Myler Magrath (1985, 1995)

Book coverThe 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has a category Under 200 Pages, and 40 pages is definitely under that limit. As I mentioned when I bought the book last month, it was between this and the collection of the Sara Teasdale poetry as to which I would use to fill the slot on the paper. Well, you probably could have guessed that the man who read Lecherous Limericks by Isaac Asimov would go for this book. So I have.

Well, I will say this for the book: Originally published in 1985, it was reprinted several times–this book comes about ten years later, about the time I turned 20-something. The limericks are often off-color–which means they’re proper limericks–but clearly it’s the product of an earlier era, where a little naughty was amusing. Thirty (almost) years later, and who’s telling limericks now? Old men. Ay, in the Lecherous Limericks review, I told the story of how I knew a lot of dirty jokes in middle school and how that made me popular amongst some kids in middle school. In 2023, this stuff is tame to the point of being twee. But we’re not here to talk about it as a cultural artifact except that we are.

Not as good as the earlier Asimov–probably, but I don’t remember that well the actual content of that book which I read four and a half years ago. I mean, it’s not like poetry I’ve memorized or poems whose catchphrases (poems have catch phrases?–damn right they do!) I repeat to myself at times. Most of the initial lines do end in a place name, and to be honest, as I don’t know my Irish geography or, more importantly, Gaelic pronunciation, that well, I’m a bit at a loss for grading the rhymes. At least once, a limerick is repeated with a different place name in it, and assume they both rhyme if you’re Irish.

Amusing, and brief enough to have been amused rather than annoyed. But it did take me three nights to read it amongst longer works, so not something to tackle all at once, or you’ll be bored. But briefly.

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Book Report: Breathe: You Are Alive by Thich Nhat Hanh (1995)

Book coverIt’s been a year since Thich Nhat Hanh died; in researching how to say his name, I found a documentary made on the anniversary of his death where everyone was calling him by either his nickname or his birth name, so I’ve had to rely on the Wikipedia entry for pronunciation. Not that I’ll ever actually say his name aloud; mostly I just type it here in book reports (see also Thundering Silence and Peace of Mind: Becoming Fully Present).

This book slots into the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge‘s “Religious or Spiritual” category. Originally, I picked up the Joel Osteen book I bought five years ago(?!), but it was more of a self-help book akin to Eat the Cookie, Buy the Shoes or The Power of Positive Thinking–although they include Bible versus, they’re not religious in theme–they don’t talk about the nature of the divine or the doctrines of a church.

This book, like Thundering Silence, is commentary and history of a particular Buddhist sutra. This one is a lesson on breathing by Buddha, sixteen practices or things that you can think while breathing in and out to calm your body, calm your feelings, calm your mind, and lead you to enlightment or closer thereto. It’s basically thirty-two lines of teaching wrapped in the story of where and when Buddha taught it (the sutra itself) followed again by historical analysis of how the Sutra (or sutta) was passed down, history of the sutra’s setting, and then commentary and expansion on the practices.

Basically, again, it’s breathing, but with each exhalation and inhalation, repeating to yourself to calm your mind, calm your feelings, understand the object of your mind, and then progressing at the last quartet into understanding the non-dual nature of everything and whatnot. So one can take it through the first three quarters of it and get a good course on mindfulness, but the last quarter goes into the unified nature of self and non-self that underlies Buddhism.

That, and the mention of the cycle of rebirth, are really the only Buddhist cosmology in the book, and none of the later evolved cosmic Buddhas (like Amida Buddha and whatnot). So very core, very original to the tradition. But the text itself was passed down for generations, popping up in Vietnam based on an earlier Chinese translation (or perhaps I got this backwards). So an interesting read and an educational read, but it has not convinced me to be a Buddhist.

To breathe a little deeper and talk to myself as I do so, sure.

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Book Report: Merchanter’s Luck: Rendezvous at Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh (1982)

Book coverThe 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has a category entitled “Set in Space”, and this was the first space paperback that I set my hands on. It was a pretty fine DAW first edition when I started it, but it’s a read copy now, which is just as well.

I have not read a Cherryh book since middle school or high school, when I came across a copy of The Pride of Chanur at the library and recognized the title from the song “The Pride of Chanur” by Leslie Fish from a collection of filk music, Quarks and Quests, that I’d ordered basically for the cost of shipping from the back of an Analog or Asimov science fiction magazine.

Uh, spoiler alert: That is a good summary of the plot of The Pride of Chanur, which I also bought in….2007? Which is odd; I am pretty sure that I just came across a paperback copy of the book in the stacks, too, so maybe I have two.

At any rate, it has taken me this long (35 years) to read my second Cherryh book (probably–although I might have read another when I was younger that I do not remember).

Which is a lot of column inches to another book I’ve read by the author. What about this book?

The title on the spine is Merchanter’s Luck, but the cover also says Rendezvous at Downbelow Station which made me wonder if this book was the start of a series. Well, a moment’s research on the Internet indicates that this book followed Downbelow Station but was not so much a sequel as a book in the same part of space with some minor characters who were the major characters in the previous book.

In this book, a single owner/operator of a small merchant vessel, the sole remaining member of the family who’d owned it after they were slaughtered or taken prisoner by pirates and two other brothers died after, is down on his luck. He’s down to his last credits, he’s operating under an assumed identity and with a renamed ship, “borrowing” money from the margin account of a distant trade syndicate, and without a crew since his last hired man jumped ship, and with few prospects. In a dive bar, looking for a crewman, he encounters a beautiful woman, member of a powerful family running a ship with 1000 crew but with no prospects for young helmswomen to advance, and they spend the night together. He then vows to see her again at her ship’s next stop, several hops away. No problem for a ship crewed around the clock, but for a single man flying solo, a risky endeavor–as the hops are disorienting and the total time takes several weeks of flight time. He manages to get there and becomes a minor celebrity, but entangles himself embarrassingly with the woman’s family–which leads to the family bankrolling his operation so long as he takes five family members with him on an expedition to nigh-uncharted space where trading opportunities might be had. Or they might be bait for a trap.

The book runs 208 pages, and for the first quarter I was really enjoying the world-building and how it was worked in with the plot, and the captain of the small vessel and the woman were falling for each other. But it got a little too intriguey, with the limited omniscient narrator looking in on one then the other and the other family members and a lot of back and forth about how they could not trust each other and steps they took in their mutual distrust. I would have preferred a more straightforward narrative, but that would not have made book length without the long passages and sections where one character distrusts the other, they talk about it, and one or the other thinks about how he or she cannot trust the other. As you might know, gentle reader, I don’t really get off on intrigues, which is why I am not so fond of modern television.

At any rate, it was ultimately okay. I won’t dodge Cherryh books in the future, but I don’t know when I’ll find another on the shelves. I do have numerous other DAW books on the shelves here, including a boxed set of Andre Norton books, another author I read once or twice as a kid that led me to buy more later. I don’t know when I will get to them, but certainly not before the end of the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge.

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Book Report: Racing the Light by Robert Crais (2022)

Book coverI bought this book for my beautiful wife for Christmas, so I don’t get to put it onto my read shelves, although it would not surprise me if a secondhand copy does not end up over there. After all, I have a pretty complete set starting with The Monkey’s Raincoat, Crais’ first Elvis Cole novel dated 1987 which my wife gave me, along with Crais’ other books to date, for Christmas in 2005. I’d say that Crais books are a Christmas tradition at Nogglestead (and Honormoor, our house in Casinoport, and the untitled Old Trees house), but 1) Crais does not write one a year and 2) we’ve gotten them in between holidays when available.

So, in this book, an older woman with a retinue of bodyguards comes to Cole to find her son, a podcaster who has disappeared. Cole delves into it, finding an association between the podcaster and an adult movie star. And his folks worked on deep, deep black government projects back in the day, so perhaps someone took the boy to get to the parents. The adult movie star also goes missing, and Elvis Cole and Joe Pike and Jon Stone (a recent recurring character) find high-powered Chinese bugs in the podcaster’s home. So it could be anyone and for any reason, and eventually Cole narrows it down.

It’s a quick read–I slotted it into the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge in the Page Turner category–and I read it in a couple of nights (somehow, I have less time to read now than in the past, where a Crais or Parker book would only take an evening). Maybe I’m a slower, more distracted reader these days.

The book also brings Lucy Chenier and her son Ben back into Cole’s life, and I was afraid they were brought back into the book so they could be taken by the bad people, but that’s not the case. My wife speculates that Crais is planning to wrap up the series and is tying up loose ends. Maybe. I dunno. I mean, I hope not, as I have enjoyed all the books (they lack that post-2001 turn into making the bad guys Republicans and delivering Important Messages that many series did). But it’s not like I’m lacking for things to read here.

So consider this a recommendation, and remember the story of how I acquired copies of Crais’ first published work.

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Book Report: A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs by Susie King Taylor (1902, 2009)

Book coverI bought this book in 2018 (I just discovered thanks to an Internet searcher from China), and it was the first book by Author of Color that I grabbed for the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge.

Originally entitled Reminiscences of My Life in Camp when it was published, the publishing house who slapped a new introduction on it to get a fresh copyright re-titled it for the 21st century, knowing what would sell the book–the personal pronoun My does not target the niche audience of university folk, and in Camp is not specific enough for a population that (by my tests in the 1990s) could not date the Civil War to know where camp was or why it was important.

The book basically has two parts: The Civil War-era diary, which details her time after escaping slavery and attaching herself to a military unit as a laundress and teacher of the other freed blacks along with the raising of the first black regiments in the Union army and a couple of their expeditions. The second part comes after the war, a later couple of additions talking about the integration of the newly freed slaves into the society and includes a chapter where the author, a resident of the magical land of Massachussetts (according to the text, Massachussets, as one of the most abolitionist states and forward-thinking in its treatment of freedmen, was legendary amongst the former slaves) to Louisiana. Unfortunately, it was not pleasant (to say the least), and it would be no better sixty years later (as Black Like Me sort of simulates).

The book is very short–154 pages when padded with end notes, illustrations, and a introduction to pad it out. Given that it’s still in print, or it was fourteen years ago, one can assume that it was required reading in some courses or another, but one wonders about fourteen years on. After all, the author is a Christian, and she’s hopeful in the first part of the book that blacks will be treated equally after emancipation, and even in the second part, she’s disappointed, but still hopeful. Which is not what has been sold for the last thirty years and what has been beyond the pale in modern thought in the last decade. You know, after the country elected a bi-racial child of an African and an American. Oh, how I would weep were I not a stoic and/or cynic.

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Book Report: For the Love of Benji by I.F. Love (1979)

Book coverThis year’s Winter Reading Challenge has a category called Kids’ Chapter Book–not so strange, as the 2021 edition had a Re-Read a Childhood Favorite category, and the 2022 edition had a Young Adult category. This category looks to be a gimme for serious readers. And I thought I might be in a world of hurt since I not only read Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates last winter, but I also read several other Doubleday Children’s Classics last year as well. But I found this book which I bought in the spring of 2009 after having seen it twice in two days, and I was set.

As you might know, gentle reader, I prefer Boomer of television’s Here’s Boomer to Benji. Probably because Benji was mostly a movie dog (and not that many, truth be told). This book is the novelization of his second movie, released in 1977.

In it, Benji’s family is on its way to Greece for a vacation when someone–tattoos? marks?–Benji at the airport, and the little scamp becomes an unwitting courier. When he arrives in Athens, he is accidentally set loose, and he evades numerous secret agent types as he looks for his family. Dog chases later, happy ending!

You know, it was probably hard to capture most of the charm of the film, which was undoubtedly a little dog doing amazing things and looking cute, in print like this. So take it for what it’s worth.

I’ve already alluded to it, but I was really surprised how few movies and appearances the various dogs playing Benji made. Two movies with his name in the title, the one with Chevy Chase which must have been excerpted in The Weekly Reader (how old am I? So old that there was a national newspaper for kids distributed free in school–and apparently it continued until 2012, so you might not have to be old old to remember it), and a couple of cameos in other films. And a television special or two. Man, he seemed ubiquitous at that point where the 70s turned into the 80s.

So I got my kids’ book for the reading challenge in, and that’s 2 of a minimum of 5. I am cruising, but I would like to hit most if not all of the 15 categories by the end of February. However, as my last year’s experience indicates, that might be too late for a mug–when I turned in my full sheet last January, I got the last mug, the display mug, in the Library Center branch of the library. Unless they ordered more, this year, I might end up with a librarian’s coffee-stained personal mug. Which is fine by me: Coffee is sterilizing, or so I tell myself when I reuse a mug for the fifth day.

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Book Report: Finding Lizzy Smith by Susan Keene (2017)

Book coverThis is the first book I’ve completed in the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge. I have applied it to the Female Detective category. The main character is a detective, a former police officer, and the action is more urban action than I think the Cozy category would allow. The two are kind of redundant, although from what I have read in the genre definition somewhere on the Internet, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series would be cozies. But we will see–Cozy might be the last category I read if I make it through all fifteen.

In the book, a former police officer turned private detective after her husband was murdered is scheduled to meet a college friend in Forest Park, but when she waits for the friend who does not show, a laser dot appears on her. Another friend saves her from gunshots, and so she has to wonder where her no-show friend, the Lizzy Smith of the title, is. She starts to investigate, and others in their close circle of college friends start to die–and her husband might have been the first. Eventually, she discovers that it might be tied to a dance club fire that killed several people and left a potential Olympian without legs. And Lizzy might be part of it.

It’s an okay book, paced well enough and well-written. As the book takes place in St. Louis and was written by someone from Southwest Missouri, I was watching for little gotchas. In one instance, the protagonist and another woman go to a strip club on the corner of Euclid and Kingshighway. When I lived in Old Trees, I remembered Euclid nearby–and I guess it’s in the Central West End, too, but running parallel with Kingshighway. It actually does intersect with Kingshighway far north of the Central West End–in an area where two small white women (the main character is 5′ 1″) would probably not go. The book has some misspellings and misnomers that spellchecking would have missed–Kingshighway appears as two words, for example–that a closer proofreading by a native would have caught. On the other hand, she talks about a 40-caliber Glock, and I thought that was a mistake–but I heard it a second time, so I double-checked, and the Glock 23 is chambered for that round, so it’s not wrong, but I’m not sure how common they are outside of women-generated detective fiction. Also, the rifle with the laser site is identified as chambered in .243, but I’ve always seen that as .243 Winchester. But that’s just from rifle magazines, not real conversations.

At any rate, I bought a number of her books in November (that long ago already?), and I don’t dread reading the next one. I can’t say when I’ll get to the others, though, as I do have this Winter Reading Challenge to tackle yet.

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Book Report: Lay Down My Sword and Shield by James Lee Burke (1971, 1994)

Book coverTwo and a half years ago, I picked up this book ABC Books after having read about the author in Garden and Gun magazine–a 2016 issue, which I was then four years late in reading. When I did my Good Book Hunting post, I said I’d get to the author eventually, and that was only two and a half years, which isn’t bad comparatively.

At any rate, this book is in the mystery section, but it is not a mystery. It’s in the mystery section because the author later became known for one or more mystery series, and the publisher who put this book back into print wanted people to buy it, too. So, voilĂ ! A “mystery.”

But the book is more a serious, perhaps literary, novel about a Texan Korean War veteran whose service was briefly as a corpsman and less briefly as a prisoner of war, a member of a longstanding line of Texas heroes and businessmen starting with an ancestor who was a legendary lawman and a father that was thought to be a shrewd businessman. The protagonist, such as he is, is now an attorney serving an eccentric oilman and industry clients. He’s running for Congress and deals with a senator who looks forward to welcoming him to the fold and a mysterious power broker/fundraiser who is seemingly appended to the senator. He, the protagonist, is also a raging alcoholic who spends all day drinking whiskey, and he cheats on his wife with Mexican prostitutes–the first scene in the book is leaving his home and his oil wells for a trip to a cheap motel with one such on his way to a political event. He’s got an older brother trying to keep him on track, perhaps for his own purposes, and a cold wife. Just when you’re wondering if the alcohol or the whoring is going to do him in, an old army buddy calls from a small town jail in an agricultural area. He’s been working with some of the workers to unionize the agricultural workers, and the strike breakers and the local law enforcement have just about killed him. When the protagonist gets him out, they do kill him, and the protagonist takes up the cause of the farm workers–it doesn’t hurt that they drink a lot, too, and one of them is an absolute babe from back east. This allows him to work out his demons from the war (as a POW, he was eventually broken) and to find more meaning than coasting on his family’s wealth and fame.

So it’s a bit of Ross Thomas meets Larry McMurtry as well as a commentary on Texas, noble unionizers, and the change from Democratic political dominance to Republican political dominance and the Viet Nam war taking place about the time of the book’s writing. The text is a little bit lush, with again a lot of color being thrown around to describe things (I noticed this in The Red Badge of Courage as well). A little slower paced than a mystery, but not a bad book. Its political leanings are there, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with them as later authors might.

So not a bad read. I finished this book at the beginning of the month (well, all right, New Year’s Eve, but the Book Reading Year starts early), so it’s not eligible for the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge. I’m not sure where I could have slotted it anyway–it’s certainly not a page turner, and it’s 226 pages long. But it hasn’t dulled me on the author, which is good as I still have a couple of his other books which might actually be mysteries somewhere. Probably close in the stacks to where I got this one, but I have forgotten where that is.

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Book Report: Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur (2015)

Book coverAh, gentle reader, I had a hard time writing this particular book report. For this young woman is a New York Times best-selling author, and she has appeared on numerous television programs and many venues, reading her poetry to large live audiences. And, as you might know, I have self-published a collection of poetry (Coffee House Memories–surely you have not forgotten even as you have not bought it!) that sold dozens of copies. Or at least a dozen. Perhaps.

So you might consider anything negative I have to say sour grapes. You might even be right! However, here’s what I thought.

I bought this collection of poetry in August, and although it is not my wont this year to read poetry or artists’ monographs during football games, but this would have been one I could have browsed as the poems are generally short.

According to a quick Internet search, the author is a more modern InstaPoet who wrote and illustrated this book when she was 21, and she’s a perfomance poet, although meta tags from various Web sites don’t indicate this is the rough-and-tumble poetry slam/open mic world or more genteel events where she is the featured poet given in small rooms or auditoriums at universities. Probably the latter, although in interviews she says she came up through the open mic circuit. They might be friendlier in Canada than the Wabash or the Venice Cafe, though.

So what of the poetry? Most of it is only a couple of lines, a lot like a thoughtful tweet. Some of the sentiments thematically resonate with me, or at least with where I would have been in my twenties–I mean, look at much of the material in , particularly the reproductions of Unrequited (released when I was 22) and Deep Blue Shadows (released when I was 23). They share a bit of the cynical romanticism, the hardened vulnerability….

But some, not so much, as they rely a bit on modern feminist celebrations:

the goddess between your legs
makes mouths water

That are really not for me. That is a whole poem, so you can see what I mean by being tweet-length. What is it? Does it somehow describe the vagina as a deity separate from the vagina-bearer that somehow causes a salivary response akin to good food or a conditioned response to Russian bell-ringing, or is a simplistic and twee feminist self-affirmation or reclamation of sexual power? I’ll take Occam’s razor to it: The simplest answer is probably true.

So some of the shorter poems have a good sentiment but are undeveloped, and when the pieces are longer, they’re unrefined. Overall, the work reminds me of Pierre Alex Jeanty whom I read earlier in the year and who is also more of an Internet “influencer” than a true poet.

The volume I have has some poems or lines therein highlighted–I’m not sure whether this means the books was used as a textbook or if the previous owner marked bits from favorite poems that way. It’s not how I do it, of course–if I like a poem a lot, I memorize it. And have been known to recite them at open mics. Including Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” which is, what, 20 pages? Yeah, you don’t uncork those too often at open mic nights. Certainly not at the Wabash or the Venice Cafe.

So, overall: Some promise, but a lot of emotion dumps that express but do not evoke. Still, if I see one of her later volumes at ABC Books, I’ll probably pick it up.

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Book Report: Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (2005, 2007)

Book coverI thought this might be the last of the manga that I bought at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton garage sale in 2015, but extensive studies have determined that although I have read Shaman King #17 and Warriors: The Rise of Scourge, I don’t see a book report for Naruto #15. So I guess I will find that seven years hence.

At any rate, this is early in the series. An alchemist, which is kind of a magician, has lost his arm and has a robotic one to help him with his alchemy/spellcasting. The attack that left him in such a state also destroyed his brother’s body, so he, the fullmetal alchemist, infused a suit of armor with the brother’s soul. A serial killer–well, we would call it a serial killer in a modern suspense thriller, but really it’s an unknown supervillain of some sort–is hunting down the government alchemists. As the story develops, they learn that it’s a survivor of a government suppression of a religious sect, the suppression which used government-sponsored alchemists to perform a genocide on the sect. Pardon me, but what is the verb for genocide? “Perform” seems tame.

So we get four chapters in the saga, where the brothers and other government alchemists battle the unknown assailant and discover his reasons, but not why he is so powerful. Four out of many, many such chapters, and of course it’s comic book form, so a lot of comic art for little story.

So I’ve not really gotten into manga, although I have read a comic book or two. But they don’t count toward the annual total, unlike graphic novels or manga. So I will eventually read that remaining volume when I find it.

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