Book Report: Alien Nation by Alan Dean Foster (1988)

Book coverIn rummaging through my books last month to find a book by a native author, I went through the collpsed bookshelves and percolated a couple of movie novelization tie-ins to the top. So, gentle reader, you might look forward to reading book reports on a few of them here in the near future.

I told my boys about these movie books and how, before the home video revolution in the 1980s, if you wanted to experience your favorite movies outside of the cinema in a format you controlled, you had to go with the movie paperback. The novelization if you wanted the story in depth or the storybook if you wanted pictures from the movie (and, sometimes, things that were cut from the movie as in the Star Wars Storybook which shows pictures of Luke and Biggs on Tatooine). They, being of the Internet age, are pretty used to having any movie approved and licensed by big tech available at any time, although they will be the last amongst our people to remember going to an actual video store.

But I digress.

I must have seen the film at some time, but I am most familiar with the television series–enough to remember the star’s name even though he really hasn’t appeared in a leading role anywhere else. The television show lasted a season, my senior year in high school, when the fledgling Fox network didn’t have a full week’s worth of programming. According to the Wikipedia entry, Fox cancelled the series because it wasn’t making enough money at the time–but that its enduring popularity led to five television movies through the 1990s. Which is four movies past Firefly if you’re keeping score, brother.

Of course, by now, it’s a forgotten science fiction cult classic, maybe, so I should probably explain the setup. An automatically piloted alien ship appears out in California containing thousands of aliens that come to be called Newcomers (or Slags if you prefer the slur). These aliens were supposed to be slave delivered elsewhere, but inadvertently arrived at Earth. So the government has quarantined the aliens for a while but are helping to integrate them into human society. This has been ongoing for a bit–ghettos have formed where the Newcomers live, and some are starting to work alongside humans.

When human Detectives Sykes and Tuggle witness trouble brewing in the Newcomer area of Los Angeles, they witness and try to stop what appears to be a robbery in progress at a Newcomer-owned store. The robbers kill the storekeeper and then shoot their way out of the store, killing Tug. I think I’ve actually seen the movie and not the television show because I seem to recall this scene, with shotgun blasts punching completely though cars. But that might be a scene from another movie.

So one of the Newcomers on the police force is promoted to detective, and Sykes volunteers to partner with him. Although he’s not supposed to work on the case of his partner’s death, Sykes knows the Newcomer detetive, “George,” is working on a murder that might be related. So they navigate the hidden world of the Newcomers, finding a plot that deals with an alien drug ring and not the prevalence of super shotgun shells.

The book has a lot of good commentary on relating to The Other and integration, which means it’s certainly out-of-step for the 21st century. But they’re univeral themes, the alien in a host society, and the book explores some of these concerns without banging the race drum too much.

Foster handles the cinematic elements well, but the book’s pacing kind of matches some of the Executioner novels in that a larger part of early pages sets the tone and characterization, but then we get about three quarters through it and we have to cover the slam-bang finish and false endings in detail. Not on of Foster’s greatest works, but it’s still pretty good and kept him in kibble.

I don’t think anyone had actually read this paperback before. The spine was uncracked, and as I read it, the binding popped a couple of times and pages came loose. Which is okay, ultimately, as I suspect that once this book disappears into my paperback shelves, no one else will ever read it. Because, c’mon, man, I’m hoping to own the book for another couple of decades, after which I fully expect “reading” to be a lost art, and even if people still do it, most of it will be tech-approved content on tech-provided devices. But I digress.

I flagged a couple of things for comment as I’ve started doing, and I will risk the spine of this book further to provide this bit of commentary to you, gentle reader.

I Remember When

His hand reached out to automatically slap the rewind/playback switch on the answering machine. It whirred as he advanced on the kitchen. One time he’d put a funny greeting tape on the machine, a gag gift from a fellow officer. Only trouble was that his mother had called once and had been forced to suffer throught the tape’s bouncy barrage of four-letter words. All copspeech, unsuitable for mentally stable civillians. Now the machine requested its messages in a noncontroversial monotone.

When I finally moved out of her basement, my sainted mother bought me an answering machine so that she could leave me messages. In those days, although cell phones existed, they were still on the lower end of the adoption scale. I didn’t have one for a couple of years yet. I didn’t think I’d need an answering machine as I was not expecting a lot of calls. And, as I expected, she was the only one to leave messages. Well, mostly.

Also, note how much Foster has inserted here: In the movie, James Caan comes in the door and hits the button on the answering machine. But Foster adds depth with a little story about the protagonist’s mother. This separates the better novelizations from the lesser.

1 Out Of 2 Is Kinda Bad

“Wrap sheet shows one armed robbery conviction, a couple for sale of a controlled substance. He also beat a number of raps back East.”

Copyediting on paperbacks was not a big line item on even major books from major houses based on a major motion picture even in the 1980s.

The Other Water

There was muzak in the air and the cheesy aroma of canapes on trays. Waiters moved obsequiously through the crowd, dispensing Perrier and champagne and soaking up a month’s worth of gossip which the more astute among them would peddle a little at a time and for high fees to the city’s more prominent columnists.

Widows mentions Pelligrino water, which is my preferred sparkling water brand simply because I am not hoity-toity, and in the 80s, Perrier was pitched to the hoity-toity as it is a marker for a high class function here.

Also note how Foster here also injects a little characterization for some of the wait staff. The line in the script might be “A busy party scene.” Or, I suppose, the script could have included some of this in its description. But I prefer to attribute it to the seasoned pro (more on that in a bit).

Someone Has Kids

He tapped the picture. “That’s Kristin there. My daughter. It’s kinda an old picture, but you know how you get about old pictures. You always have this one special image of your kids, when they’re a certain age, when they look a certain age. When you’re seventy-five and they’re fifty, you’ll still see them the same way.”

Analysis: True.
I have a rotating set of pictures running on one of the monitors here in the lab, and since the Macintosh cannot recognize shortcuts nor include subfolders in its screensaver rotation, it mostly plays the root folder from one or more of my boys’ photo collections, which is disorganized photos from their extreme youth. And although they’re teenagers, about, now, they still have that toddler or little boy in them to me even though it was a lifetime ago to them. Not to me.

But Hasn’t Actually Scheduled a Wedding In A While
A paragraph later, talking about his aforementioned daughter’s wedding:

“When is the happy occasion?”
“Sunday. This Sunday.

In my experience, most weddings take place on a Saturday. Churches generally have other things scheduled on Sundays.

Of course, I’ve only been married once, and the wedding itself was long ago.

A Nice Line

They sat at the table and talked about small things suddenly becoming large, big things that no longer seemed half so important, and the debris of a person’s life called memories.

Definitely a noir coloration in the black and white text.

The Other Oprah Effect

His partner refused to be mollified. “She’s very progressive, I’m certain she’s considering it. She watches television all the time, and not just the Newcomer channel. She’s taken up flower arranging in her spare time. If she can pick up a human habit as bizarre as that, why not also divorce?”

I’ve heard that the other Oprah effect is that women who find themselves at home start watching programs like this and that they then find unhappiness in their marriages and the path to empowerment and fulfillment following a divorce. A friend pretty much attributed his divorce on Oprah.

Based on the screenplay by Rockne O’Bannon

I first became acquainted with the name Rockne O’Bannon from the episode of the middle 1980s Twilight Zone series. The segment was called “Personal Demons”, and it dealt with an older writer named Rockne O’Bannon who is plagued by destructive physical demons who damage his car and whatnot and, when he confronts them, they say they want him to write about them. When he does, they leave.

Because the character Rockne O’Bannon is older in the show, I thought O’Bannon himself was older. However, O’Bannon was at the beginning of his career in the middle 1980s. He did several stories for The Twilight Zone, one for Amazing Stories, and then this movie. He’s also responsible for Farscape (which I’ve never seen and would probably confuse with Lexx very easily since I didn’t see that program either).

I mention it because I think it’s funny that I thought that O’Bannon was a grizzled veteran in the 1980s, but he’s probably not that much older than I am.

So, to sum up, a good novelization of a mostly forgotten science fiction film. But it makes me want to go out and get the DVDs for the movie, the television series, The Twilight Zone 80s edition, and maybe Farscape and Lexx. Actually, I don’t have to go out to get them; I can simply conduct an Internet search online and be shocked that it’s so expensive and not buy any of them.

Which is just as well–I don’t carve out time for watching television, so they’d languish on the cabinet for years until I got around to them. Because I spend my time reading books based on movies and television programs instead.

Book Report: A Ginger on a Mission by Lynn Daake (2015)

Book coverI bought this book at an undocumented trip to ABC Books (sometimes, as I mentioned, if I only end up with one or two books, I don’t make a special Good Book Hunting post for it since the hunting, in those cases, wasn’t particularly good). I spotted it in the local author sets, and I asked Mrs. E., the proprietrix, if it was Mama Daake. We know the Daakes from church, and the younger Mr. Daake, whose children received our boys’ Mega Bloks collection and still receive odd Mega Bloks from time to time when they turn up at Nogglestead, is not married to Lynn. So I thought it might be his mother, but, no, it’s his sister or sister-in-law. So bear that in mind, gentle reader: I know the family, and younger Mr. Daake is very large; although very good natured, I would not want to give him offense by savaging his sister or sister-in-law’s book.

With that disclaimer out of the way: The book is what it says it is. The subtitle is My Trip to Egypt, so it’s essentially culled from her diary/journal of a two week mission trip to Egypt. Daake is not a professional writer, so really the text is a bit of a cleaned up version of a journal which focuses on the travel aspects of the trip and the siteseeing a bit with only a little description of the mission work (cleaning up a park in Hurghada). You get some detail about the work, but a lot more of the time is spent on where the group is going in their non-work time, the souvenirs they seek, what they’re eating (a lot of Western chain restaurants), and impressions of the city. Also, a quest for hairbraiding.

So. It was a fairly quick read, the first thing I finished since finishing the Winter 2021 Reading Challenge (this book could have fit into the In a Different Country and Memoir categories). It doesn’t go into a lot of detail, it’s not particularly spiritual (although it does cite scripture a couple of times). So it kind of fits into the normal person biographies that I tend to read, but this one is contemporary.

I do wonder, though, how much of mission tripping is mission tourism industry, though. I mean, they paid money to go to a tourist city on the Red Sea to work half days on a project not directly tied to a sister church–although they do an activity with a local Coptic church and attend a service or two with them. They’re not directly proselytizing but just setting an example. So whether they’ve brought anyone to Christ through their example is uncertain–the author would like to think so, but I’m from a wee bit more cynical world.

At any rate, it’s the second book recently I’ve read set in Egypt (the other being The Judgment of Caesar). Which might have been why I jumped on it so quickly.

I also flagged a couple of things for comment.

Local Cuisine

The final dish was a beef dish. It had beef made three different ways. One was an interesting site [sic]. They [sic] way that it is made is that the beef is ground into a hamburger consistency and seasoned. Then it is formed around a shish kabob skewer and grilled. When it comes off the skewer and served, it looks like a piece of dog dookie with a hole in the middle of it. I think I was the first one to try it because of its visual appeal, and it actually tasted pretty good.

Strangely, I have recently been thinking of the word dookie. When I was growing up in the projects, it was the slang term of choice for human scat, but it’s not one that my boys have been exposed to–certainly, I don’t tend to use it any more. Then, I was thinking perhaps it was the word duece pronounced incorrectly originally. Of course, I didn’t search for it on the Internet, because, c’mon, man, that will not be good for my appetite ahead of my next meal and for the kinds of ads I would see for the rest of my life.

But sometimes I spend perfectly good brain cycles during the day thinking of things outside of Philosophy.

Shared Mall Experience
While visiting a mall, she notes:

You can even drop your kids off at Magic Galaxy where they can ride a roller coaster, drive bumper cars, or play with over 90 video games while you spend your time shopping. On the 4th floor there is a little tram where you can drop off your kids to ride the tram while you are shopping.

Although the local mall’s arcade does not have that many video games, for a while, it did have a little train that would ride around one small segment of the mall. We used to have our car serviced at the shop by the mall, so I sometimes took my boys up there and we would walk around the mall while we were getting the cars’ oil changed. So we rode on the train a couple of times during its brief presence at the mall. Since we were the only ones who rode it that I ever saw, it did not last long.

I’ve Seen Photos From Other Angles

Seeing the signs meant, “yes, we’re really are going to be able to not only see the pyramids but touch them, and even go inside one”. Then, all of a sudden, there they were. We rounded a corner and the pyramids came into view. They were majestic and stood high above the city buildings.

A lot of photographs make it look like they’re out in the middle of the desert, but I have seen photos of the pyramids showing them in the middle of the city.


As we started to drive away from the Sphynx and pyramids, Rafik told us that we would be headed to lunch. I was expecting to drive into Cairo to the mall, but we didn’t. Instead we pulled over right across the street from the pyramids. We were eating lunch at a KFC/Pizza Hut in Giza.

Martial Artists Can Relate

Juju and I bonded over martial arts and kickboxing. He showed me some of the moves he knew, and then I taught him a few more. We were having a blast throwing kicks and punches in the middle of the mall while our friends were shopping.

This is true in life: When you find out someone studies martial arts, particularly another type, you ask to see something that you can try out on the people in your school. Or, if you’re like me, you read a pile of books on it to learn dirty tricks.

Sounds More and More Like America

Vanda called Mariette and told us that their block had no power. Ish! We all laughed and decided it was an Egyptian sendoff. We didn’t have electricity when we left Hurghada, and new we weren’t going to have electricity as we left Cairo.

The Springfield area had rolling blackouts during the winter storms a couple weeks ago. I have been trying to get the phrase They’re not going to like the nineteenth century they’re voting for, but it might as well be They’re not going to like the third world country they’re voting for. Either works, I suppose.

At any rate, again, an interesting book. I enjoyed it and learned something, but it’s not a professional work, and if you’re not used to that, you probably won’t enjoy it as much.

Book Report: Karate! by Russell Kozuki (1974)

Book coverThis book was previously published as Karate for Young People, and if I had read the back of the book when I picked it up in August 2019 at ABC Books, I would have seen that the book describes itself as being for all young people between 10 and 17. Maybe I did. I am not sure it would have dissuaded me. I certainly do pick up the martial arts books for young people at ABC Books. But not the ones for old people. I assume that’s the market for the tai chi walking books that are piling up because I’m not buying them.

At any rate, this is a very cheap paperback–almost pulp magazine quality more than a book–which offers a list of the basics of karate. Stances, strikes, kicks, blocks, and sparring. The techniques are shown with a series of three or four pictures, each of which takes up most of a page with a paragraph of explanation. The photos are not as helpful as the ones in Boxer’s Start-Up, but that books pictures and diagrams in that book really set a high bar. This volume has a couple instructive ones.

As I have said before, these books really serve to supplement an actual class since the motions are hard to learn from mere pictures. I mostly read them to draw comparisons with the martial arts class that I study. Some of the main differences that I see are that the karate ready positions tend to have a more closed stance (hips are aligned toward the opponent) and the hands are lower. But I’ve seen many of these forms already, but not lately–as I’ve mentioned, the school has focused a lot on boxing over the last couple of years.

But, still, there’s something to learn. One combination strike is called the U-punch, which is thrown from a front stance (which my school has never emphasized) and involves a cross and a backwards uppercut. It reminds me of my Matador combination, which is a knifehand toward the head from the forward hand with a low cross coming under it almost simultaneously. Although I haven’t really sparred in over a year with the way things have gone, this was one of my favorites. But, again, we’re not focusing on tae kwon do strikes these days.

So a good review over a couple of hours where I wasn’t at the dojo. Which I haven’t been much the last two weeks with the weather and whatnot. I need to get back so that I don’t fall further behind and I can wear my business gi again sometime.

Book Report: The Judgment of Caesar by Steven Saylor (2004)

Book coverIt’s been six years since I read Saylor’s Last Seen in Massilia. I bought a bunch of these at a garage sale or something, and when I read Last Seen in Massilia, I had them together on the bookshelves, but I had put the first two I owned of the series out of order. Since then, the shelves upon which I’d put them in order collapsed, so they have kind of been just piled onto the remaining bookshelves. When it came time to find books to fill out the Winter 2021 Reading Challenge categories, I grabbed the Saylor book that was on top. This one.

It takes place well after the events of Last Seen in Massilia. After Caesar defeats Pompey. Gordianus, the protagonist, is returning to Alexandria, Egypt, with his wife, a native of that land, as well as his two adopted charges and the hulking mute brother of Gordianus’s recently deceased lover, whose ashes she wanted spread on the Nile. As they see the light of the Great Lighthouse at Pharos, a storm comes up and blows their ship into the remnants of Pompey’s fleet. Pompey hates Gordianus (Caesar is not terribly pleased with him, either), and he looks forward to executing the Finder (Gordianus’s nickname) after he returns from the shore expedition where he (Pompey) hopes to ally himself with the Ptolemeic royal family–but Pompey is assassinated before he reaches the shore.

The Egyptian fleet chases off the remnants of Pompey’s forces. Caesar arrives, and Gordianus finds himself caught between Caesar, Ptolemy, and Cleopatra in their various intrigues.

Basically, I thought the book was going to just come down to a historical intrigue book and not something hinging on a crime, but on page 209 (of 323), one of Cleopatra’s food tasters dies from drinking poisoned wine that she and Caesar were going to share, and suspicion falls on Meto, Gordianus’s adopted son who went missing in Massilia and whom the Finder disowned at the end of that book for throwing in his lot with Caesar. So Gordianus leaps into action to try to find out who really did it. Which he does in the back quarter of the book.

You know, I couldn’t help but think that this book is just like The Good Girl’s Guide To Murder (I mean, they even both came out the same year). The first half of the book deals with familial relationships, the pressures of mothers/daughters and fathers/sons (respectively), and the reader expects a crime but gets a lot of rumination until, yes, there it is, somewhere in the 200s, something happens (a murder/attempted murder). Then, very quickly, the protagonist solves it without an awful lot of legwork. You see? Exactly the same.

Except that this book has a lot of flourishes of interesting historical locations and events, even basing some of the dialog on things recounted in Caesar’s account of the Civil War (which I read not long after Last Seen in Massila). So it’s more relatable to me than the McBride novel.

Which is good. I have several others in the series hidden in the piles on the to-read shelves. Hopefully, it won’t take me six years and a prompt from a Winter Reading Challenge to get to them. But one thing I have recently rediscovered is that I have a lot of really cool books to read, starting with the partially finished David Copperfield (which I paused early in January so I could get a coffee cup from the library’s Winter 2021 Reading Challenge.

Oh, and things I marked:

I Feel Smart
The book talks about Crassus, the other part of the first triumvirite.

Pompey was not her first husband. Her previous marriage had been to Publius Crassus, the son of Marcus Crassus, the lifelong rival of Caesar and Pompey. When the elder Crassus set out to conquer Parthia some five years ago, he took his son with him; both perished when the Parthians massacred the invading Romans.

I am listening to an audio course lecture series called History’s Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach; one of the lectures is on the battle at Carrhae. So by the time I read this, I could talk about that particular battle in detail.

Me, Too

“I am a slave–of Isis. I serve the goddess and belong to her completely, body and soul, in this world and the next.”

Yeah, me, too. That’s what I get for naming a cat Isis.

Not a lot marked here, but what am I going to complain about, the description of Alexandria? I will say of the two Civ IV Great Wonders from Alexandria, I prefer the Great Lighthouse to the Great Library.

Thank you, that is all.

Book Report: She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo (1983, 2008)

Book coverWhen I went to the library to get a book about food for the Winter 2021 Reading Challenge (Chocolate: The Consuming Passion), I also got this book, a collection of poetry by a Native American woman who, it turns out, is the current Poet Laureate. Which might explain why this book is in print nearly forty years after it or its content first appeared.

Well, her poetry lines are generally longer than those of Linda Hogan, whose book I read in December, short before I knew I would need to read something by a Native American author in the beginning of 2021.

But the same knocks I applied to Hogan, except perhaps the short lines, although some of the poems in this book also have short lines. But the poetry is not concretely evocative. It’s lyric in spots, and probably works better in performance than in reading from the page. But, come on, if the poetry depends upon a predetermined interpretation and delivery, it’s only so good.

The first paragraph and sentence of the introduction say:

What do the horses mean is the question I’ve been asked most since the first publication of the book She Had Some Horses in 1984. I usually say, “It’s not the poet’s work to reduce the poem from poetry to logical sense.” Or, “It’s not about what the poem means, it’s ‘how’ the poem means.” Then I ask, “So what doe the horses mean to you?”

Like most poets, I don’t know what my poems or the stuff of my poetry means exactly.

Spoken like a professional academic poet.

Maybe that’s my problem. I do know what my poems mean, and it’s my job as a poet to convey the meaning poetically, through words that feel good when you read them out loud, not that sound good when I read them out loud (although back in my open mic days, they did–or maybe they were just loud). Of course, I am not a professional poet, although I did get paid $100 for a poem once. Between that and my other sales to national magazines a decade ago, I am entitled to the professional tier in various writers’ guilds when I have been known to join.

At any rate, most of the poems flowed over me like water and back into the bookearth from which they came. I don’t expect to pick up another of her works, although the author is also a musician and a saxophone player, so perhaps I will catch something of hers on YouTube and order a CD.

Or maybe not. A little too Native American-influenced for my tastes.

Book Report: Chocolate: The Consuming Passion by Sandra Boynton (2015)

Book coverBrian J., you might ask, exactly how low will you go to complete all fifteen categories in the Winter 2021 Reading Challenge? Well, gentle reader, I went to the library the other day to find a short collection of poetry by a Native American author and a book on food since I can’t find the book I pulled from my personal library about food. And I found this book on the shelves of the library in the food section. It’s a short humor book with lots of illustrations, but, c’mon, man. It was in the library’s own Food section, and not the kids’ food section. So it counts.

At any rate, it is an update of a 1985 volume that contains the sort of thing one would find in an “I Am….[Food Type]” article on Reader’s Digest if anyone besides me subscribed to it in the 21st century. You have information about how cacao is grown, how it is made into chocolates you can eat, where to buy the best chocolate, how to store it, all presented with a sense of humor and a lot of drawn hippopotami. Strangely enough, you can learn a lot from this book if you’re interested. It includes steps to grow cacao beans–step one is basically live in Africa or South America–and also recipes. So the book has it all.

But, yeah, it’s a very short read–it took me an hour or so. As I said, it’s more of a long article with the cartoons. But still informative.

I did flag one thing, though:

The new millennium has brought with it a quiet but insistent counter-trend to mass production: exquisite artisan-made food and drink. Wine, cheese, coffee, beer, bourbon–each has drawn a fanatical core of small-batch makers who strive for new vistas of nuanced taste experience. In turn, those makers attract a core of deeply devoted followers.

And so it is with chocolate.

The chocolate that these driven iconoclasts make is kown as “bean to bar” or “craft chocolate.” The makers begin at the beginning, working directly with smale-scale cacao farmers to determine how to grow and nurture the best possible beans, and how to optimize the methods by which these beans are sorted, fermented, and dried.

She’s talking about Askinosie Chocolate based here in Springfield, Missouri–and she does mention him in the thank yous at the end.

So I am down to two books to read in the next nine days. I am starting to feel very confident that I will complete the Winter Reading Challenge the hard way.

Book Report: Vespers by Ed McBain (1990)

Book coverI first read this book fifteen years ago (or, at least, I first reported on it fifteen years ago). That was when the book was fifteen years old, so basically its age has doubled. Mine, almost, too. Or so it feels sometimes.

At any rate, this book precedes Widows, and as I mentioned, I spotted this volume on my bookshelves right after I read that book. I ordered this book last spring from ABC Books during the beginning of the Ongoing Unpleasantness; I got it because it is an autographed copy.

Not only is it autographed, but it is inscribed.

Much like the English copy of The Caribbean Mystery, I have to wonder how it ended up in Springfield, Missouri, for me to pick up.

The book has two unrelated plots: Carella and Hawes investigate the murder of a priest, and they have a bunch of suspects: A member of the congregation who has a beef with the priest; a member of the Satan-worshipping church down the street, whose rites are described in some tawdry detail; members of the the church staff; a local drug dealer who might have hidden drugs in the church; local youths/drug distributors who chased the drug dealer into the church after the drug dealer stole the drugs; someone who might be having sex with and/or blackmailing the priest; and the eventual murderer. The second features Marilyn Hollis, the former prostitute who is involved with Detective Willis, whose past catches up with her in the form of two South Americans who want the money she stole from her former pimp when she killed him.

The first plot moves a little recursively, as the stories of each person change according to the other peoples’ stories, until Carella returns to the scene and uncovers additional evidence that allows him to solve the mystery pretty quickly; the other meanders to a conclusion abruptly.

So not the best of the lot, but still an engaging read, and I read it in three nights, so pretty fast for my modern pacing.

I ended up picking it up because, when I was handling Widows, I saw that it was a selection of the Literary Guild. Which is a book club. So this is my Book Club Selection for the Winter 2021 Reading Challenge.

Oh, and I did mark some things as I went along.

Anachronism Alert

“This was late in the afternoon,” Krissie said, “this black kid came running into the church with his head all bloody. Hald a dozen white kids were chasing him with stickball bats and garbage can covers, chased him right into the church, right up the center aisle to the altar.”

I am not convinced a twenty-two year old woman from Minnesota would use the term stickball bat, especially since everyone else in the book calls it a baseball bat.

Attacking George Bush
I might have mentioned that in the 21st century, McBain let some sucker punches into his work. But here in 1990, he also criticises the earlier George Bush:

The black man in America knew where it was at. And where it was at was not here, not in these mean streets. Where it was at was uptown someplace, so far uptown that the black man had never been there, could not even visualize it there, knew only that uptown was a shining city somewhere high on a hill, a promised land where everyone went to Choate and Yale and a thousand points of light glistened in every cereal bowl.
Read my lips, Carella thought.

A little zinger for Reagan, too, who borrowed shining city on a hill from John Winthrop.

The Baddest Word
Clearly, there is a black kid in the book and it muses on racial questions, so we get the superbad word.

In the movie theater, sitting there in the dark with mostly white people, Hooper likes to wet his pants laughing every time Eddie Murphy does another one of his shrewd things. White people all around him are laughing, too. Not at any dumb nigger but at dumb Charlie who the nigger’s fuckin’ around. Hooper doesn’t completely understand why all these white people are laughin’ at theyselves, but he knows it makes him fell damn good.

Yeah, the superbaddest word of all appears throughout this book; it should be cancelled harder than Widows. But McBain does capture something of race relations at the time–Eddie Murphy’s characters were protagonists, black but relatable, and even white folk could identify with him. However, that’s not allowed or encouraged now–it’s not our shared humanity to discover and celebrate, but our assigned categories to defend.

Tie-In To Something I Just Saw

Marilyn wondered if there were such things as passionate, poetic men who looked like lions and made their homes in subway caves.

I just saw the intro for Beauty and the Beast when reminiscing about the New Shows of 1987.

McBain Knew No Goths

Carella recognized in the group of teenagers the two young girls he’d spoken to yesterday. They were dressed more sedately today, not in black–this was largely an alien color in a young person’s wardrobe–but in dark shades of blue that seemed appropriate to the day’s burden.

Apparently no metalheads either. In my high school years which ended in 1990, black was not uncommon.

Anachronism Alert (II)
One of the white local youths:

So we were, I don’t know, showing off for the girls, clowning around. I remember Allie was doing his imitation of what was supposed to be Tony Bennett singing I Lost My Heart in San Francisco, but he sounded more like Jerry Lewis, did you ever hear Jerry Lewis sing?

Probably not what a group of teens in 1990 would be doing, imitating Tony Bennett but sounding like Jerry Lewis.

Asimovian Self-Insertion

“Carlos Ortega,” Morente read out loud from the computer screen, and then turned to the faxed record and said, “Carlos Ortega,” and then kept turning his head from screen to paper like a spectator watching a tennis match, comparing records, speaking the facts out loud, “forty-two years old, born October fifteenth,” and said in an aside to Willis “Birthdate of great men” but did not amplify, “six feet three inches tall, two hundred and sixty-five pounds, brown eyes, bald with black sideburns, this is some kind of miracle, broken nose, knife scar over right eye, they sound like twins except your guy was born in Argentina and this guy in El Salvador.”

Ed McBain was born on October 15, you see?

White Privilege Alert
McBain also includes several slurs for white people and one for the Italians:

This was getting to be a regular reunion of WOPS, the World Order for the Prevention of Subterfuge, a watchdog society dedicated to the proposition that any American born with an Italian name must keep that name forever, neither changing it completely nor even Anglicizing it, lest he be mercilessly and eternally hounded to his grave with reminders that he is meely an ignorant peasant with hoity-toity pretensions.

As you might remember, Ed McBain’s birth name was Salvatore Lombino; he later changed it to Evan Hunter. Note that the aforementioned Tony Bennett also violated this precept and changed his name to a more American-sounding name.

So he is pointing out that anti-Italian prejudice and the reaction, Italians ‘policing’ themselves to find people who are not authentic enough, existed in living memory. Which, unfortunately, is not living memory to many people in the 21st century, or it would maybe give them some perspective other than what they’re given by the authorities.

At any rate, I flag things to comment on just so I can give a little more to these book reports. I don’t want to be pedantic, and I don’t want to spend hours composing these book reports, so you’re getting, for the nonce, a comment on things that strike me while reading the book.

In sum, I liked the book, and I tried to keep the Doritos dust off of this since it’s a warmly inscribed first edition, so it might be briefly collectible until the remainder of us who like to read physical books and not just content delivered to our devices and managed/’curated’ by big tech companies. Especially books with bad words in them even when the thoughts were, for the time, good.

Book Report: Force Down The Executioner #180 (1993)

Book coverBrian J, you say, surely you’re not going to count an Executioner novel as your book set in another country? Well, gentle reader, time will tell: I have a little over a week to finish as many books in the Winter 2021 Reading Challenge categories as I can, and I have five slots left. So I might not have the chance to read something with more heft and depth for the In A Different Country slot.

And, truth be told, this book takes place in several different countries: The Executioner goes to Brazil to establish a relationship with counter-insurrgency agents as they raid a paramilitary group’s hideout to rescue a woman being held for ransom–willingly, as it turns out. Then he stops by Miami for a briefing, and then he’s off to Jamaica with a cross-national defense team to take on the paramilitary group’s beachhead there, and then he goes back to Brazil to take on the paramilitary group with the counter-insurgency agents, and then decapitate–or deliver the coup-de-grace–by eliminating the businessman behind the scenes. And, finis!.

The stop in Miami makes me wonder if I can truly, in good conscience, say this book took place in a foreign country. But ethics fall by the wayside when it comes to filling out my Winter 2021 Reading Challenge form.

As Executioner novels go, it has a lot of development in the first half to two-thirds of the book, which lead me to think maybe it was the beginning of another trilogy in the series, but no–about two thirds of the way through the book, it jumps into action set pieces and finishes quickly. Also, Bolan is a bit of a bystander through much of it compared to other adventures where he works solo. But it’s not a bad entry in the series.

I am down to 13 volumes in The Executioner series, not counting the Super Bolan books and related series. My goodness, what will I do without Executioner novels as the default for times when I need a book to read? It’s taken me ten years to read the 47 books my beautiful wife bought me for my birthday in 2011 and the others I have picked up since then. They’ve been a constant on my bookshelves almost since we moved to Nogglestead. So I will, someday, miss them.

But I probably won’t re-read them, unlike the Ed McBain and John D. MacDonald books that I come across again.

Book Report: Danger on Vampire Trail by “Franklin W. Dixon” (1971)

Book coverAs you might know, gentle reader, the Winter 2021 Reading Challenge has a category Re-read a Childhood Favorite. At first, I thought I would skip this category–one only needs to fill out five to get the free coffee cup–but when I was dusting and re-arranging the shelves last Sunday, I came across this volume. Which I have owned since childhood, gentle reader; this book was one of the books that my recently departed aunt gave to us because her step-children had outgrown them. That was when we were young and in the housing projects; we got a little bookshelf and a couple dozen volumes of young adult literature, which in those days meant a Hardy Boys book (this one), a couple volumes from other mystery series (Nancy Drew, The Power Boys), a couple of boy-and-his-dog books, and a couple of a young-person-and-his/her-horse books. As you might guess, I read most of the mystery books, but the books about pets? C’mon, man, I was living in the projects. Murder and crime, I could imagine. Pets? No way.

So this might trump (sorry, is that word verbotten yet? No? But it will be, and here I used it before it was officially double-plus-ungood) Me and My Little Brain as the longest time between re-reads. I re-read that book in 2018, but I am not sure in what order I read these books in my youth to establish which I might have re-read after thirty-eight years and which I might have read after only thirty-seven-and-a-half years.

In this volume, Frank and Joe and their chums Biff and Chet (who were The Missing Chums in an earlier entry in the series–forty-three years in real-time) go out west to the Rockies to investigate credit card forgers, and they come up with some illegal sapphire miners to boot. So, yeah, that’s it. They travel, have some adventures and whatnot, and solve the mystery of Vampire Trail, which is a path that leads up the mountain to the villians’ redoubt.

You know, for someone who feels as though he was steeped in the Hardy Boys’ mythos, I can only say for certain that I read three of the books. This one, and The Missing Chums and The Twisted Claw, but surely I read more of them when I was young, ainna?

I’ve tried to get others into the series–when he was young, I bought my half-brother the first two books in the series for his birthday or for Christmas and told him that I’d get him a new one every time he finished one. He never hit me up for another, so I don’t know if he ever read them. I’ve also picked up other copies from the series and set them out for my boys to read, but I don’t think they got into them. I asked the youngest, and he said in not so many words that they were too formulaic. How sophisticated the youth have become through the years. Although I think it’s more that they didn’t have enough cartoons in them.

At any rate, it ticks off a box–or fills a line–on the summer reading challenge form. And, as my wont, as far as one can develop a wont in but a month and a week, it would fulfill two categories: Re-read a Childhood Favorite and Crime. So I have not filled out the form completely (yet), but I have filled it with things that cross categories.

Book Report: Widows by Ed McBain (1991)

Book coverIn keeping with my Winter Reading Challenge schtick, I have selected a book that would fit into two categories: One Word Title and Crime. Since we’ve already got Larry McMurtry’s one-word titled memoir about books Books in the one-word title slot, this will have to be my crime book for the challenge.

I first got into Ed McBain novels in the middle 1980s, about twenty-five years into the series, and I read a bunch of them from the library and from my aunt’s collection, out of order, but the eariler books, it seems, were more episodic and less serial in nature–but that might be only my memory of it, since Steve Carella first marries Teddy sometime back there, and his kids get born somewhere along the way. And patrolman Kling becomes a detective. So, nah, I’m mistaken. Strike this whole paragraph from the record, your honor.

But by the time the 1990s were rolling along, I was reading the books pretty soon after they came out, so I was following the series business in real time. But by now, I’m a bit lost. Who is dead by this book? Who has joined the team? Is Fat Ollie a force yet? I was thinking maybe there would be some small market for an 87th concordance to help put one back into the proper context when picking up a book in the middle of the series. Not that I would do that, gentle reader; that’s a lot of work, and I have many other things to read before I return to this series (although I did just spot a copy of Vespers on my bookshelves and, from a distance, thought it might be a duplicate of this book, so I might read that after David Copperfield).

In this book, the 87th has to find the killer of a kept woman. The man who was keeping her, an attorney, is also killed, and was the writer and recipient of any number of naughty letters reproduced in titilating detail in the book. In another part of the city, Carella’s father is killed during a hold-up, and the detectives from that precinct work on that case. The third main strand is that Eileen Burke, fresh from trauma that I’ll probably read about in Vespers, starts training with the hostage negotiator team. The first thread does not tie into the other two, but when they close in on the people who killed the elder Carella, they take a hostage, which ties those bits up.

So, definitely a good book. McBain was one of the masters, although by mid-career here, the books have expanded a bit to befit higher prices, I guess. And we have the cop-and-therapist trope. Maybe that just seems so outsized because it was such a thing in the Parker books. I dunno.

But I liked the book, and I’ve picked up McBain books here and there, so I’ll have to re-read them a bit as time goes by. Unlike John D. MacDonald, I think I have read all the McBains, although that’s probably only the ones that are easy to come by. Regardless, enough time has elapsed that I won’t remember the plots too clearly and can enjoy them with a little newness again.

I did flag a couple bits.

Asimovian Self-Insertion

Actually, it was a greenboard. Made of some kind of plastic material that definitely wasn’t slate. Eileen wondered if the move she’d seen on late-night television last week would have made it as Greenboard Jungle.

Lombino/Hunter/McBain wrote the book The Blackboard Jungle, but not the screenplay.

I’ll Have What He’s Having

“Yes, sir, that’s it, Pellegrino, like the mineral water.”

In 1991, I would not have known what that meant. In 2021, I was drinking Pellegrino’s whilst reading it.

The War

Tommy had moved back to the house that used to be his parents’ while he was away in the army. Nowadays, you did not have to say which war or police action or invasion a man had been in. If you were an American of any given age, you had been in at least one war.

Which was true at the time. When this book was published, it would have been Vietnam or Panama or Grenada; earlier books would have been World War II (the series began in the 1950s) or Korea. However, with the end of the draft in the 1970s, later generational military endeavors, from Desert Storm to the second Iraqi War and Afghanistan, were not widely shared amongst the young people. But you can still talk about veterans who have been overseas under fire.

Misquoting Yogi

And, as Yogi Berra once remarked, “When you come to a crossroads, take it.”

Ackshully, he said when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Perhaps McBain is misquoting on purpose?

What We Could Show McBain In The Future

The kid had been black.

That meant that one of the city’s foremost agitators, a media hound who liked nothing better than to see his own beautiful face on television, had rounded up all the usual yellers and screamers and had picketed both the project and the local precinct, shouting police brutality and racism and no justice, no peace, and all the usual slogans designed to create more friction than already existed in a festering city on the edge of open warfare.

Yes, he means Sharpton. But what would Sal Lombino think about Sharpton and 2020?

Shoot Him In The Leg

“And you’re wrong when you say she had to put him away. She didn’t have to. Her perception–and, again, the reality as well–was that this man was going to cut her if she didn’t stop him, she was going to get cut again if she didn’t stop this man. But she didn’t have to kill him in order to stop him. The man was armed with only a knife, and she had her service revolver, a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson–plus a .25 caliber Astra Firecat in her handbag. She certainly did not have to kill him. She could have shot him in the shoulder or the leg, wherever, anything of the sort would have effectively stopped him. The point is she wanted to kill him.”

The therapist is talking to Kling about Burke’s recent justified shooting, and McBain is demonstrating a bit of ignorance about guns and self-defense informed by popular culture which says that’s a good idea.

Help Is On The Way

That was the trouble when a city started sliding south. You couldn’t bother about the little things anymore. When people were ggetting killed, you couldn’t go chasing kids spraying graffiti on walls. You couldn’t ticket a truck driver for blowing his horn. You couldn’t bust people who were jumping subway turnstiles. When you had murder and rape and armed robbery to worry about, the rest was merely civilization.

You might think that in the Dinkins era. But a couple years after this book appeared, Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York, and the police started enforcing a Broken Windows policy that says you do arrest and punish for those petty crimes, and the effects trickle up. It certainly seemed to work, and current large city administrations are looking to prove the opposite is true as well. Well, mainly, they’re just looking to limit prosecution for petty and small larcenous crimes, and the resulting crime spike is completely unforeseen.

Again, The Future Has A Surprise For You

The people form the nearby project all came out to watch the Late Night Show. This was either Die Hard or Die Harder on a summer’s night at the very top of August. Except this wasn’t a high rise in L.A. or an airport in D.C.

The third entry in the series, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) takes place in New York City. As you know, gentle reader, The City of the 87th Precinct is a stand-in for New York City.

Cancellation Notice

The Preacher was in the streets already, doing what he did best, doing in fact the only thing he knew how to do, which was to agitate people into a frenzy. Pacing behind the barricades, long hair slicked back, gold chains gleaming in the reflected light of the spots, bullhorn in hand, he kept telling the crowd that whenever a white girl yelled rape, then the nearest African-American males were always accused of it…
“But take a pure innocent young virgin like Tawana Brawley, who gets reped by a screaming mob of white men who then scrawl the word nigger…”

I sure read a lot of books with that word in it. I must be a racist. No telling what Ed McBain would think of this modern world where characters like The Preacher are running the asylum. McBain passed away in 2005; he barely had any time to work in anti-Bush sentiments into his novels much comment on or embrace the rising ethos. When you read the books from the later part of the 20th century, you get a sense of cynicism and detachment. I’m sort of glad we didn’t get to see how earnest he might have become.

Don’t Now Much About Guns And Stuff (II)

She saw a big, muscular man with a close-shaved skull, wearking a white T-shirt, that was all she could see of him in the window frame. AK-47 in his right hand. Just the sight of that gun always sent a shiver up her spine. The illegal, Chinese-made assault rifle–a replica of the gun used by the Viet Cong–was a semiautomatic, which meant it required a separate pull of the trigger for each shot. But it could fire up to seventy-five shots without reloading, and its curved clip gave it the lethal look of a weapon of war, no matter how many claims the National Rifle Association made for its legitimate use as a hunting rifle.

Well, he got the semiautomatic part right, and that it should be illegal because it looks scary; however, the 75-round magazine is a drum, not a curved banana magazine. C’mon, man, do you even read Executioner novels (or, as the younger generations do, play first person shooters)?

Still, even though sometimes McBain’s politics seeps into the books–like that passage above, it’s not odious and permeating and he offers enough sentiments that an evil-thinker can agree with to make up for it.

So, yeah, McBain is up there with John D. MacDonald as masters of the craft that didn’t get to the phoning it in phase of a career or to injecting politics into the books so overtly as to alienate readers who didn’t vote for Dukakis. The books have depth, and just a bit of series business seeping in.

You will know how serious I am in the endorsement by how soon you see a report for Vespers. Well, I mean another one.

Book Report: Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry (2008)

Book coverThis book is a trifecta in the Winter 2021 Reading Challenge. I could count it in any of three different categories: Memoir/Biography, Book About Books, or One-Word Title. As I have already entries for the first two (Sid Meier’s MEMOIR!, Book Lust). So One-Word Title it is, which means I don’t have to read Linda Greenlaw’s Seaworthy out-of-order. But, Brian J., you read The Hungry Ocean and The Lobster Chronicles out of order, you might point out, but that’s different. Back when I got The Lobster Chronicles from the book club, I did not have her later work–and now I have All Fishermen Are Liars around here somewhere–so I have the luxury of reading them in order. If I ever do, that is.

Wait a minute, whose book memoir is this–mine or Larry McMurty’s? Both, gentle reader, both.

You might know Larry McMurtry as the author of any number of books, such as Horseman, Pass By, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, or Lonesome Dove–I say that because those books were adopted to films sometimes by McMurtry himself. Or you might know him as the guy whose shirts got pinched by Robert Clark Young.

In this book, McMurtry collects a number of musings and recollections about receiving books as a young man, buying books, and then becoming a book scout and a book seller in the 1950s. He ran a book store, first in Georgetown and then in his hometown of Archer City, Texas, until 2012 (after this book was written), so he offers insights into the secondhand and antiquarian book business through the mid-to-end of the twentieth century when it was a going thing. He also talks about the changes to the industry with the advent of the Internet, and how he was a throwback–which lasted only a little longer than after this book was published.

The chapters are short–the book has 109 in 258 pages–as the topical reminisces sometimes only last a couple of paragraphs. The book has no structure or flow, either, as the memories go backwards and forwards in time, with anecdotes of his youth following stories set later in his bookbuying (he prefers the experience of buying to selling). They drop a lot of names in the business but without a lot of character for most of them–just names, what store they were with, and maybe what they did once–but he somewhere says that’s intentional, as many of them have passed on and he doesn’t want to tell stories about people who cannot defend themselves. And the book ends not with a real conclusion, but a list of booksellers with whom he’s done business, including whether they’re out of business or not. He only lists two in St. Louis, Anthony Garnett and Lost Generation, neither of whom I’d heard of–and I was in the St. Louis area at the time. But McMurtry dealt in antiquarian books, not the cheap stuff I tend to buy.

So this book did not dissuade me from wanting to buy books and to read books and maybe even buy and sell books. As you might know, gentle reader, around the turn of the century, I spent my Saturday mornings at estate sales and garage sales looking for books and old games to sell on eBay–so I remember the thrill of that hunt and the triumph of a good find. I also marvel at how much McMurtry seems to read–he talks about re-reading certain books every couple of years, but I can’t make headway against my library without re-reading.

So I did flag a couple things for comment here.

A New Personal Goal

I now own Mr. Taylor’s mansion and have filled it with about twenty-eight thousand books, which took a while.

I don’t know where I am–I have about 2500 books in my book database, but that’s books I’ve read and reference sets. I have no idea how many books I have on the to-read shelves–probably that many or a little more–so I have a ways to go. Although I will probably get a boost from collecting volumes in a set–say Reader’s Digest World’s Best Reading editions–whose individual entries I have already read. I know, the sets I collect are very middle-class tastes. But they’re currently affordable, and they’re something, and I’m accumulating them more than collecting.


I read these comics with shock, but I didn’t really become interested in comics until I was an adult, investigating the Yellow Peril panic, which in essence had the Mongol Horde riding agin. The various Fu Manchu movies starring Christopher Lee are the modern-day Yellow Perilism; and our current worries about being crushed by China’s economic might is an extension of the syndrome.

Well, that very glibly dismisses policy concerns by calling them racist without using the word itself, ainna?

I wonder if McMurtry feels differently twelve years later? Probably not.

Brian Feels Smart

A dealer in Wichita Falls made a big paperback purchase, and was happy to sell the vintage stuff to me. These numbered several hundred books, and contained at least eighty percent of the titles I sold to Greg [McMurtry collected the first five hundred titles from five early paperback publishers but sold his first collection]. When Booked Up [McMurtry’s store] purchased Barber’s Bookstore, in Fort Worth, I siphoned off a few hundred more, all of which now ring the shelves of what once, long ago, was Mr. Will Taylor’s servants’ quarters, a plain two-story brick house which we nicknamed the Petit Trianon.

I know what that is not because I lived near Trianon Parkway in the St. Louis area, but because I read a book about Versailles and the original Trianon last year.

Almost The Second Book In A Row with De Sade

The book I got at Second Story that day was Marquis de Sade’s Justine, the first edition of which is an easily acquired book. But this wasn’t the first edition. It contained a few erotic engravings, meant to be dirty but not likely to raise much heat today. The book was priced $350–with my dealer’s discount I got it for $280.

I suspect a de Sade book is the one alluded to in The Picture of Dorian Gray but is unnamed in that book. It’s not finding the word brougham in two books in a row–and I have read a book between this and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I like to find connections between my bibliowanderings.

Reminds Me Of A Bookseller I Knew

Ought dealrs to collect? A good many dealers just don’t seem to want to. Leo Weinstein of the Heritage Book Shop (now gone) once showed me his collection of first American editions of famous books. My polite view is that Lou Weinstein’s heart is not really in acquiring books that he can’t sell.

I once said to Sheldon, the proprietor of A Collector’s Book Shop in University City and later Maplewood, he who was notorious for gigging people by pulling books out of the bookshelves by putting their fingers on the top of the spines and pulling them out that way–I said to him, “I can’t imagine what your collection is like.” He responded by saying, well, chided me that his business is buying and selling books; he did not collect them.

And I am serious about his notoriety for gigging people–when I took people to the shop for the first time, I would tell them to watch for it, and surely enough, Sheldon would chide someone for putting their fingers atop the spines while we were there. My goodness, I have not thought about A Collector’s Book Shop in a while, but right now, I am walking through it–going upstairs and then into the other rooms above the shop next to his on the ground floor.

Not Unlike My Experience

Underlying all these adventures was one motive: I never wanted to be without books I wanted to read, and if I could be reading four or five books at the same time, so much the better. With books pouring into the shop almost daily, this was not a hard thing to achieve.

I do pretty well without running a book shop with the biannual library book sales and frequent trips to ABC Books. I could probably lose half my unread books–maybe two-thirds–and I’d still have enough to read for a lifetime. But let’s not take that risk.

At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed this book which I have in a fine first edition with mylar over the dustjacket that I ordered from ABC Books during the great stay-at-home of 2020 (how’d that work out?), although I have personalized it with Cheeto dust and pizza grease. Which is just as well–I might be of the last generation, and perhaps a throwback amongst my generation–who loves books this way and who would really enjoy this sort of book and the attitudes contained within.

Which has a silver lining: cheap books in the near future, and plentiful kindling for my succeeding generations.

Amongst that future kindling, I have a copy of The Last Picture Show and maybe the movie book for Hud, the film version of Horseman, Pass By. Perhaps I shall pick them up after the reading challenge ends at the end of this month (and I finish the interrupted David Copperfield).

Book Report: The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi (~1643/1645, 2005)

Book coverThis book actually includes two works. The title work and A Hereditary Book on the Art of War by Yagyū Munenori circa 1632. Each work runs under a hundred pages, so just having one would be a very thin book indeed.

The title work lays out the basics for Musashi’s martial arts school. He became a prominent sword fighter, clearly having defeated all his enemies until he retired from the sword-fighting life and founded a school. The five rings in the title are Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and No Scroll. In Earth Scroll, he discusses the science of martial arts; in the Water Scroll, he discusses his own school and its practices; in the Fire Scroll he talks about battle–whether it’s one-on-one or a battle between armies, the principles are the same; in the Wind Scroll, he discusses the other schools and why they fall short; and in Emptiness Scroll, he talks about embracing the teachings so much that one leaves the teachings behind, which is a very Buddhist thought, but it’s blended a bit with Taoism.

His martial art is swordfighting, so everything is geared to that end–not empty hand stuff, although that is mentioned briefly. Mushashi favors fighting with two swords, a katana in the dominant hand and a short sword in the off-hand, but the book does not really go into drills for it–for that, you would have to join the school, of course. He also says a couple of things that go counter to what my school teaches–he mentions putting the weight on your heels (which I do too often anyway–I shall have to attribute this to the teachings of Mushashi instead of bad habits if called out on it) and not making a sound when striking (which I don’t do, either, I don’t picture myself as a “Hai-ya!” kind of man).

Also, the book is deadly serious. Everything you do should be focused on killing your opponent. I picture the school as something like the bad guys’ training programs in kung fu films: make a mistake, and the headmaster kills you.

After many of the lessons, such as they are, he tells you to dwell upon what you have learned. So even this translation from seventeenth century Japanese seems to be, like the other martial arts books with pictures that I read, something for existing students to take away and use for review.

The second piece, A Hereditary Book on the Art of War only a bit dwells on the work from Sun Tzu. Instead, it’s a bit of a mishmash of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and lessons from Musashi (although this work was written earlier). So it talks about swordplay, but it also talks about emptying the mind, following The Way, and obeying authority–the author himself was high in one of the Shogunates, so of course he would blend in some Confucian thought.

At any rate, it does not hold together as well as The Book of the Five Rings as it kind of wanders and is chock full of stuff like this:

Voidness is the eye of Buddhism. There is a distinction between false voidness and real voidness. False voidness is a simile for nothingness. Real voidness is genuine emptiness, which is the emptiness of the mind. Although the mind is like empty space insofars as it is formless, the one mind is the master of the body, s the performance of all actions is in the mind.

So a lot more, erm, philosophical than practical.

I don’t know that I learned a whole lot practiceable from this book–I mean, most of my actions already were directed to crushing my enemies, driving them before me, and hearing the lamentations of their women, so that’s not a new thing. But if I’m going to slowly get into Nipponophilia (one book in 2018, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, and one book in 2020, Samurai Warriors, is definitely a slow burn indeed, although I can spell samurai right the first time consistently now), I need to read the seminal texts.

Also, this book counts as the Translated category in the Winter 2021 Reading Challenge. And, having read the source, perhaps I can complete The Martial Artist’s Book of the Five Rings which I started reading at stoplights on the way home from ABC Books in October 2018 but did not finish. I read Stephen Kaufman’s Zen and the Art of Stickfighting last December, which probably brought these books to the top of my mind recently. That and the need to read something translated for the reading challenge.

So, in summation, a good book if you are into Japanese history, the history of martial arts, or eastern thought (especially the blending of philosophical/religious traditions). Not a hard read, not a long read (166 pages which includes end notes for each work and a bibilography for further reading). But, although the cover says “Embraced by many contemporary readers as a manual on how to succeed in life.” —Library Journal, that’s overstating it by quite a margin. A couple pages on footwork on different terrain requires a lot of analogous thought to apply those lessons to everyday life. Maybe the emphasis on strike-and-return–don’t spend time inspecting where you’ve struck, don’t leave your sword (or striking appendage) extended after the strike itself, and don’t watch and admire your home runs–run the bases like it’s a bloop single-maybe-a-double. But most of the lessons are either geared to swords or teaching swords or so nebulous that they’re not discrete lessons at all.

Book Report: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891, 2007)

Book coverWell, it’s clear where I should slot this book on the 2021 Winter Reading Challenge. I mean, it’s contemporary to its time–the 1890s–so it’s not historical. It is set in and around London, so it could be In a Different Country, but come on. This is an LGBTQ+ author even though the author himself would have probably thought the whole thing rubbish, and it’s not an LGBTQ+/- novel because it does not really celebrate those themes as the subject of the book.

As you probably know, the story is about a picture of the eponymous character hidden in the attic that ages while the title character does not. To be honest, I misremembered the name as The Portrait of Dorian Gray. And, SCENE!

Okay, so I had enough from my classical education to know that much. Now that I have read it, I know much more about it. And I rather liked the book. I’m going to give some heavy spoilers below the fold–tell you the whole story, abbreviated, actually–so leave of here if you want (I am just kidding. I have three kinds of readers: 1. Those who hit the blog and probably skip over the book reports; 2. Those of you who come in from RSS feeds and get the whole post without a fold; and 3. Those of you who have a book report due tomorrow and did a quick Internet search for something clever to say and don’t mind the spoilers anyway).

However, come on, you had to know the traitor in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was Dorian Gray, didn’t you? Oops, perhaps I should have put that spoiler beneath the fold. Continue reading “Book Report: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891, 2007)”

Book Report: The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Susan McBride (2004)

Book coverI thought I first heard about Susan McBride because she was the first winner of the Mayhaven Publishing prize for fiction which came with a publishing contract. I entered my novel John Donnelly’s Gold in the same competition (well, a later one–not the same as Ms. McBride) and did not win. But that’s not exactly how it went down. Thanks to this blog’s waybacking, I can see that I read And Then She Was Gone in 2006 because I’d discovered the author as a local author on the Big Sleep Books Web site and then learned about the Mayhaven Publishing contest from her. So. You know, I have nobody left who can tell me what I was like when I was younger. Which is why I keep on blogging even on days when this blog gets readers in the single digit.

At any rate, perhaps I will now remember that I have read something by this author. Likely, though, I will remember this book because it’s part of the Debutante Dropout series, of which I hear from time to time. And it’s got a blurb by Elaine Viets on the back, and I am pretty sure Viets was the last decent metro columnist in St. Louis. But enough about that.

So, about this particular book:

Andy, the first-person narrator of the book, is a Web designer. Her widowed mother is a society woman, and her parents raised Andy to be a princess, but Andy rebels against all that, working for non-profits as a Web master. Her mother hooks her up on an emergency basis with a Martha Stewart type of personality whose local show has just been syndicated, and her former Web master quit right before the big launch party because the hostess is a diva. So Andy navigates this millieu, the hostess, her boytoy trainer (who is a bit of a sugar sonny who glomps onto wealthy widows), the hostess’s daughter (also a partner of the boytoy trainer) who the hostess has ignored on her climb to success and who has a host of mental problems and a history of addictions, the company chef who does not feel he is appreciated, and various hangers-on in that retinue. She also deals with her mother’s pressures, the story of the black family moving in down the block, and her relationship with a defense attorney that her mother set her up with.

Finally, on page 262 of 353, someone dies. It’s a small thing, I know, but when you have murder in the title, one expects a dead body before long. Instead, the book focuses on the main character drifting through scenes with these people until, after a disaster at the launch party, the next day the hostess drops dead at a party hosted by the main character’s mother to welcome the new black neighbors to be filmed as an episode of the new show casting light on the ladies’ club having the party. So the main character drifts along with a reporter friend, who uncovers the family secret (the adopted daughter of the new black family is actually the natural daughter of the hostess, given for adoption thirty years ago and recently hired as the hostess’s personal assistant because she wanted to be closer to her mother). Whodunit? The daughter, accidentally, who just wanted to make her mother sick and need her (the daughter’s) help to recover, but a shared genetic defect made her predisposed to dying from a dose of ephedra–as the daughter herself almost did the day before (?).

At any rate, the book has a plot and group of characters worthy of a Chandler or a Ross MacDonald book. However, the first-person narrator kind of drifts through the scenes within it, and most of the scenes and verbiage deal with the narrator’s responses to her mother and the other characters in the book. Although she is present at the major events, she’s only a witness to many of them, and other characters (the reporter friend, a police detective, also women) conduct much of the investigation. The subplot of the adopted daughter is really just tacked on, and the ending is very quick (after the murder, the scenes include a trip to a small town to uncover the family secret, and discovering where the boytoy disappeared to–the pond behind the hostess’s house).

So it’s a bit like a Jane Austen book’s sensibility applied to a rich-people-doing-bad-things mystery a la Chandler or Ross MacDonald. But it didn’t work for me as it prioritized wordy reflection on personal relationships over investigation and action. Not my bag, baby.

I flagged a couple of things (including the exact page where the murder occurred because I was starting to think that no murder would actually take place).

Trump Sighting:
When the author is chiding herself, she says:

Sure, Andy, sure. And Ivana Trump shops at Wal-Mart.

I am thinking about starting to actively track mentions of Trumps in books from the 1980s through the early part of the century, where Trump was shorthand for ostentatious and gaudy. Perhaps it will illustrate how prevalent he was in popular culture for thirty-five years before running for President–a feat that modern “celebrities” like Kanye West will have a difficult time replicating. Plus, it will make it easier for the authorities to identify wrong thinkers in the past who mentioned the name of He Who Must Be Scrubbed/He Who Must Be Forgotten and places where the Unholy Name must be expunged.

Misquoting Alanis:

The author misquotes a (then) nine-year-old (now 26-year-old, old man) Alanis Morissette song when she says “Life is a funny thing…isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?” The song never says “Life is a funny thing.” The song says:

Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
Life has a funny, funny way of helping you out

Heaven help me, but I remember that song. I think Jagged Little Pill might have been the first CD I bought. And possibly the only non-duplicate CD I have ever sold or donated.

Blogs Educated Me To:

My daddy used to drive a Caddy. A Brougham d’Elegance that he often bragged was inches longer than the Lincoln Town Car.

I know what brougham means because I read Riverside Green, frequent contributor Tom Klocktau often posts about this particular body style.

And, fun fact: When I was in college and finally getting a driver’s license, my father asked me to move my great-grandmother’s Lincoln from the driveway to the street, saying that it would probably be my car someday. I had trouble parking the thing because I could not see the curb across that great expanse of blue hood. Also, my great-grandmother lived several years after I finished school and moved back to Missouri, by which time I had gotten my red old yellow car–and probably one or two others that I drove into the ground besides.

Memories of What I Once Was:

There was even a shot of her [the hostess] in a yoga pose that had me wondering if someone had not done a bit of airbrushing to get that foot behind her head.

You know, I used to be able to do that, when I was a kid. I don’t know why it was a thing for us to compare in 1981, but we did. Maybe it was an episode of Three’s Company where Jack gets his legs stuck in the lotus position. I could sit in the lotus position, even swinging my legs into position without using my hands, and I could put my foot behind my head. My mother and brother could, too. I can’t any more–I have been a little leary of stretching the groin since I tore a muscle in it stretching a couple years ago in martial arts class–but my boys and wife can. I have a book of stretching, and maybe I will get into it and get there. I can kick head high, though, and really, who needs more than that?

Wrong Punch:

Amber Lynn swung at her husband, catching him with a right hook beneath the chin.

I know, I read one book on boxing, and suddenly I think I am an expert, but a punch landing under the chin is generally an uppercut. A hook would land on the side of the chin as the motion of the arm and fist are mostly horizontal.

So I will slot this book in the 2021 Winter Reading Challenge in the Female Protagonist category, leaving open the Crime slot in case I pick up another crime novel before the end of next month. And I probably won’t seek out more McBride, but the odds that I have previously remembered the name at book sales over the last decade and stocked some of her other works on my to-read bookshelves are pretty good. And, now that I think of it, I might have an Elaine Viets novel somewhere that I might want to check out.

Book Report: House on the Rock (1988)

Book coverStrangely enough, I am pretty sure that I read a later version of this book not long after I visited in 2015. Although I have not done a direct comparison of the two, both are copyright by the House on the Rock, so this book is essentially what I would have picked up if I had visited the House on the Rock if I’d had an intact family that took vacations in high school.

So my memories of the House on the Rock track with the ones I had when I originally read the later version (and the trip was fresher in my mind): A lot of the rooms, especially the original ones, were dark, and I didn’t remember them except as a block of the dark rooms. I remember the giant carousel, some of the automaton music machines, and the room with the little drug store automatons.

Other rooms that I remember, such as the giant sculpture of a sea monster fight and the infinity room (the finger of glass that extends over the valley, where you can walk out and look around) are represented in the back of the book with artist renderings because they were only then under construction. Well, the effect was to make everything else feel like I had seen it after riding out to it in the back of a 1967 Chevy Impala.

A nice return to a memory. I am hoping to get back to Wisconsin this year or next, but not the House on the Rock. I have been, and I have the souvenir books.

Book Report: Complete Karate by J. Allen Queen (1994)

Book coverThis is another martial arts book I picked up at ABC Books, this one almost a year and a half ago. In the Before Times.

This book is a textbook for starting Karate or its derivative martial arts forms. Judging by the history it presents, most martial arts derive from a karate way in the past, with differences arising in different places (Tae Kwon Do, from Korea, features more kicking than Japanese forms of Karate because the Koreans tended to be taller than the Japanese, the book asserts–I have no idea if the science and anthropology bears this out, but it makes sense).

The book covers early elements of starting out, including pickin a gi (some of the ones in the book are quite spangled). It talks about basic strikes, but mostly with only the two-photo method and then goes into using those techniques in sparring and in kata (forms, where you do a choreographed set of moves). It also identifies some warm-up and other exercises you can do before class or as part of class to loosen up or increase your flexibility.

As it focuses on traditional strikes and not the boxing that my school focuses on, but I don’t wonder if I can see an evolution in the curriculum from sparring. When I started out six or seven years ago, some of the existing black belts threw back fists and jump punches that caught us n00bs by surprise. Except for the instructors, they’re all gone now. We really didn’t cover those strikes back in those days, and only covered the knife hand and ridge hand (karate chops) a little bit. Now we don’t cover them at all, and in free sparring, I can catch the newer students by surprise with the more traditional strikes since they’re trained and have practiced watching for boxing strikes. Also, I am the old man there now. I think one or two students might be older than I am, but none of the instructors are.

Jeez, every time I think of that, I feel the need to ice something.

So this book is kind of bifurcated in focus, perhaps on purpose: It is targeted to people who have yet to take a martial art–hence the talk about gear and gis, but also a source book to remember the different techniques. So it’s pretty good, better than some of the others I’ve browsed.

Book Report: Gettysburg Visions by Sam Weaver (2002)

Book coverThis is the size and shape of a poetry chapbook, but it’s printed on glossy paper with four color pictures throughout. So it was anything but chap, gentle reader. Apparently, the author has a ministry of his own (Oil and Wine Ministries) where you can actually download this book and his others as a PDF for free without having to pay ABC Books $3.50 for it.

At any rate, the poems are simple rhymed numbers based on the Battle of Gettysburg triggered by the author’s visit. They talk about Jesus’ forgiveness and how soldiers on both sides received grace as all were sinners redeemed by the savior. It’s a thought that might be a little nuanced for modern audiences. But probably not those reading Bible-inspired poetry published by a ministry organization.

So a very quick read indeed, as half the book is color pictures of the battlefield. It also has a collection of Bible verses tied to the poems, so there’s some learning in addition to just reading poetry. But the poetry itself doesn’t rise much above grandmother poetry, although to be honest, I still prefer it to more modern Good Poetry.

Book Report: Book Lust by Nancy Pearl (2003)

Book coverThis book fills the Books about Books slot in the 2021 Winter Reading Challenge. The conceit is that it’s a topical list of reading that identifies a topic and then lists a bunch of books about the topic that you might want to read. The author is a long-time librarian and a contributor to a public radio station or two.

With that in mind, one might think the book lists would skew in a certain political direction. One needs only get to the American History Nonfiction section, page 20, where the first recommendation is A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Okay, so, yeah. But the politics don’t overwhelm the book–it was 2003, after all, and Bush was only slightly Hitler when the author was finishing the book. So the politics are not overt nor hateful, but some do inform the choices and the selections of topics.

The books comes off as a series of listicles, like you might find on a blog back in 2003 (or 2021). I found myself skimming more than reading, looking more for books that I have read that she recommends (some) more than recommendations (I already have thousands to read on my shelves, so I won’t be rushing out to buy new books until…. well, the next time I go to ABC Books, which is likely soon).

She has some author-specific “Don’t Miss This Author” recommendations which include Robert Heinlein and Ross Thomas, authors whom I have read and enjoyed.

I flagged a couple things:

In the topic Biographical Novels:

Reading The Death of Ché Guevara by Jay Cantor makes it easy to see how the charismatic Castro’s closest pal during the Cuban Revoluton was. The book is fast moving and sympathetic to both Ché Guevara and the cause. Cantor was clearly as captivated by the energy and humanity of the man as were Ché’s many followers.

So, yeah, politics inform the selections. But not hatefully. Strangely, too, she applies the accute accent to his name even though it’s not represented in the book title or other references to Che’s name.

The following, from the section Politics of Fiction, is even more timely now than in 2003:

Charles McCarry’s Shelley’s Heart tells the story of a presidential election that is stolen by computer fraud, and the winning and losing candidates whose lives are changed by the outcome. Eerily familiar, this is a perfect novel for today’s paranoia-filled world.

Me, to the author in 2003: Just you wait!

I also flagged a couple books I’d read or will read soon–she mentions Steven Saylor, whose Last Seen in Massilia I read in ancient times and one of whose books I stacked up for the Historical category in the 2021 Winter Reading Challenge–and also Jane Eyre–but I stopped flagging the books to whose book reports I could link. They were scattered enough that I was not tacking a slip to every page.

At any rate, I didn’t really flag any books to hunt down, as I mentioned (except maybe The Golden Gate, a novel made of sonnets), but perhaps I will kind-of, sort-of remember the recommendations in the book when confronted with some of the authors mentioned within at the book sales. But I likely won’t remember acutely why I decided to pick up an Iris Murdoch or why I decided to read The Last Picture Show, which I have in paperback on the outer rank of books in the hall, soon.

But it did fill a line in the 2021 Winter Reading Challenge form, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

Book Report: We Live On Mackinac Island (2017)

Book coverI bought this on Mackinac Island on our trip north in 2018; I previously read Mackinac Island: Its History in Pictures.

This book is a little FAQ put tohether, presumably, by the public school on the island. It has about 500 full time residents, and they mostly live in the settled neighborhoods, and, yes, they have a grocery store and a hardware store that are open in the winter.

A quick read as it’s a booklet and a good reminder of the time we went there. And a couple bucks for the school which they’ve already spent.

Something about it, though, is hitting me in my hermit spot. I mean, we’re finishing the first, what, third? of brown season here in Missouri. We had a couple of days of snow dustings a week and a half ago that made it look wintery, but…. I read this book, and I have this craving to go live in a small, snug cabin up north with me, my books, coffee, soup, maybe some salted fish, and a wood fire where I would, I dunno, write and work seasonally and then hole up for the entire winter with permission to sit and read and nap.

Of course, it sounds nice, and it might be a good month or season, but I probably would tire of it after a bit. But I do get all hibernatey in the winter time, going out somewhat reluctantly. Which is weird because it doesn’t tend to get wintery like I associate with Winter down here.

Book Report: whiskey words & a shovel I by r.h. Sin (2017)

Book coverAs you might remember, I bought this book online from ABC Books during the Great Apausening last Spring. I started it after January 2, so this is the first book I completed in the 2021 Winter Reading Challenge.

Well, the author mentions early in the book that he’s widely quoted (in the same poem that he knocks Trump), and apparently he’s a going thing and a New York Times best seller. This book is, after all, published by a major publisher (Andrews McMeel), but it’s not my bag, baby.

I mean, you know I knocked Like the Pieces of Driftwood for its sentences with line breaks. You know by now, gentle reader, that I like longer lines with rhythm, cadence, good mouthfeel, and evocative imagery. This book is more modern, with short lines with rare concrete imagery.

For example, one of the poems starts like this (presented in a snippet, in an image, to make it harder for poetry poachers like Harvey to scrape them into collections of his own for sale for five bucks–what, fifteen years ago and I’m still bringing it up?):

So, it’s very modern in appearance, cadence, and execution. Some of the stuff that’s very short kinda hits the good haiku koan kind of thing, but the longer pieces don’t tend to work. Although I can certainly see them in spots where they’re the kind of thing that could easily appear on an image that’s passed around on Facebook or something.

As to the topic matter, basically, the poems have three threads:

  • Girl, you’re duplicitous and aren’t worth my love.
  • Girl, you’re strong and beautiful just the way you are. (If these were posted with images on Facebook, they would be misattributed to Ryan Gosling and would start with “Hey girl” [sic].).
  • Girl, I love you and we’re going to be so happy.

I was thinking maybe that this guy was very unlucky in love–hey, my own collection Coffee House Memories is full of my own poems written to unrequited loves, loves that did me wrong, loves that I done wrong, and loves I did right. However, when I read the introduction (last, as is my wont, of course), I learned that all the poems were about a single break-up, courtship, and requiting with a new love–but the poems were all jumbled together. Which makes me feel a bit better for the poet-narrator throughout.

And I was a little surprised at one point when the poet-narrator mentioned his brown skin–and I learned that the poet is indeed black. Most of the time, black poets (such as Robery Hayden and Langston Hughes) tackle the topic of race, but this collection sticks a more universal themes. So I appreciated that.

Still, not my kind of poetry, but the man has got his following in this Internet age, so good for him.