Monday, January 2nd, 2023

I’ve been collecting editions of “The Year’s Best Science Fiction” for I don’t know how long. Wait, yes I do. I’ve been collecting them since I was a teenager, but those copies are long gone. I started collecting the editions on my bedroom bookshelf ever since I noticed them for sale at the local Half Price Books store, about 15 years ago.

I don’t usually read them cover-to-cover. I used to do that, when I bought each edition as soon as it was published, because I had a whole year to read each book and I was a voracious sci-fi reader. Now I’m more of a casual reader of fantasy and science fiction, as the genre has come to be known, and a little pickier than I used to be. If a story doesn’t hold my interest, I won’t finish it. And because I’ve got more than twenty editions on hand and each book is about 700 pages long, I tend to look for stories by writers I already know, read those, then put the book up on the shelf.

But that approach doesn’t expose me to new writers or new ideas, does it? No, it doesn’t. So what I started doing last year is choosing the latest edition from the shelf and reading it from cover to cover. First thing I noticed when I started doing that: Wow, there are a lot of stories in these “year’s best” anthologies that just aren’t. The best, I mean. Sure, picking the “best” is a judgment call on the part of the editor, and this particular editor had a pretty good track record for satisfying my fiction needs, but he picked a lot of stinkers, too, stories I read all the way through with a furrowed brow and, when I got to the end, asked myself, “That’s it? That’s how it ends? What the fuck?”

To be fair, there are more hits than misses, and since I began doing the cover-to-cover thing I’ve discovered lots of writers I’d never known before that I want to read more of now, so on the whole it’s a win. If I want to get through them all, however, I’ll have to step up my game. I finished the two latest editions last year and I have more than twenty on the shelf. Working backward at this rate, I won’t finish the oldest edition (currently the 8th annual collection, but I might find older editions if I start haunting the book store again) until after my 72nd birthday.

year’s best | 9:36 am CST
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Sunday, May 10th, 2020

I have been enjoying the hell out of The Murderbot Diaries for only about four months. I read the first novella, “All Systems Red,” in a weekend in February and liked it so much I snapped up all three of the rest of the series of novellas – “Artificial Condition,” “Rogue Protocol,” and “Exit Strategy” – intending to read them while we were on vacation in March, which meant I would have to wait and not read them for weeks and weeks. I managed to almost do that.

With a week to go before our vacation started, I broke down and read “Artificial Condition” as slowly as I could, dragging it out to three days – I could’ve stretched a full-length novel to as much as two weeks by reading very slowly and putting it down between chapters, but I couldn’t put down Murderbot because a chapter in a novella is a snack compared to a chapter in a full-length novel. Fun to read, but it just doesn’t last.

I was dying for some more Murderbot after I finished “Artificial Condition,” and I’m quite chuffed to say I managed to hold off reading the next novella, “Rogue Protocol,” until I was on a plane heading south. Finished “Rogue Protocol” in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, and finished “Exit Strategy” somewhere in the Caribbean.

With no more Murderbot left to read, I did what any self-respecting reader who enjoyed the hell out of a series of books would do and started at the beginning again. And enjoyed it as much as I had the first time. Which is why I’m over the moon this week after finishing the first novel-length Murderbot story, “Network Effect,” which dropped into my Kindle on Tuesday morning. I didn’t see it there until my lunch hour and had to wait four agonizingly long hours to jump into it because my day job got in the way. I hate it when that happens.

There is science fiction and fantasy that I connect with immediately, some that I grow to like after a while, and then there is SF&F that I don’t connect with no matter how hard I try. I connected with The Murderbot Diaries right away, I think because I identify with Murderbot, which probably should be an alarming admission, considering the difficulties Murderbot has getting along with people (it calls itself “Murderbot” for reasons you can easily guess), but I can’t deny the affinity. There’s a lot about human society that Murderbot just doesn’t get, which is the way I feel about human society at least sixty percent of the time.

And yet, there is plenty about human society that Murderbot likes, even when it’s not sure it completely understands, and I think it’s the moments where Murderbot is trying to work out what it likes and why which I enjoy most. In “Network Effect,” for instance, Murderbot writes the story of its relationship with Mensah, one of the humans who befriended it, and gives the story to another sentient killer robot like itself in order to help it free itself. I’ll have to read that again because I know there are angles to that story I missed the first time around, even though I stopped and re-read parts of it.

And there are things about socializing that Murderbot seems to understand very well. It spends a lot of time trying to work out what kind of relationship it has with a sentient space ship, for instance, even while the humans in the story can easily see it’s a close, personal relationship. They enjoy watching soap operas together. They argue like an old married couple. They fight and almost die for one another. It’s really very touching.

A review of “All Systems Red” by Jason Sheehan at NPR

A review of “Network Effect” by Steve Mullis at NPR

Network Effect | 10:27 pm CST
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Sunday, May 3rd, 2020

Neil Gaiman interviews N.K. Jemisin, 5/2/2020

Gaiman: Back in 2014, I was in Jordan in a Syrian refugee camp – I was talking to the refugees about what made them flee their homes, what made them flee their cities. In order to get to those camps, they had to cross a desert where there would be people shooting at them, where they would cross the bodies of people who had failed to make the journey. Some of them had come all the way across Syria during a civil war. I would ask them what had happened. My realization, which was slow in coming, was how incredibly fragile civilization is. We see a city and we see something immutable, we see something really solid. Then I would talk to these people and they would say, “The tanks ran through our village.” If you drive a tank through a village, everything underneath the tank in the road is destroyed, which includes the water main, so now your village has no water. All it took was a few bombs, a few land mines in the farmer’s field, and now the farmer’s aren’t farming. And very soon they’re getting permission to eat cats and dogs from their religious leaders, and then they run out of cats and dogs.

Jemisin: The part of it that’s most fragile, I think, [are] connections between people, where people are looking out for each other and willing to take risks for each other. That’s what’s kind of being eroded here in the United States right now. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to put those webs back together. Within the city, they’re still pretty much still in place, but there are cracks starting to show. Things like the concept of a nation, or the concept of a group of people being one people are actually really easy to separate and fission off, and we’ve got some parties actively engaged in trying to do that. That’s the part that I was not prepared for. That’s the part science fiction didn’t help me with. Science fiction was all about, When the plague comes, the U.S. will come together and try to fight it.

Gaiman: That, to me, has been the most amazing part. The one bit that I could never have predicted was the levels of idiocy and incompetence and the strange, sad shit show. I would’ve gone, Okay, well, there will be a pandemic, therefore all of the grownups will step up and they will do the right things. That is what grownups do. The only reason they wouldn’t is if we were writing some kind of satire intended to point out the foolishness of people, but even in that we would expect them to come together under the umbrella of sanity, in the end.

Jemisin: And the incompetent people would eventually be deposed by the heroes, and the heroes would be the grownups. Then the grownups would take over and everything would get better, and there would be a nice period of I-told-you-so when the heroes got to tell the incompetents, What were you thinking? Then we would see them all brought to justice – no, none of that’s happening here. And honestly, at the moment that the U.S. is in right now, I have some despair of it ever happening, or the justice part of it ever happening.

Gaiman: One of the things that I’ve always said is that life doesn’t have to be convincing; science fiction does. Had we written this, I don’t think you could’ve written the complete chaos, getting to the point where states are randomly coming out of lockdown.

Jemisin: I don’t think anybody was expecting the states to have to guard their stashes of PPE from the federal government, either, for fear that the feds would come steal it. Good grief! None of this makes any sense! This is all bad writing! We’re living in a really badly-written season of “COVID-19.”

life doesn’t have to be convincing | 5:13 pm CST
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Saturday, April 11th, 2020

It’s coming. Release date April 14.

Which means I’ll be re-reading the first two books this week before my copy of the pre-ordered final volume comes in the mail. Assuming we still have mail. I will be so fucking furious if mail is one of the government agencies this administration gets rid of.

The Last Emperox | 4:03 pm CST
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Saturday, January 4th, 2020

I’m having trouble finishing “Marjorie Morningstar.” I found a copy of it in a second-hand store shortly after the author, Herman Wouk, died last summer. So many people said their favorite book by Wouk was “Marjorie Morningstar,” so I looked for it in the book stores I haunted to see if I could snag a copy, and did within weeks of Wouk’s passing. I’m about three-quarters of the way through it, but I’m finding it very difficult to pick it up to read that last quarter because so far most of the book has focused on Marjorie nursing an enduring crush on a songwriter she met while she was acting in summer stock who is such a cad that if she doesn’t stick a steak knife through his heart before the last chapter I will be so pissed off.

I haven’t read a lot of Herman Wouk; just three of his novels, in total: “The Winds of War,” “War and Rememberance,” and “The Caine Muntiny.” I thought the first two were pretty good, but I think “The Caine Mutiny” is one of the best books I have ever read. I didn’t think so the first time I read it. I thought it was pretty bad, to be honest. The biggest part of the book focuses on Willie Keith, a rich kid who tries to use his privilege to squeak out of serving in the second world war by securing a cushy spot in the Navy; he ends up on the titular destroyer Caine where he takes part in a mutiny. I thought the parts of the book describing the mutiny were superb, but I wasn’t much interested in Keith until I picked up the book a second time to re-read the part about the mutiny and even then I was a lot more interested in Maryk, the executive officer of the Caine, so I re-read the parts that dealt with him. Keith was in almost every scene, so naturally enough, I became interested in him. In the end, I re-read the book several times and damned if Wouk doesn’t make Keith out to be a decent guy in spite of his service.

So it’s not unusual for me to dislike what’s going on it a Wouk novel the first time I read through it. I expect that, even if I dislike the way “Marjorie Morningstar” ends, I’ll like it eventually. But I’m having a devil of a time getting to the end.

Marjorie Morningstar | 5:06 pm CST
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Thursday, April 11th, 2019

There are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll acquire a guest room. “If you prefer a shower or a tub, I can put you upstairs in the second guest room.” I hear these words coming from my puppet-lined mouth and shiver with middle-aged satisfaction. Yes, my hair is gray and thinning. Yes, the washer on my penis has worn out, leaving me to dribble urine long after I’ve zipped my trousers back up. But I have two guest rooms.

David Sedaris, Calypso

middle age | 9:25 am CST
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Sunday, February 24th, 2019

I just finished reading Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and I have to give it A+++ on the chilling dystopia story about a United States falling in to anarchy and chaos, not too hard to imagine right now, honestly.

Written as the journal of Lauren, a young woman living in a walled neighborhood in suburban Los Angeles, I was swept up in the story of society falling apart and the urgency with which Lauren had to find a solution to her situation. Lauren turned out to be a very practical, very capable young woman who not only saved herself, but helped many others save themselves, and that made “Parable of the Sower” an excellent story, in my mind.

Quite a lot of the story was devoted to Lauren’s musings about god, and I have to give that part of the story maybe a D. Disclaimer: I’ve rarely read anything about god that made any sense to me, so I’m going to own this. Maybe it’s just me. Although I have read books about god that made some kind of sense within the context of the text. When Lauren talked about god, though, she seemed to be talking in circles.

Still looking forward to “Parable of the Talents,” though!

Parable of the Sower | 9:12 am CST
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Monday, January 21st, 2019

It was so cold this morning that the thermometer didn’t register a temperature at all. It showed zero degrees. My Darling B doesn’t know how to process information like that other than to bunch herself up into a tiny little ball covered in flannel and quilts and repeat, “BRRR! IT’S COLD!” She felt a little better after I brought her a cup of coffee, though.

After we’d had a little time to get used to the fact that there was no temperature, we bundled up and ventured out into the world in our trusty O-Mobile, which took us first to the coffee shop down the road so we could brunch on breakfast sandwiches, and thence to Half Price Books, where B was hoping to score a copy of “Of Mice And Men.” She did. In all likelihood we now have two copies in the house, one we know the location of, and one that’s “somewhere around here.” B tried to find that other copy last night but gave up after an intensive search of all the places she could think of.

I wandered the stacks, focusing special attention on my favorite sections of the book store but couldn’t find a single copy of any book I had to have. Science fiction? Nothing caught my eye. Ships and trains? No joy. Mishmash of old hardcover titles scooped up from estate sales? Couldn’t find a copy of “Principles of the Steam Engine” anywhere. I could’ve grabbed the hundred-pound unabridged dictionary in near-perfect condition but, honestly, I have enough dictionaries big enough to escape a flood if I stood on them. I should be shedding one or two myself. So I left the bookstore without a stack of books in the crook of my arm, feeling very strange indeed.

Before she joined me in the bookstore, B stopped by Penzy’s Spices to pick up a big bag o’ spices. She needed just one jar but bought twenty because she read that Penzy’s donated money to the city of Memphis to make up for the money the state legislature took from the city because the city removed statutes of Confederates and klansmen.

zero degrees | 2:28 pm CST
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Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

Prewitt loved the songs because they gave him something, an understanding, a first hint that pain might not be pointless if you could only turn it into something.

— James Jones, From Here To Eternity

pain | 6:22 pm CST
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Few people in the history of written advice have actually been qualified to give it.  There’s no Ph.D. program or certification course or license for the role.  Which means that nobody is ineligible to give advice, either.  … Take Ann Landers and Dear Abby.  Those columns were written by a pair of twins whose parents named them Esther Pauline and Pauline Esther, which establishes off the bat that good judgment isn’t hereditary.  Initially the twins answered letters together under the Ann Landers name before Pauline went rogue and pitched her own advice column to The San Francisco Chronicle.  … For decades the sisters competed viciously, tracking the number of newspapers syndicating their columns and sniping publicly about one sister’s nose job and the other’s writing abilities.  Isn’t it funny to think that decades of Americans relied for behavioral guidance on a single pair of unsportsmanlike twins with inverse names?

— Molly Young, reviewing Asking For a Friend, Three Centuries of Advice on Life, Love, Money and Other Burning Questions From a Nation Obsessed, by Jessica Weisberg

advice | 8:39 am CST
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Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

On this day in 1954 Raymond Chandler’s wife Cissy died.  Chandler was arguably one of the greatest mystery writers in American history.  If you don’t believe me, read The Lady In The Lake.

Chandler wrote this about Cissy after her death, in a letter to a friend:

I have received much sympathy and kindness and many letters, but yours is somehow unique in that it speaks of the beauty that is lost rather than condoling with the comparatively useless life that continues on. She was everything you say and more.  She was the beat of my heart for thirty years.  She was the music heard faintly at the edge of sound.  It was my great and now useless regret that I never wrote anything really worth her attention, no book that I could dedicate to her.  I planned it.  I thought of it, but I never wrote it.  Perhaps I couldn’t have written it.  … Perhaps now she realizes that I tried, and that I regarded the sacrifice of several years of a rather insignificant literary career as a small price to pay, if I could make her smile a few times more.


cissy | 8:46 am CST
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Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

Here’s a fun bit o’ trivia about me: I can enjoy the shit out of a story in a book or on television, but nine times out of ten I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the characters no matter how much I liked the story. In fact, the odds that I won’t remember names get better the more I like it. “I just read this fantastic book about these guys, ah, I forget their names, but the story was gripping!”

For instance, I giddily enjoyed the whole first season of Stranger Things and was maybe halfway into season two before I could tell you the names of any of the characters. When a friend of mine was telling me how much she liked Stranger Things, “But I just want to smack some sense into that Nancy,” I wasn’t sure at first who she was talking about. I knew all the kids and could keep them straight in my head, I just didn’t know their names. Dustin was my favorite character starting with the third or fourth episode, but if I had to ref him in conversation, he was just “the kid with the curly hair” until sometime after he found the slimy thing in his trash can.

If I’m reading an especially thick book with more than three or four characters, I have to make a list of their names on the back of a bookmark with a brief note about who they are and maybe what they do. If I don’t, I end up flipping back through the pages looking the last time they appeared in print, which sort of breaks the spell. I’m so looking forward to the day when we all have little computers in our heads and our memories become searchable, but for now, I’ll have to make due with bookmarks.

Names are my particular blind spot when it comes to books. My Darling B’s is a bit different: she can’t remember the plot of a story six months after she’s read it, unless you’re talking about A Prayer For Owen Meany, or The World According to Garp. She knows those books by heart, but even then it’s only because she’s read them over and over. I’m pretty sure she read Garp at least half a dozen times. Any other book, no matter how much she liked it, is a complete mystery to her a month or two after she finished reading it. She loved A Man Called Ove, for instance, but she lent it to a friend at least six months ago and although I’d guess she still remembers the bare outlines of the story, if you quizzed her on any of the finer points, she’d be clueless. If she ever reads it again, it’ll be a new story to her.

names | 8:50 am CST
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Monday, October 16th, 2017

[This is one of my favorite passages from Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi. In it, Twain describes one of the earliest days of his training to become a riverboat pilot at the hands of Horace Bixby, a crack pilot and Twain’s teacher:]

Now and then Mr. Bixby called my attention to certain things. Said he, ‘This is Six-Mile Point.’ I assented. It was pleasant enough information, but I could not see the bearing of it. I was not conscious that it was a matter of any interest to me. Another time he said, ‘This is Nine-Mile Point.’ Later he said, ‘This is Twelve-Mile Point.’ They were all about level with the water’s edge; they all looked about alike to me; they were monotonously unpicturesque. I hoped Mr. Bixby would change the subject. But no; he would crowd up around a point, hugging the shore with affection, and then say: ‘The slack water ends here, abreast this bunch of China-trees; now we cross over.’ So he crossed over. He gave me the wheel once or twice, but I had no luck. I either came near chipping off the edge of a sugar plantation, or I yawed too far from shore, and so dropped back into disgrace again and got abused.

Presently he turned on me and said: ‘What’s the name of the first point above New Orleans?’

I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.

‘Don’t know?

This manner jolted me. I was down at the foot again, in a moment. But I had to say just what I had said before.

‘Well, you’re a smart one,’ said Mr. Bixby. ‘What’s the name of the next point?’

Once more I didn’t know.

‘Well, this beats anything. Tell me the name of any point or place I told you.’

I studied a while and decided that I couldn’t.

‘Look here! What do you start out from, above Twelve-Mile Point, to cross over?’

‘I — I — don’t know.’

‘You — you — don’t know?’ mimicking my drawling manner of speech. ‘What do you know?’

‘I — I — nothing, for certain.’

‘By the great Caesar’s ghost, I believe you! You’re the stupidest dunderhead I ever saw or ever heard of, so help me Moses! The idea of you being a pilot — you! Why, you don’t know enough to pilot a cow down a lane.’

Oh, but his wrath was up! He was a nervous man, and he shuffled from one side of his wheel to the other as if the floor was hot. He would boil a while to himself, and then overflow and scald me again.

‘Look here! What do you suppose I told you the names of those points for?’

I tremblingly considered a moment, and then the devil of temptation provoked me to say: ‘Well—to—to—be entertaining, I thought.’

This was a red rag to the bull. He raged and stormed so (he was crossing the river at the time) that I judge it made him blind, because he ran over the steering-oar of a trading-scow. Of course the traders sent up a volley of red-hot profanity. Never was a man so grateful as Mr. Bixby was: because he was brim full, and here were subjects who would talk back. He threw open a window, thrust his head out, and such an irruption followed as I never had heard before. The fainter and farther away the scowmen’s curses drifted, the higher Mr. Bixby lifted his voice and the weightier his adjectives grew. When he closed the window he was empty. You could have drawn a seine through his system and not caught curses enough to disturb your mother with.

cub pilot | 5:00 am CST
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Monday, April 10th, 2017

I read Ann Leckie’s debut novel “Ancillary Justice” about a year ago, which means I don’t remember how long ago it was. In the bible, they would’ve said “forty days and forty nights.” It was a long time ago. So long that I don’t remember all the details of the story now, but I do remember that I liked it and wanted to read more of Leckie’s work.

Luckily for me, “Ancillary Justice” is the first volume of a story Leckie eventually expanded into three volumes, the seemingly-standard trilogy of the fantasy and science fiction genre. She called the second volume “Ancillary Sword” and the third “Ancillary Mercy,” which is better than Roman numerals but still just confusing enough to my tiny little brain to make me stop and carefully look over all three volumes to make sure I was buying the right one. It doesn’t help that all three volumes have cover art that looks more or less the same: needle-nosed jet aircraft with razor-like wings painted in bright, primary colors.

After flipping through the first dozen pages or so and feeling certain that I knew which was the first and which was the second, I took my purchase to the check-out counter. It wasn’t until I was outside the store, headed back to the office, that I realized I’d put the wrong book back on the shelf and checked out with “Ancillary Justice,” the first book in the series, the one I’d already read. *facepalm* Too late at that point to turn around and ask them to swap it; I had just enough time to get back to my desk, no more.

I swung by the book store right after work, found the copy of “Ancillary Sword” that I meant to buy, tucked them both under my arm and headed for the checkout. Halfway there, I remembered the receipt that I’d tucked into the pages of “Ancillary Justice,” which I’d probably need to return the book, so I riffed through it, expecting the receipt to pop right out. It did not. Slowing my brisk walk to a slow amble, I started flipping through the pages a bit more slowly. Still couldn’t find it, so I flipped through it again, even more slowly this time. No joy.

By then, I was at the counter. “Hi,” I said to the young lady waiting there. “I bought this book —” holding up book “— earlier today, but I meant to buy this book —” holding up other book “— which is the second in a three-book series. I’d like to exchange one for the other, if that’s okay?” She said that would be no problem, so I began flipping through the pages again, explaining as I did that I was looking for the receipt. She waited patiently but, when I failed for the third time to find it, I asked her if we could just swap.

Apparently she couldn’t do that, not exactly, but she could process the first book as a return, give me store credit, and I could use the credit to buy the second one. Seemed needlessly complicated to me, but whatever. So she did all the hocus-pocus she had to do with the register, I signed a credit slip, she put the credit on a card, then charged the second book against the credit, and somehow I ended up with a couple bucks on the card. Don’t know how, but it was okay with me. I thanked her, scooped up the book, and headed out to the car.

Went to tuck the book into my backpack: It was “Ancillary Justice.”

Back into the book store. She looked at me sideways while she was finishing up with another customer. I smiled and waggled my fingers at her. When it was my turn, I flashed the cover of the book. She didn’t get it. Of course she didn’t. It looked just like the other book. “We got the books mixed up,” I explained, sliding it across the counter toward her. “I need the other one.” She gave it to me reluctantly, as if i was pulling a fast one on her. She didn’t seem entirely convinced I knew what I was talking about. But I finally got the right book. At least, I think I did.

Ancillary Mixup | 7:26 pm CST
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Sunday, March 5th, 2017

If memory serves, I bought my first copy of The Caine Mutiny at a used book store in Lincoln, England, in 1999 or 2000. It was a pretty beat-up, water-damaged Penguin paperback edition and I read it as though I was possessed by it, all in one week. (400 pages in a week is pretty good for me.) Full disclosure: I didn’t read every word. The first time I read it I was put off by the love story, so I skipped over all that and only read the parts that had to do with MEN AT WAR, because that’s the kind of guy I was then. I’ve since read the novel from cover to cover many times and so far I appreciate it more every time (if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t keep picking it up to re-read it).

Just in case you’re confused: The novel does, in fact, pivot around a mutiny aboard a naval vessel during the war in the Pacific, but the story is about the main character of the novel, who is not Humphrey Bogart, in spite of the movie you might have seen. (I kind of wish I’d never seen that movie. I still hear Bogart’s voice when I read the novel, and although Bogart did a fine job of playing Queeg, it’s the wrong voice for Queeg. John Fiedler’s voice would have been perfect; he may have been a better casting choice, too. But I digress.)

The book opens and closes on Willie Keith, who enters the story as a spoiled mama’s boy with little sense of direction but ends up as a confident, strong-willed young man who’s going places. The story is not told from Keith’s point of view, but he is present in almost every scene; events turn around him and their importance is impressed on him, building his character piece by piece. That I ever thought his story was boring enough to skip over should show you what I lack in the way of appreciation for good writing.

The Caine Mutiny is also amazing for being semi-autobiographical. Author Herman Wouk served as an officer aboard two destroyer minesweepers (one of them named the Zane) during the Pacific war. One of Wouk’s duties was as the ship’s communications officer, same as Keith and Thomas Keefer. Keefer was also an aspiring author who spent much of his off-time (and a bit more besides) writing a novel. It’s impossible to read the novel without imaging that many, if not most of the episodes in it are anecdotes from Wouk’s experience aboard ship during the war.

I still have that first Penguin paperback; it’s parked in a place of honor on the top shelf of my bedside bookcase and I’ve read it cover-to-cover at least three times, but still take it out now and again to read my favorite passages at bedtime when I’m not sure what to read. (The speech by Barney Greenwald at the end is one of the best.) I’ve since bought at least two hardbacked copies. I found the first one at a resale shop in Madison and read it several times before giving it away to a coworker who seemed interested in it, but I’m pretty sure he never read it. I went looking for the second copy at Powell’s bookstore while on vacation in Portland OR and found a first edition in its original dust jacket (squee!). This is the second or third time I’ve read it. I’ve read a couple other Herman Wouk novels (Winds Of War and War And Remembrance spring to mind), but haven’t enjoyed any of them more than The Caine Mutiny.

The Caine Mutiny | 12:58 pm CST
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Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

I picked up a copy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre the last time I was at the resale store. I’ve wanted to read it since I watched the recently-made movie with Gary Oldman, and I have to say I could follow the plot of the movie a lot more easily than the book, which is not surprising. A movies about two hours long, while the book is something like four hundred pages and took me a week and a half to read. I couldn’t have lost the thread of the movie if I’d tried, but there was so much going on in the book that I kept turning back the pages to figure out who the characters were talking about. So I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked. And I’ve never read spy fiction before; I thought it would take to it easily, but that wasn’t the case. Maybe it’s an acquired taste.

spy world | 9:25 pm CST
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Thursday, February 9th, 2017

I thought I would spend my lunch break today reading the latest book of fantasy and speculative fiction from Kameron Hurley, The Stars Are Legion. I ordered it last week, or thought I did, and when it didn’t show up on my doorstep and I didn’t get an email from Amazon about it, I checked the website last night and discovered I forgot to hit the “buy” button. D’OH! So I fixed that, but then I had to wait DAYS to get the book, which didn’t satisfy my desire to read it RIGHT NOW.

But wait … what’s this? A note at the bottom of my receipt that reads, “Would you like to read this book now?” I clicked on the “Hell, yes!” button and it was downloaded to my Kindle. Oh Happy Day! I read the first chapter right then, even though it was way past my bedtime.

Took the Kindle to work with me this morning. Flipped it open as I sat down with my microwaved leftovers. Tapped on the icon, turned the page, and … blank screen. Turned out that I’d been reading a “sample” of only the first chapter. No more.

Not that I’m complaining. I’m glad that I got to read as much as I did, but it was a GIANT BUMMER after looking forward all morning to reading another chapter or two. And now I gotta wait until tomorrow for the hardcover to arrive on my doorstep. *sigh* Well, if I gotta, then I spoze I gotta.

bummer | 9:59 pm CST
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Friday, December 9th, 2016

“I had no idea, until I became a war worker myself, how low wages actually were. When my skimpy little paycheck of $23 a week came to me, I wondered how on earth I could ever live on that in wartime Washington if I were forced to pay my own room, board, transportation, doctors’ bills and other necessities out of it. Then I would look around the shop and wonder how the married women and mothers – the majority there – could support their children and parents as well as themselves on these wages.

“Not only do the women start at a low wage – they stay at it. At the Washington yard and at the other navy yards in the East and West, there are no automatic raises. Raises were accorded on some indeterminate basis. Promotions to supervisory jobs seem to be unknown not only at Washington but elsewhere in navy yards. Equal pay and promotions for women are one of the government standards of employment supported in writing by the Navy Department and seven other federal agencies. The navy yards themselves seem to be unaware of the fact; nor do they observe other standards adhered to on paper by the Department.

“I quickly adapted myself to eating sandwiches held between grimy hands. The yard gave us 20 minutes for lunch, but at least five minutes were gone by the time you had raced and waited at the understaffed canteen for cold,k watery chocolate milk or cola drinks (no coffee except on the midnight shift). The government standard of 30-minute lunch periods, hot lunches and a decent place to eat them is ignored by the Washington yard, which is nearer being the rule than the exception.

“I had mistakenly thought before going to work at the yard that minutes were precious in production. Once on the job, personnel officers and posters proclaimed the need for punctuality and perfect attendance. I was naturally surprised to learn after one day’s work that the main method of disciplining these “precious” workers was to lay them off for as much as a week at a time.l If you were one minute late in the morning, you were made to stand idle for one hour and be docked accordingly. If you forgot to tag in upon arrival at work or at lunch time, after three offenses you were laid off for a day.

“The women whom I met at the yard would stand for practically anything – five months without sleeping in a bed, a solid year on the graveyard shift so as to be home with the kids during the day, the double job,k indigestible lunches, long hours and no promise of a future after the war – all for miserably low wages. The longer I worked side by side with them, the more I admired their endurance – but the more I seethed to see them organized in a union that would help solve their problems. And the more I saw the necessity for really planned production, planned community service, labor-utilization inspectors, planned community service, labor-utilization inspectors, labor-management committees that function and are recognized, and a program to educate the workers about the issues of the war abroad and at home. I admired the patience of the women who stuck by their jobs, day after day, though it was obvious that their usefulness to the war effort was cut in half by the very working conditions which they endured.”

— Susan B. Anthony II, writing in The New Republic, May 1, 1944

I just came home from a visit to Half Price Books, where I scored a copy of “Reporting World War II Part Two: American Journalism 1944 – 1946,” an edition from The Library of America. One of my many dreams would be to line the walls of my house with shelves, and to stock those shelves of all the books published by The Library of America. Each sturdy, clothbound volume, clad in The Library’s trademark black dust jacket, seems to be just the right size to hold in one hand. The text of each page is set in a compact, clear font, and each volume comes with a ribbon sewn into the binding which you can use to mark your place. They are designed to be, and indeed are, classy books for a home library.

I’m especially happy to have found this particular volume because the people of my generation tend to glorify the second world war in a way that borders on indecency, and reading the work of Ernie Pyle, Bill Mauldin, Lee Miller, Edward R. Murrow, John Hersey and their like is such a bracing antidote to the most romantic notions floating around out there.

Which is not to say the men and women of “The Greatest Generation” didn’t do amazing things; they did. But I’ve never read a first-hand report that made them out to be any more than ordinary people who were doing what they were more or less forced to do until the war was over, which wouldn’t be soon enough, as far as they were concerned. Life during the war years was very hard; nobody thought it was all that glorious or romantic, and they said so.

I’m glad The Library of America put this volume together, and I’m going to look for Part One.

“The Greatest Generation” | 3:16 pm CST
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Sunday, June 5th, 2016

I see that A Room Of One’s Own is for sale. It’s one of the few remaining independent bookstores in Madison, and I hope it finds a buyer because I would hate for Madison to lose another bookstore. I would buy it myself, except that I would have to rename it Go Away, I’m Reading, which I realize isn’t very inviting but I gotta be me. I would sit in an overstuffed chair in the corner, always reading a book but always happy to take your payment for the book you wanted, and to hand you change from the dented gray metal box on the end table beside the chair, but if you asked me a question I would have to answer, “Hang on, I gotta finish this chapter.” Or, if I knew that finishing the chapter wasn’t going to be enough, “Go away, I’m reading.” So I have a pretty good feeling that I wouldn’t be in the bookstore business very long. Still, it’s a pleasant enough fantasy.

Go Away | 10:19 am CST
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Saturday, March 5th, 2016

I used to read fiction almost exclusively. The only time I would read non-fiction was when someone made me, like for school. And even then, I blew off most of my assigned reading to read fiction.

I loved fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. Those stories had what seemed like limitless possibilities. What would a society of intelligent bugs be like? A writer could take that idea and run in just about any direction with it: Would they get along with humans? If they didn’t, would humans win or lose a war with them? If they did, would humans have sexual congress with them? (Sooner or later, even the most far-out ideas come back to sex.)

And then, for reasons I never quite understood, a switch flipped in my brain about twenty or twenty-five years ago and I began reading non-fiction. Mostly biographies, or American history. I think it started when I wanted to know more about American history during the second world war. I knew a lot about bombs and planes, but almost nothing about why America made the bombs and planes. Turned out there was a lot to learn. I think I’ve read more about that period of American history than any other, and I still wouldn’t dare say I know much about it.

But maybe five years ago I made a conscious effort, every now and then, to pick up some fiction that came with the recommendation of a friend or a critic, and read at least the first fifty pages, just to see if there was still some magic in the pleasure of reading made-up stuff. It would be a pity to miss out on a new voice as engaging as some of my old favorites. And waddaya know, I did find fiction that still raised my eyebrows in surprise, that was fun to read.

Most recently, I started reading The Name of The Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. An epic fantasy (660 pages! Run, Will Robinson!), it’s not the kind of book I would normally have tried to read for fun, and I say that as a guy who not only has all of Le Guin’s Earthsea books in hardback, but who takes them down from the shelf every couple of years and reads every page from beginning to end. I also say that as a guy who has started reading the epic tomes of Saberhagen and Martin, but could never get any further than the first fifty pages. Pure fantasy, with magic and swords, was never something I automatically loved the way, for instance, a story with a rocketship would.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I curled up on the sofa with The Name of The Wind one night and found myself immersed in a story that I didn’t emerge from until it was time to put on my jammies and turn in for the night. And even then I took the book with me, as it’s long been my custom to read a chapter or two in bed. It relaxes my neck, which lets my head sink into my pillow. Far from putting me to sleep, though, this is one of those books I have to read just one more chapter of, until I glance at the clock and warn myself that if I don’t stop, I won’t get enough sleep and I’ll be a grumpy cat in the morning.

I probably never would have looked for this book, or even heard of it, if I hadn’t gone on the JoCo Cruise. Rothfuss was there to read some of his work and to sit on a couple of panels to talk with the other authors who came along, and he was such a pleasure to listen to that I resolved to check out all his books from the library and try out every one of them, believing that surely at least one will appeal to me. Well, now I’m facing the daunting possibility that they will all appeal to me and I’ll soon have a whole shelf filled with them in hardcover. Oh well. There are worse compulsions.

The Name of The Wind | 9:56 am CST
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Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Last night I finished reading The End Of All Things, the latest science-fiction novel from John Scalzi, and I have to say that I felt he overpromised and underdelivered by several orders of magnitude. All the things did not end. Not even close. There were, to be fair, a number of things that did end, but by far the vast majority of things did not end. In fact, I would have to say that, on a scale of “All Things,” the number of things that ended was statistically insignificant. So the title was a little misleading. Chalk it up to poetic license, I guess.

But other than that teensy-tiny little nitpick, I’d say it was a good read. The book is actually four novelettes (plus a bonus 25-page “deleted and alternate scenes” coda) set in the same storyline where Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War first conjured up what has become known in the mind-bogglingly technical nomenclature of science fiction fandom as “The OMW Universe.” You don’t have to read Old Man’s War to get maximum enjoyment out of The End Of All Things. It works just fine as a stand-alone collection, but I’m going to give you fair warning that The End Of All Things may leave you with an overpowering compulsion to get your hands on a copy of Old Man’s War, and from there you’re gonna want The Ghost Brigades and oh geeze you’re in it for the long haul at that point because, damn, these books are fun to read.

In the OMW Universe, humans colonize far-flung planets with the help of the Colonial Union, a organization that does not have the motto “We come in peace” emblazoned anywhere on its great seal, or a prime directive of non-interference with aliens it discovers on the planets it means to colonize. The CU exists to shove the aliens aside and make sure they stay shoved. This policy results in some hard feelings between humans and non-humans, to say the least. Hard feelings lead to conflict, and if I recall anything useful at all from the English Lit classes I took thirty-some years ago, it is that conflict is the heart and soul of exciting drama.

Each novelette in The End Of All Things is about a hundred pages long, give or take ten or twenty pages, so you could treat this book as four yummy afternoon snacks, but if you got it into your head to binge-read the whole thing from cover to cover, you could probably gobble it up in a weekend. Scalzi’s previous OMW book, The Human Division, was a similar collection of novelettes, and also one hell of a fun read. Again, you don’t have to read The Human Division to know what’s going on in The End Of All Things but, again, you’ll probably want to afterwards. Just sayin’.

Scalzi’s been compared favorably to Heinlein for his storytelling abilities; I would say that’s about right if you’re comparing Scalzi’s work to Heinlein’s earlier adventure novels, like Tunnel In The Sky or The Puppet Masters, not so much if you’re into Heinlein’s later works. For what it’s worth, when I read Scalzi’s stories, I get a vibe that’s a lot like the one coming from my favorite Joe Haldeman books, like The Hemingway Hoax or The Forever War, but I also feel as though I can detect a witty harmonic wave that’s a lot like the one running through Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker books. The characters in Scalzi’s stories talk like people I know and would be friends with; they take the time to intelligently think a situation all the way through, but they never take themselves so ridiculously seriously that I have to roll my eyes and moan, “Oh, come on, now.”

To sum up, an entertaining sci-fi adventure for a weekend, or to string out over several days, and don’t let the title put you off. All the things, relatively speaking, are pretty safe.

The End Of All Things | 5:19 pm CST
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Sunday, June 14th, 2015

After our weekly visit to the farmer’s market on Madison’s west side, My Darling B and I crossed the street to the Hilldale Mall where B had to shop for a dress to wear to a wedding. B hates shopping with the blazing white intensity of a thousand exploding suns, but the wedding is just two weeks away, so, even though there was still some time left to procrastinate, she decided it was time to get it over with. As luck would have it, she fell in love with the very first dress she found, but it’s fire-engine red and apparently there’s some rule about wearing a dress to a wedding that would upstage the bride. She put it on hold and kept shopping, eventually ending up with what she called “the granny dress,” a cream-colored, knee-length dress with lots of sparklies. B loves sparklies.

While she was trying on dresses, I wandered down the street a few blocks to a garage sale on Midvale Avenue that I spotted as we drove past. There wasn’t much that interested me, and the only thing I eventually bought was a book published by the Associated Press to commemorate the 1969 moon landing. Titled “Footprints On The Moon,” it was a coffee table book chock full of familiar photographs of the space race, starting as usual with Sputnik and ending with lots of lofty prose about how Neil & Buzz walking on the moon had ushered the world into a new era, yada yada yada.

When I picked up the book I had no intention of putting it down again. I’ll buy almost any book or commemorative nick-knack that came out of the space race. I’d never seen this book before and as I opened the cover I thought, Oh nice, something new for my collection, but I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary at first. Then the book fell open to the middle where the folded newspaper pages were tucked away. My heart sped up. It was the first four pages torn out of the Wisconsin State Journal dated July 21, 1969. “ON THE MOON!” the headline on the front page blared in block capital letters over a full-color photo of Armstrong and Aldrin in a training scenario, using tongs to pick up rocks in their space suits. An inside page ran a snapshot of the video feed from the moon, unfocused and about as black-and-white as any photograph could be. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might not realize what was going on.

I tucked the pages back in the book and carried it reverently to the front of the garage where a quartet of old friends were bantering with some customers about one of the items for sale. When one of them turned to me and offered to help, I handed over the book, which he opened to the inside cover to read the price: two dollars. “Footprints on the moon,” he said conversationally, flipping through the first couple pages before it fell open to the middle where he found the newspaper pages. I was sure when he saw those that he would either take them out because they weren’t part of the book, or at least charge me for them separately. He barely looked at them before he snapped the book closed. I held my breath. “Two dollars, please,” he said. I dug two singles from my wallet and handed them over; he thanked me, and I walked away with a tiny piece of history.

Shopping for dresses took a lot out of B, so we headed straight home where she planned to spend time in her garden to decompress. It had been raining for the past two days so the ground was probably too wet for her to plant anything. Even so, she figured she could at least pull weeds, but when we got home she wasn’t up for that any more. “A new bar opened in town with fifty-zillion taps,” she informed me, and she wanted to go there to see what that was about.

The bar was Mr. Brews Taphouse, a Wisconsin chain of bars that specializes in craft beers and features loads of local brews as well as national craft beers. I don’t know how many taps there were; it was too way many for me to bother counting them. We settled in at a hightop table next to the beer menu chalked on the wall, where I studied the options long and hard. I spotted a specialty brew called Sixty-One from Dogfish Head that a friend had raved about; I wish I could say it was as good as the hype, but I couldn’t be bothered to finish it. B ordered a delicious barrel-aged porter called Barrel Aged Brrrbon with Vanilla from Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland OR. She let me taste it, then she let me taste it again, and then I tasted it some more. Eventually she just said to hell with tasting and we called it sharing.

After the first draughts were out of the way, we ordered a flight of four beers: Dynamo Copper Lager from Metropolitan Brewing in Chicago; Bean Me Up Scotchy from St. Francis Brewing in St. Francis WI; Shake Chocolate Porter from Boulder Beer Company in Boulder CO; and Quinannan Falls Lager from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo MI.

We’ve been to Chicago on our own, but we have to go back soon on a proper beer tour because there’s some really good brews coming out of there. If Dynamo’s any indication, I could probably spend all day in the taproom of Metropolitan Brewing, sampling their beers.

St. Francis is just north of Milwaukee and we’ve enjoyed their beer before. Bean Me Up Scotchy is a barrel-aged version of their scotch ale, known as Pride, and I would guess they’ve added vanilla beans to the recipe to boot. Very smooth, and yummy enough to make me want more.

I don’t remember drinking any brews from Boulder Beer before, so that’s something I’m working on correcting, starting with this excellent porter.

Bell’s has been one of my favorite breweries ever since I tried Two-Hearted Ale, a very hoppy beer. I’m not so much into hoppy beers any more, but fortunately Bell’s has produced plenty of other styles that are ever so tasty, and this lager, I’m happy to report, is no exception. Plus, it comes from Kalamazoo, which gives me an opportunity to say Kalamazoo. I love to say Kalamazoo. Who doesn’t love saying Kalamazoo? Boring people, that’s who.

I can’t remember whether or not we visited Widmer Brothers when we were in Portland. Looking photos of the place and where it is on the map, I’m pretty sure we didn’t. If we didn’t, we were stupid. It looks like a pretty great place to visit. Plus, the vanilla porter we sampled was scrumptuous. Getting some right from the source would’ve been a treat.

Our sufficiencies well and truly serensified, we retired back to Our Little Red House to pass the rest of a quiet afternoon reading and napping until supper time. And that is a satisfying way to pass a Saturday afternoon.

walking on the moon | 9:04 am CST
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Thursday, April 9th, 2015

image of Kevin SpaceyI had just finished re-reading Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and was four chapters into The Lady In The Lake when the answer to a long-standing problem finally hit me. For years, I’ve wondered who could believably play Phillip Marlowe. So far, just about everybody who has played him in movies and television, with maybe one exception*, has fallen short. But then the other night I was reading a passage and saw it: Kevin Spacey. Kevin Spacey would make a great Phillip Marlowe.

Bogart is usually the guy everybody pictures as the greatest detective. And he wasn’t bad at all in The Big Sleep, but as good as Bogart looks wearing a trench coat and a fedora, he’ll always be Bogart first, and whoever he’s playing will be just some guy he played. That’s not his fault. He was a fine actor, but at this point he’s ascended to the level of a Hollywood legend so grand that he is and always will be Bogart, no matter whose name he’s using on screen.

Which is not to say that Kevin Spacey is not a Hollywood legend, far from it. Marlowe is such an icon of detective novels that he would have to be played by an actor with Spacey’s celebrity as well as ability. Maybe that’s why they went with Bogey, back in the day.

Read through a few paragraphs of Lady in the Lake and tell me you wouldn’t watch the hell out of a movie with Spacey gumshoeing his way through those scenes.

*The one exception I found was a guy named Phil Carey, who played Marlowe in a television series that ran from 1959 to 1960. I’ve never seen it, or seen Carey play Marlowe, but take a look at his face and tell me he doesn’t look like a hard-boiled Los Angeles detective.

marlowe | 3:59 pm CST
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Thursday, December 11th, 2014

Sean gave me a copy of The Martian for my birthday. I’d already read it, but it’s the thought that counts.

“You’ve already read it too, right?” I asked Sean, who always reads the books he gives to me.

“Of course,” he answered with a smile.

Tim hadn’t read it yet, so I gave it to him and he took it home.

The Martian is about an astronaut stranded on Mars who has to figure out how to survive for more than a year until the next scheduled crew arrives. This is my very favorite kind of story: The guy’s got unlimited electric power and can recycle air and water virtually forever, but he’s got much less than a year’s worth of food. And once he figures out how to do that, he’s got to work out how to get to the site where the next crew will land, quite a long ways from where he is. To survive, he has to use his wits. If he panics, or loses hope, he’s shit out of luck. These are the best stories there are.

The Martian is written as if it were a journal recorded by the astronaut, but only until you get about halfway through the book. From there, the novel began to follow the action when the people back on Earth discovered the astronaut they thought was dead actually wasn’t. The transition from journal to story frankly didn’t work for me. I felt like I’d been kicked out of the astronaut’s head and had to suddenly reorient myself in the world. The rest of the book jumped back and forth from the journal to the story, but after being kicked out I wasn’t much interested any more. I kept on reading just to get it over with.

Wonder how Tim likes it?

The Martian | 6:03 am CST
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Sunday, November 9th, 2014

I’ve spent the past two-three, maybe four – okay, it might be five weeks now that I’ve been reading Ian Toll’s Pacific Crucible: War At Sea In The Pacific, 1941-1942. In my defense, it’s a thick book. Also, I can’t stop myself from paging back to re-read parts of it. It’s possibly the most engaging history of the Pacific war ever put to paper.

I got it as a birthday gift from my Mom several years ago and I read it in a mad rush almost right after she gave it to me. Then it went into a bookcase with all my other books about the Pacific war and stayed there until about two months ago, when I was browsing the shelves of Paul’s Book Store on State Street and found a copy of Edwin Hoyt’s How They Won The War In The Pacific: Nimitz And His Admirals, a book thick enough to hold up a corner of a three-legged sofa, and to tell the truth I still haven’t finished it. I got as far as page 490, just 14 pages short of the end, and maybe next week I’ll knock out the last of it one night before bedtime.

Hoyt’s book was excellent and goes a long way in describing the character of people like Nimitz, King, Halsey, and Spruance, people who have become icons in the decades since the war, but for me, Toll describes the same people in ways that makes them feel more human. I couldn’t stop myself from going back to Toll and reading whole chapters that described the same action that Hoyt had gone over in clinical detail. I’m not sure how he would take to being called sentimental, but Toll often seems to write as if he were recalling a memory of a relative who had been in the war. I don’t know exactly how he did it; I wish I did, so I could write characters as vividly as he does. Hoyt wrote an excellent chronicle of some of the most prominent players of the war, but Toll brought them to life as personalities.

reading frenzy | 5:19 pm CST
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Monday, July 7th, 2014

I’ve been reading a story called Wool, a hugely popular sci-fi novel set in a distopian future when the surface of the planet is so toxic that people have to live underground in hermetically sealed silos because one deep breath of the outside air makes people double over in stomach-cramping pain and die.

The story opens with a pretty good hook: “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death.” Holston has been the sheriff of the silo for years, but this morning, the third anniversary of his wife’s death, he has decided that he wants to go outside. Three years ago, his wife told him something about the outside world that he has wondered about ever since. He wants to go see if it’s true.

Any one of the silo’s citizens can ask to go outside at any time. Technicians will even provide a specially-developed suit that will protect them from the toxins for a short time, and in exchange they are expected to clean the cameras that give the rest of the silo’s citizens a view of the outside world. Coming back in is not part of the bargain, however. The outside world is much too toxic for that, so “being sent to clean” has become a euphemism for capital punishment. Only people who have committed the gravest crimes are sent to cleaning. Asking to go outside is the gravest crime of all.

That’s why Holston was facing his death in the opening hook of the story. He was climbing because the silo is a subterranean bunker that goes deep into the earth, one-hundred and forty-some separate floors that shelter thousands of people. And they have just one smallish spiral staircase running up the middle of it. Everybody’s always climbing or descending those stairs. Whole pages are devoted to describing how they trudge, trudge, trudge up and down those stairs.

Funny thing  about that: For a society of stair-climbers, born and bred, they’re woefully bad at it. It takes them days to climb from the bottom to the top. They shoulder backpacks stuffed with provisions and make arrangements to stay overnight after climbing thirty or forty floors. I’m in lousy shape, but I walk down the stairs of the ten-story office building where I work, then climb back up to the top, all in fifteen minutes. About fifty pages in I was expecting a Twilight Zone-like reveal: The people of the silo are all legless! They climb the stairs on their hands! But no. That’s not it. They’re just kinda pokey.

The Zoneish reveal about the silo is, unfortunately, the answer to the question: Why do people even bother to clean the cameras after being sent outside where they will die as certainly as every other person who was sent out and not allowed back in? The answer, when I got to it after two-hundred pages, was just about good enough to keep me interested in reading half of the next two-hundred: the half that told the story of the last person to be sent outside. The other half was the story of an armed uprising that I just couldn’t make myself believe. In the end, I couldn’t make myself believe the other half, either.

There are other reasons I didn’t like Wool very much: I thought the dialog was as dull and cliched as a lot of the description was. People who lived forty stories apart spoke different dialects; that seemed more than a little farfetched. And the Evil Villain of the story wasn’t scary. He was amoral and kind of a pig, but he didn’t once scare me. But I seem to be in the minority; Wool was on the New York Times bestseller list. There are internet wikis and fan pages devoted to it. Everyone’s eagerly awaiting the film version by Ridley Scott. I hope it’s better than Prometheus.

Wool | 9:39 pm CST
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Saturday, May 24th, 2014

I couldn’t finish reading Boomerang, Michael Lewis’s book about how all the bankers in the world simultaneously became irresponsible jerks. Not that it wasn’t a good book; far from it, the book was easy to read and the author seems to know quite a lot about how the financial world works and why it went into a tailspin, but I can only read so many stories about bankers contriving ways to steal other people’s money before I’m too disgusted to read any more. I got to within fifty pages or so of the end and just couldn’t go on. But still, as I said, good book. If you can stomach it.

Boomerang | 4:51 pm CST
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Sunday, February 9th, 2014

I’ve found I can’t help but read news stories and books about global climate change. They literally compel me to stop what I’m doing and read, I guess because the premise that we are poisoning the only planet we will ever have to live on is so obvious that I would always like to know why the subject isn’t compelling to everyone. In spite of all the news stories, books, and especially in spite of all the noise generated by social media, I still haven’t figured it out. But I keep reading.

The author of “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” Elizabeth Kolbert, has been traveling the world talking to people who have made it their life’s work to find out if the global climate is going to change so drastically that we will have a hard time continuing to live here. The answer, it turns out, is yes, very probably. “A hard time living here,” by the way, doesn’t mean we’ll have to weatherproof our homes or wear more sunscreen, stuff like that. It means drought, famine, disease, extinction – Cormac McCarthy kinds of “hard times,” just to be clear.

But it also turns out that we can do something about it because the climate change that we’re observing is a result of all the crap we release into the air. Then the question becomes, What can we do, How can we do it, and When do we do it? See how one question became three there? And then, for example, “When do we do it?” becomes, “Who, me? Right now? Why don’t those guys have to do it? How can that be fair? Why should I have to pay when they don’t?” It’s a hydra-headed problem that Kolbert addresses very directly. I liked her no-nonsense way of avoiding a sensationalist tone that others so easily slide into when talking about a subject like this.

And I liked that she made her argument very concisely; I started reading it on a lazy Sunday last weekend and finished it off this morning. It didn’t take me a week; those were the only two days I spent reading it. I spent my evenings this week reading a space opera, “The Hydrogen Sonata,” by Iain M. Banks and finishing off another chapter of “The Education of Henry Adams.” I’m an easily distracted reader.

Field Notes From A Catastrophe | 9:44 am CST
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Sunday, December 8th, 2013

It’s possible that the seven wives of the first American astronauts may have been boring people. I haven’t met any of them. It seems unlikely, though. What I’ve read about them (up until now) suggests that they were at least as interesting as most people. And being military wives, they’d traveled back and forth across the United States and the world. They were married to fighter pilots who became test pilots before they were selected to be the first American astronauts. And finally, they were thrust into the public eye all but against their will to have virtually every molecule of their beings scrutinized.

So I doubt they were boring. They must’ve had at least a few memories worth putting to paper. And Lily Koppel’s book about them, The Astronaut Wives Club, hints at some of those memories, but the way Koppel spins them out, they bump and clunk up over odd, seemingly random non sequiturs. Here’s how she introduces Marge Slayton:

Marge Slayton welcomed the press boys with her silent-film-star smile. She and Deke were stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave, where the Joshua trees rose like gnarled arthritic hands out of the lakebed runway. She had been gung ho ever since the space race began on an October night in 1957 when Russia launched Sputnik over the United States on the same night Leave It To Beaver made its television debut. Sputnik means “fellow traveler” in Russian.

Koppel never explains what Leave It To Beaver has to do with Marge Slayton, or why we need to know the literal translation of “sputnik” to understand her relationship with Deke.

Aside from being peppered with a random sprinkling of barely-relevant facts, quite a few of the portraits of the wives as painted by Koppel are less than flattering. When Koppel introduces Trudy Cooper, she starts by dropping the bombshell that just before her husband Gordon was selected to become an astronaut, Trudy had run off to San Diego with their daughters to start life over after finding out Gordon had been cheating on her. But what started out as a story that might have painted her in a sympathetic light ends up making her look like a gold digger:

… she couldn’t bear to let such a choice assignment be forfeited … talks were already underway to give Life magazine exclusive coverage of the astronauts’ and their wives’ “personal stories” … The reward would be big: $500,000. If there was anything more amazing that Gordo could tell Trudy, she didn’t know what it was … the idea of half a million dollars, which was to be divvied up equally among the seven new space families … was like winning the lottery.

As tough as things might have been for a divorced woman in the 1960s, Trudy was a woman who was not without the wherewithal to make a new start on her own. A military wife, she would’ve had a network of people she could have turned to for support, and she was an accomplished pilot besides. Yet, the way Koppel tells the story, she chose to overlook Cooper’s infidelity for a one-time payout of a little more than $70K. There must have been just a little more to the story than that.

If there was, it must have been somewhere in the last half of the book that I didn’t read, and why would you do that? Nearly every story the wives could tell was broken up in a way that makes reading it almost painful:

Alan, Gordo and Gus were big racers, loved fast cars, and were planning to realize their hot-rod fantasies with their Life money. In the meantime, Gus and Deke continued to hunt in the wilds outside of Langley.

“Hey, where’d you get that cat?” asked Betty Grissom’s son Scotty about the black bear his father and his new astronaut friend Deke were dragging into the garage one Sunday. They’d brought home the kill, displaying the all-American frontiersman spirit that made the press call the boys “the greatest heroes since Christopher Columbus. The men who will take us to the stars!” The wives just looked at each other with frozen eyes.

“Thank goodness we got that money for our stories from Life,” said Betty.

I gave up after chapter three.

The Astronaut Wives Club | 10:20 am CST
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Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Alas, Frederick Pohl

We have lost another giant.

Frederick Pohl | 4:59 pm CST
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Monday, November 26th, 2012


When the English stormed the Emerald Isle in the 17th century, they took everything that was worth taking and burned everything else. Thereafter, the Irish had no land, no money, no future. That left them with words, and words became books, and books, ingeniously coupled with music and alcohol, enabled the Irish to transcend reality.

And this:

Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A Métro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in “Homage to Catalonia” in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.

None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.

— Joe Queenan
My 6,128 Favorite Books

morning quote | 6:07 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Sunday, November 18th, 2012

The only fit snack while reading is the olive in a martini.

— P.J. O’Rourke

book snack | 4:47 pm CST
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Thursday, September 27th, 2012

image of Saturn

“…the Cassini spacecraft pulled into orbit around Saturn. There was nothing scientific about it, just pulling into orbit. Yet the Today Show figured that was news enough to put the story in their first hour – not in the second hour, along with the recipes, but in the first twenty minutes. So they called me in. When I get there, everybody says, ‘Congratulations! What does this mean?’ I tell them it’s great, that we’re going to study Saturn and its moons. Matt Lauer wants to be hard-hitting, though, so he says, ‘But Dr. Tyson, this is a $3.3 billion mission. Given all the problems we have in the world today, how can you justify that expenditure?’ So I say, ‘First of all, it’s $3.3 billion divided by twelve. It’s a twelve-year mission. Now we have the real number: less than $300 million per year. Hmmm. $300 million. Americans spend more than that per year on lip balm.’

“At that moment, the camera shook. You could hear the stage and lighting people giggle. Matt had no rebuttal; he just stuttered and said, ‘Over to you, Katie.’ When I exited the building, up came a round of applause from a group of bystanders who’d been watching the show. And they all held up their ChapSticks, saying, ‘We want to go to Saturn!'”


space chronicles | 8:30 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, current events, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

image of book cover for John Scalzi's book RedshirtsI had John Scalzi’s book Redshirts on request for so long at the library that I forgot I’d even asked them for it until we stopped day before yesterday so My Darling B could pick up the dozen or so books she had on hold. When she came back to the checkout, Redshirts was on the top of her pile.

I started reading it immediately. Really, I read the first five pages while she was scanning her books. I read the first couple chapters as soon as we got home. I kept reading it as late into the night as I could, which isn’t very late on a work night. I read it on breaks. I read it at lunch. I finished reading it last night. I couldn’t stop reading it.

One of the reasons for that is, Scalzi’s books are mostly dialog. At least the ones I’ve read are. His characters hardly ever stop talking long enough for him to have to explain anything. They do it for him. And they’re never boring characters. If I could have just one wish, I’d like to meet actual people as witty and interesting as the characters in Scalzi’s books.

Being mostly dialog, Scalzi’s books are usually a quick read for me. The pages aren’t dauntingly packed with dense prose and, as I said, the banter is witty and entertaining. No matter how much I’ve read, I never feel I’ve read enough. I just keep gobbling it up until it’s almost midnight and I realize that, if I don’t go to bed soon, I’ll end up taking a nap for an hour before I have to head to the office and won’t I be cranky the rest of the day then?

If you know anything about Star Trek, you know that, when Captain Kirk, Spock and McCoy beamed down to a new planet each week, there was usually a crew member who beamed down with them, and the poor bastard’s one job on the away team was to get killed by aliens before the commercial break. Among science fiction nerds, expendable characters are called “redshirts” because security guards on the Enterprise, the guys who usually beamed down to protect Kirk and Spock, wore red shirts. The redshirt effect even carried over to Scotty, who got the crap kicked out of him on a regular basis.

In Star Trek, the fact that the security guards always die when they’re on an away team with Kirk seems to go unnoticed. In Redshirts, Scalzi’s characters are keenly aware of the fact and not only look for the reason, they try to figure out how to put an end to the madness. When I got to that part, I couldn’t have stopped reading for all the beer in town.

The book ends with four codas that I haven’t read yet. Probably have to take a long lunch today.

Redshirts | 6:07 am CST
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Friday, September 21st, 2012

image of the Milky Way in the night sky“Unlike other animals, humans are quite comfortable sleeping on our backs. This simple fact affords us a view of the boundless night sky as we fall asleep, allowing us to dream about our place in the cosmos and to wonder what lies undiscovered in the worlds beyond.

The effect is to leave us restless for want of a plan to discover. We know in our minds, but especially in our hearts, the value to our culture of new voyages and the new vistas they provide. Because without them, our culture stalls and our species withers. And we might as well go to sleep facing down.”


face up | 5:34 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Can you find Bonkers the Cat in this photo of my basement lair?

image of man cave

I bought a new camera a few weeks ago because I lost my old camera. Just lost it. I was taking photos while I was brewing beer or hammering on some wood or something, so between photos I put it somewhere very safe, and it is in such a completely safe place that I’m sure it will still be in good working order when I remember where that safe place is.

I went without a camera for a month or two because it took that long to get over how stupid I felt about losing my camera, but then one day while I was shopping for toilet paper or shoes or something completely unrelated to cameras, I wandered past the electronics section of our local Shopko store and I bought a camera. And it sucked. But the suckiness of the camera was Fuji’s fault, not Shopko’s. I took the crappy Fuji camera back and bought a Sony Cybershot, which was coincidentally the name of the camera that’s in a very safe place. And I like it a lot.

One of the things my Sony Cybershot can to is take panoramic photos. I can stand in the middle of my basement lair, for instance, and slowly turn in a circle after I click the shutter. The computer brain of the camera can remember everything it sees and somehow pieces it together into a nearly seamless photo of everything I pointed it at. You can see a few of the places where it had to sort of fudge things together. There’s a very obvious break in the florescent light on the left, for instance, but I’m really amazed at how good the rest of it looks.

lair | 6:12 am CST
Category: Bonkers, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, O'Folks, play, typewriters | Tags:
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Friday, June 8th, 2012

We have been given eyes to see what the light-year worlds cannot see of themselves, Bradbury wrote. We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes?

Andy Chaikin, who has made a life out of writing about space explorers, remembers Ray Bradbury

requiem | 5:50 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, current events, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Ten years from now, or maybe as little as five, really, I may not remember where I was or what I was doing when I heard the news that Maurice Sendak had died, but I hope I’ll always be able to recall some of the happiest moments of my life, and that I could live them only because Sendak was alive.

Here’s one of them: Reading Where The Wild Things Are to my youngest son, Timmy, while he sat in my lap. I loved the part where I got to say, “That very night, in Max’s room …” and then pausing, Tim’s cue to throw his hands over his head and shout, “A FOREST GREW!”

Or this: The many pages of The Wild Rumpus. There were no words, so as I turned to the first two-page spread I would bounce Tim up and down in my lap and he would join me in chanting, “Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpuussss!” Then we would turn the page and do it all over again.

Unless my memory’s gone south, Sean’s favorite Sendak book was In The Night Kitchen, probably because it was full of milk and cookies. Both the boys liked Chicken Soup With Rice, which is easily my favorite, right after Where The Wild Things Are.

When I heard of Sendak’s death today, I slumped in my chair and very nearly came to tears, until it occurred to me that it would be much more appropriate to make sure we all kept the wild rumpus going.

Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpuussss!

Maurice Sendak | 9:01 pm CST
Category: books, current events, entertainment, O'Folks, play, Seanster, T-Dawg
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Saturday, January 14th, 2012

I’ve spent the morning and part of the afternoon making a few improvements around the house, starting with the book cases in the extra room.

It used to be Tim’s room, but we’ve been using it as an office. That’s a highfalutin way of saying we put a desk in there that’s been buried under a heap of bills and catalogs for more than a year. There’s a twin bed in there, too, that’s usually buried under old clothes and blankets, except for the two times a year that Sean comes to visit. Other than that, the room doesn’t get much use.

And it was a lot of extra space that wasn’t getting much use. Meanwhile, in the basement, three big boxes of books sat waiting to be unpacked. So, early last summer, I bought a couple of book cases from one of those unfinished furniture store, brought them home and left them untouched in the spare room for a couple months. Can’t rush these things.

Last month, though, I finally took the shelves out of one of the book cases, slapped a coat of finish on them and on the book case, waited for the whole shebang to dry before I sanded it all down and slapped on a second coat. I was going to paint them because I’m not very good at staining wood. It always comes out way too dark for my liking and usually kind of splotchy. Paint never does. My Darling B encouraged me to try again, though, pointing out that I could always paint over it if I didn’t like it. She’s kinda smart.

And what the hell, it did turn out looking pretty good, thanks to a stain sealer I found. I didn’t have to rub the stain off with a rag, just paint it on with a brush and leave it to dry, then sand it and brush on a second coat. I chose the lightest shade they offered and it turned out looking great, nothing like any of the other projects I’ve tried to stain.

I finished the first book case just before Christmas, and I finished the second one last week, but I still had to screw it to the wall because it’s almost eight feet tall and I didn’t want an eight-foot-tall book case loaded down with a couple hundred pounds of books to tip over on anybody. It probably wouldn’t happen, but those sound so much like famous last words that I didn’t unpack any books until I sank some anchors in the wall this morning and screwed it firmly in place. That sucker’s not tipping over now unless the whole house tips over.

Finally, I unpacked the books, three big boxes of them, and hauled them upstairs one arm load at a time. I expected they would almost fill the whole book case, with a little room left over for a few of our other books, and I wasn’t too far off. I got all the boxes unpacked, and carried up a couple stacks of books that were standing around in the basement, but that took up all the room there was. To make more room, we’ll have to weed out the books that could be sold to Half-Price Books or given to the friends of the library, but that’s for another day.

Because I still had other improvements to make. While My Darling B was out of the house, on a trip to the grocery store, I shut off the power to the lights and replaced a light switch that was going on the fritz. It worked about nine times out of ten, but that tenth time was iffy. The lights would blink on for a moment before going dark again. The same thing might happen with the next flick of the switch, or the lights might come on and stay on. It probably wasn’t the safest thing in the house, electrically speaking. I bought a new switch last weekend and have been waiting for the opportunity to switch off the power and replace it. This morning, I got it.

While I was in wiring mode, I did a little rewiring in the basement. A switch at the bottom of the stairs was not being used for anything, so I ran a wire from it to the lights in the corner of the basement where the beer’s kept. It seemed like such a simple idea, but I had to run the wire through the narrow gap between the stairway and the furnace uptakes, a place where spiders weave their webs and much dust has settled over the years. I went sweaty and I came out looking like a breaded chicken breast.

But it was worth it. That’s the same corner where the wash machine drains into a sink, and where the circuit breaker panel is mounted to the wall, so we go back there a lot – to fetch beer, to shut off the electricity when replacing light switches, and when taking part in the latest plumbing emergency caused by too much wash machine lint going down the drain. The lights used to be turned on by a pull chain, necessitating a long walk through the dark to the corner, but now we can switch them on at the bottom of the steps and walk all the way in the light. Go into the Light! Cross over children! All are welcome in the light!

After I finished that, there was plenty of clean-up to do because everywhere I tried to step there were wire ends I snipped off, bits of plastic insulation I stripped and, of course, chunks of meat and clots of blood I butchered from my hands. I swept up the big stuff, then vacuumed up the rest and, while I had the vacuum going, I cleaned up all the cat hair on the stairs, which must be where they do the bulk of their shedding. After just two or three weeks there’s enough cat hair on the stairs to make a Snuggie.

And that was all I had the energy for. Also, I felt gross. I went straight to the bathroom, peeled off all my clothes and stepped into the shower, cranked the handle up to “live steam” and stood there for twenty minutes, letting it blast all the crud away. And after dressing, I had a little nap, because I sort of felt I’d earned it.

improve | 3:30 pm CST
Category: books, ch-ch-changes, daily drivel, entertainment, fun with electricity, Our Humble O'Bode, play
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Monday, January 2nd, 2012

There are five books in a teetering tower on top of my bedside book case. I think of these as the books I’m currently reading, even though I’m only really reading one of them right now: Empire of the Summer Moon. Before my birthday came along I was reading a dozen or so pages each night before bed from just one book, and was feeling mighty smug about having whittled it down to that, but then my mother sent me a book in the mail and it was so good I began to alternate between that and the previous book, any why not? I can juggle two books as well as anybody else. And then My Darling B gave me a lighthearted and not very long book for my birthday and I started to read that, and then my oldest son gave me a book about trains for Christmas … and now the pile by my bed is as big as it ever was.

Sean brought a copy of Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, by S.C. Gwynne, with him when he came to visit, and I started to leaf through it when he left it on the coffee table one day. Leafing through it turned into reading it and, in just a couple of days, I had finished several chapters, so Sean let me hang on to it so I could finish and return it to him later. I know woefully little about the Indian wars, and S.C. Gwynne, as it turns out, not only seems to know virtually everything about it, he can write about it in a style that is compellingly readable. This is his first book on the subject, unfortunately, so I will be waiting impatiently to see if he writes another that I can wolf down in a week and a half.

Before I started reading Empire of the Summer Moon, I was about halfway through Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, which My Darling B gave to me for my birthday. She knows about my weird fascination with typography and allows me to indulge it by stockpiling derelict typewriters. She spotted this book on a recent visit to The Tattered Cover, our favorite book store in Denver, Colorado, and snapped it up. Organized into easy-to-read chapters, each one of them a self-enclosed story, you could enjoy this book a as a casual read without having to be a font nerd. I was reading a chapter each night before bed until Sean left his book out to distract me.

Rival Rails: The Race to Build America’s Greatest Transcontinental Railroad is very much a book for train nerds, among which I happily count myself. Sean got me this one for Christmas. It’s unusual among the books he’s bought me in that he didn’t read it himself before he presented it to me, but then he’s not, sadly, the train nerd that I am. I read the opening chapter on Christmas morning but haven’t gotten back to it since and don’t know when I’ll be able to. Even so, it’s still on my bedside book shelf waiting for me to pick it up again.

Before all these other books came to my attention, I was reading the book my Mom got me for my birthday, Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-42, by Ian W. Toll, who wrote Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, which I found with the new releases in the library some years back and put it on my TBR list, which never seems to get any shorter. Pacific Crucible instantly grabbed my attention and I was alternating between it and the last book in my bedside pile before all those other books came along. I hope to get back to it soon, but who knows.

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight was the lone book by my bed for several weeks. Very geeky, it’s the story of the transformation of flight from the time when pilots controlled aircraft with a stick and pedals connected to the airplane by cables to the time when pilots were confronted with fly-by-wire systems and had to learn to deal with flight computers that took over a huge share of their jobs, a transition that arose from the manned space program. I was halfway through this book when Mom’s book came in the mail and distracted me.

towering | 7:04 pm CST
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Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

National Public Radio asked listeners to nominate their favorite fantasy and science fiction books, whittled the list down to a couple hundred, then asked listeners to vote for their top ten favorites. The aim was to discover what people considered to be the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books of all time.

I’m a little irritated that they mashed science fiction and fantasy together into the same pseudo-genre. They’re nowhere near the same thing, and anybody who says they are is just itching for a fight with the caretakers of the memory of Hugo Gernsback.

But I’m not coming to the party to split hairs, I’m here to pick my favorite ten titles from the ones they gave us. I copied and pasted the list to a notepad, then cut out all the titles that I was sure I hadn’t read. Then I went over the list again and cut out all the titles I wasn’t sure I’d read. That left me with:

1984, by George Orwell
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Contact, by Carl Sagan
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Lensman Series, by E.E. Smith
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
The Stand, by Stephen King
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak
World War Z, by Max Brooks

I’m pretty sure I’ve read all these books. I’d bet you a beer I had, anyway.

First off, the books I’m not going to vote for:

Battlefield Earth? Seriously?

I’m also not going to vote for a series of books. That’s just not fair to the authors who have just one book on the list.

Also, I’m going to vote mostly for science fiction books. I might as well just put that out there right now. And by “science fiction,” I mean books that are set in the world of the possible. Space ships are possible. However much woo and handwavium they use to get from here to there, space ships exist. Fire-breathing dragons are not possible. They are very cool, but they have never existed and will never exist. Therefore, Tolkein’s or Anne McCaffrey’s worlds are not in the same league as anything dreamed up by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells or Ray Bradbury. They are still very cool, they’re just not possible. That’s just how it is.

Why is Watership Down on this list? Anyone? Loved the story, but … why?

Now, out of all these titles, which are the ten that I liked best? Hmmm…

My number-one pick has got to be The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams’s masterpiece, his magnum opus, his gift to geekdom. I have a long-abiding faith that anyone who loves science fiction will always have a soft spot for this wonderfully witty work of art. I suppose it’s possible that someone out there doesn’t like H2G2 and yet can somehow prove they are Of The Body. Possible, but frankly I feel it’s only as possible as the chance that a stack of gold coins will issue from my posterior this evening. To love science fiction is to love this ingeniously funny send-up of the genre. It gets my first vote.

My second vote has to go to Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein, for several reasons. First of all: Just because. Second, who wouldn’t love a science-fiction novel about soldiers in robot armor blasting giant spiders from space? Spiders from space, people! How is that NOT one of the greatest science-fiction novels ever? Yes, I’m aware that there’s a fascist government. Yes, I’m aware the action is meant to be cover for the long, boring lectures about democracy morality blah blah blah. Whatever. I say again: Spiders from space! Soldiers in robot armor! This is nerd-o-riffic stuff! I have but ten votes to give, and this one must get my vote. I am helpless to vote otherwise.

The War of The Worlds gets my third vote if only because it’s got the all-time greatest opening of any science-fiction book I have ever read, and it just keeps getting better every time I read it:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

That’s not far from Shakespearian, folks. A story about the invasion of the Earth written in prose like that? Gotta be my third choice.

The Left Hand of Darkness gets my fourth vote, first because Ursula Le Guin is and always will be one of my favorite authors, and because this is not just a geek-o-riffic story about life on other worlds, but because it’s one of the all-time great stories about one of the most true friendships ever described. I’ve revisited this story every few years and I get something new out of it every time I do.

I decided to cast my fifth vote for Solaris even though I had one hell of a time learning to like it. In fact, I flat-out disliked it the first time I read it. I thought it was turgid to the point of being nearly impenetrable, but after it had simmered at the back of my mind for a while I picked it up and re-read it again. By the time I finished, I liked it enough to think on it a bit longer, then picked it up again several months later and read it a third time. As it grew on me I realized that this is an iconic work of science fiction, a work that every reader of science fiction should have in their bookcase. I should have had it in my bookcase! And now I do. And I’m voting for it in my top ten.

Brave New World deserves a vote as one of the seminal science fiction works of the genre. Some people would say that Frankenstein should get a vote for the same reason, but Frankenstein is long-winded and makes me sleepy, while Brave New World is funny and keeps me awake. Vote.

I’d have to give a vote to Rendesvouz with Rama not because I’m a rabid fan of Arthur C. Clark – if I were, I’d probably vote for 2001: A Space Odyssey instead – but because it fits my idea of a truly geeky science-fiction novel: Astronauts board an apparently abandoned alien vessel as it enters the solar system. While they’re inside, trying to figure it out, it comes to life. Clark could have made this into a pulp fiction horror story, but instead he let it play out as a story of wonder and discovery. I read the book just once and it still sticks in my head after all these years.

Ringworld has a hard and fast claim on my vote as one of my all-time favorites. For my money, some of the best SF stories are gadget porn. Ringworld is a story set in a world that is one of the greatest artifacts ever conceived, a ring around a star. Mind blown.

I’m not sure why Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s memoir of his incarceration as a prisoner of war during World War Two, is on this list, but since it is, and there are space aliens in it, it gets my vote. Everyone should read this book at least once. Also contains the single funniest line I’ve ever read in a work of fiction: “Billy Pilgrim made a noise like a rusty door hinge as he emptied his seminal vesicles into Montana Wildhack.” Hi-ho.

And finally, the one vote I have left would have to go to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a book that’s going to be read by lots and lots of people for a lot of years. Great story.

skiffy | 10:25 pm CST
Category: books, entertainment, play | Tags: , , , ,
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Saturday, June 4th, 2011

After lunch at Cronies Cafe yesterday my mom asked me, as we stepped out into the street, “Did you want to visit the book store?”

“Oh, heck yes!” I answered, because, you know, books!

She was referring to Book Cellar, a book store on main street. I stop by every time I visit because it brings a smile to my face to walk into an independent book store and I just don’t get to smile like that often enough any more.

While mom poked through the books I wandered down to their extensive selection of CDs, found the section where they kept the Leo Kottke recordings and somehow, using every fiber of self-control I possessed, kept myself from buying every single one I could find. There were six or seven, but I settled for just two, the armadillo album – the cover says “6- and 12-String Guitar”, kind of a mundane name – and “Standing In My Shoes.”

Felt pretty good about how restrained I was until I got to the checkout counter and my eyes fell on a couple of Nora Jones CDs in the rack right under the register. Dammit! I love Nora Jones! Every time Pandora plays one of her tunes I tell myself I’m going to order one of her albums one of these days. Well, the two I wanted to start with were only six and eight dollars, so I added them to the Kottke disks. So much for self-control.

And I got a book, three bucks.

self control | 1:27 pm CST
Category: books, daily drivel, entertainment, food & drink, Mom, O'Folks, play, restaurants | Tags: , , ,
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Sunday, May 1st, 2011

I froze my ass off today. Really. I have no ass.

I sat in line with My Darling B – stood, for a while, but mostly sat, so I’m defaulting to that – for five hours this morning to buy tickets for the Great Taste of the Midwest. The skies were clear, the day was sunny, the temps were in the low fifties. Wouldn’t have been a bad day at all to sit in a lawn chair all morning reading or playing cards or otherwise whiling away the time as we waited for the doors to open. When the wind wasn’t blowing it wasn’t a bad day, but the wind was blowing more than it wasn’t, and it was blowing hard. No gentle breeze, this wind made reading a book difficult, reading the Sunday paper impossible (I still haven’t gotten around to reading it), and the only card game we might have played would have been Fifty-Two Pickup. We could have played that game just once. And it sapped every bit of warmth, right down to the marrow of my bones, out of me and My Darling B in just an hour, maybe less, so the other four hours we were technically cold enough to be dead, had anybody with medical training checked, which thankfully never happened or I’d be in a body bag at the morgue right now.

Why would we wait in line for so long, risking death by hypothermia, for tickets to a beerfest? Ah, this is no mere beerfest. This is the beerfest, the Great Taste of the Midwest, tickets for which only the blessed and the saved can get hold of. The Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild want to keep the festival to a manageable size, so they sell just 6,000 tickets to the event each year, 3,000 by mail and 3,000 at various retail outlets across Madison. The manner by which they sell the tickets is so arcane that the uninitiated have almost no chance of getting in.

The mail-order tickets, for instance, are sold by lottery. You must mail in your request on a certain date. Requests that are postmarked on any other day are sent back. They sell just two tickets to each person. The orders that are postmarked on the correct day are thrown into a hat (the biggest hat in the world, I’m told; a fedora, in case anybody’s asking) and 1,500 letters are drawn at random. The rest are sent back to the unlucky ones who then scour Craigslist hoping that someone will have a change of plans or who bought an extra for a friend who can no longer make it. There may be a few scalpers among ticket buyers to the Great Taste, but I’ll bet a six-pack of my favorite Hinterland brew there are darned few.

The sale of 600 tickets at Star Liquor on Willy Street opens at twelve o’clock promptly, and people start lining up to buy them the night before. No, really. People camp out overnight to get hold of a couple tickets to this event, that’s how devout they are about this enterprise. We are not that devout. We didn’t get in line the night before, or even before sunrise this morning; we showed up at about eight o’clock, an hour earlier than we did last year because we just barely got there under the cutoff. How did we know we cut it so close? Because there’s a guy at the end of the line helpfully counting noses. Anybody in line after Standee Number Three-Hundred was hoping against hope that at least some of the people ahead of them were not buying two tickets each. That’s got to be a nail-biter.

This year, getting in line an hour earlier, we were just under the wire again. I guess that means next year we’ll have to show up at seven. *sigh*

To make the wait as pleasant as possible we brought along camp chairs, a couple of books (I brought along a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, a novel I’d started only the day before, figuring it would keep me plenty busy; little did I know. In two hours I managed to bull my way through twelve pages, so dense was the text. At this rate, I won’t finish until Christmas) and lunch. We did not bring winter sleeping bags. If only the day had not appeared to be so warm and inviting, we might have wrapped ourselves in thick, quilted flannel and kept ourselves toasty warm. But no. That would not have been consonant with the wishes of The Great Cosmic F.U.

To stave off complete and total conversion to human Pop-sicles we took turns walking to a local grocery store. I made two trips to a bakery, first to get scones, then to refill my coffee mug. It helped a bit, especially the hot coffee, but eventually I was completely numb from the tips of my fingers all the way up to the wrist. My lips were numb and I thought they were probably corpse-blue, too, but nobody said anything so maybe they weren’t.

I started packing up the camp chairs about twenty minutes before twelve and, not two minutes later, the line lurched forward in the first of many accordion-like compressions that eventually took us all the way to within a few paces of the corner of Few Street and Willy Street. If anything, I felt even colder from here to the very doorstep of Star Liquor. Most of the wait was in the shade, and there was some kind of freak weather pattern whipping the wind up to near-tornadic strength in the parking lot next to Star Liquor where the line snaked up to the side entrance. B kept pressing herself close against me so I can only assume she felt at least as cold as I did. My lips were too numb for me to form intelligible words, so I couldn’t ask her.

A few minutes past one o’clock we finally walked out of the store with tickets in hand, grinning like idiots. Once home, I made a big pot of hot coffee at the request of My Darling B, who curled up on the sofa with a steaming hot mug o’ java, wrapped up in quilts, where she stayed for at least an hour, slowing thawing out.

Hypothermic | 5:30 pm CST
Category: beer, books, coffee, entertainment, festivals, food & drink, Great Taste of the Midwest, My Darling B, O'Folks, play
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Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

David Sedaris’s laundry list of the worst ways to die, from When You Are Engulfed In Flames:

My list of don’ts covered three pages and included such reminders as: never fall asleep in a Dumpster, never underestimate a bee, never drive a convertible behind a flatbed truck, never get old, never get drunk near a train, and never, under any circumstances, cut off your air supply while masturbating. This last one is a nationwide epidemic, and it’s surprising the number of men who do it while dressed in their wife’s clothing, most often while she is out of town. To anyone with similar inclinations, a word of warning: after you’re discovered, the police with take snapshots of your dead, costumed body, which will then be slid into photo albums and pored over by people like me, who hole themselves up in the records room, moaning, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” not sure if they’re referring to your plum-colored face or to the squash blossom necklace you’ve chosen to go with that blouse.

Good to know.

Engulfed | 7:56 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

I realize I posted a quote from Michael Perry’s Coop just yesterday, but I can’t help bringing this one to your attention today. Consider this a forewarning. I have a feeling this book’s going to be pregnant with quotable material.

Sometimes during the day when the cows were settled we kids went to the barn and lay lengthwise along the backs of the tamer animals to absorb their warmth. Because of the way she tucks her hindquarters, a cow at rest tilts off-kilter, allowing you to nestle rump to withers against the ridge of the backbone while draping your limbs across a hemisphere of abdomen. You rise and fall with each bovine breath, and if you hold especially still you will feel the subterranean thump of a five-pound heart. At regular intervals the cow will lurch softly and summon a cud. The dewlap ripples, and a wad of ruminated forage rises visibly up the throat. Rolling the bolus to her tongue, she’ll work her jaw forty or so times, swallow, wait a patient moment, then raise another. It’s hard to imagine regurgitation as a form of meditation, but for cows, it is so.

I thought this passage was worth quoting for exactly three reasons:

As far as quirky juxtaposition goes, I’m not sure you can get quirkier than pairing regurgitation with meditation. Or maybe you can but I’m just not trying hard enough.

And from a grammatical point of view, “summon a cud” has to be the quirkiest juxtaposition of noun and verb I have seen in recent memory. Possibly longer. But I love it. It’s perfect.

But the quirkiest position I would ever dare to juxt in real life would have to be laying on a cow’s back. It simply would not have occurred to me ever under any conditions, or at least I think so now. But since he mentioned it, it seems as natural and obvious as crawling into a hammock, which you know in your heart is a pretty goofy way to relax if you’ve ever done it.

Anyway, them’s my thoughts on that.

Coop once again | 6:23 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

From Michael Perry’s Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg:

I am open to the idea of home birth because I love my wife and this is what she wants, but I am also bucky about the idea of delivering babies old-style if it is simply in service of some whole-grain earth mother sensibility picked up during a women’s studies course in Colorado. As a former fundamentalist gone agnostic, I tend to dig my heels in at the first whiff of evangelism, whether it be deployed in the service of Girl Power, salvation, or the curative wonders of organic yams. There is also the frank issue of testosterone — four years in nursing school and three Indigo Girls albums notwithstanding, I am not purged of all and not interested in achieving complete anemia. In short, a man likes to drive. Even when he is lost.

Amen to that, brother.

Coop | 5:35 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Monday, February 14th, 2011

The ordinarily even-tempered academic Henry Adams goes all Chuck Norris on De Witt Clinton:

With a violence that startled uninitiated bystanders, Cheetham in his American Citizen [newspaper] flung one charge after another at [Aaron] Burr; first his judiciary vote; then his birthday toast; then the suppression of a worthless history of the last Administration written by John Wood, another foreign adventurer, whose book Burr bought in order, as Cheetham believed, to curry favor with the New England Federalists; finally, with the rhetorical flourish of an American Junius, Cheetham charged that Burr had tried to steal the Presidency from Jefferson in February, 1801, when the House of Representatives was divided. All the world knew that not Cheetham, but De Witt Clinton thus dragged the Vice-President from his chair, and that not Burr’s vices, but his influence made his crimes heinous; that behind De Witt Clinton stood the Virginia dynasty, dangling Burr’s office in the eyes of the Clinton family, and lavishing honors and money on the Livingstons.

All this was as clear to Burr and his friends as though it were embodied in an Act of Congress. No one ever explained why Burr did not drag De Witt Clinton from his ambush and shoot him, as two years later he shot Alexander Hamilton with less provocation.

Yeah! Whyn’t he just SHOOT ’em? Some people just need killin’!

BLAM! | 8:17 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Thursday, February 10th, 2011

When it sucks to be a Genius:

John Fitch, a mechanic, without education or wealth, but with the energy of genius, invented engine and paddles of his own, with so much success that during a whole summer Philadelphians watched his ferryboat plying daily against the river current. No one denied that his boat was rapidly, steadily, and regularly moved against wind and tide, with as much certainty and convenience as could be expected in a first experiment; yet Fitch’s company failed. He could raise no more money; the public did not want it, would not believe in it, and broke his heart by their contempt. Fitch struggled against failure, and invented another boat moved by a screw. The Eastern public still proving indifferent, he wandered to Kentucky, to try his fortune on the Western waters. Disappointed there, as in Philadelphia and New York, he made a deliberate attempt to end his life by drink; but the process proving too slow, he saved twelve opium pills from the physician’s prescription, and was found one morning dead. Fitch’s death took place in an obscure Kentucky inn, three years before Jefferson, the philosopher-President, entered the White House.

– from “The Formative Years: A History of The United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison,” by Henry Adams

Genius | 7:21 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Saith the Duc de Liancourt, writing in 1797:

… it must be acknowledged that the beauty of the American ladies has the advantage in the comparison [to European ladies]. The young women of Philadelphia are accomplished in different degrees, but beauty is general with them. They want the ease and fashion of French women, but the brilliancy of their complexion is infinitely superior. Even when they grow old, they are still handsome; and it would be no exaggeration to say, in the numerous assemblies … it is impossible to meet with what is called a plain woman.

As to the young men, they for the most part seem to belong to another species.

Not much has changed in two-hundred-plus years, has it?

– from “The Formative Years: A History of The United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison,” by Henry Adams

The Ladies | 7:29 pm CST
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Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Politics was a lot more fun back in the day:

… delegation-selection proceedings were under way in several states that had not yet adopted the primary system. On 23 January, Oklahoma’s Fourth District Republican convention grotesquely dramatized the factionalism of a party splitting three ways.

The local committee chairman, Edward Perry, was a Roosevelt man who hoped to create a progressive stampede for the Colonel. A letter from Gifford Pinchot reminded him that, as yet, La Follette was Taft’s only official challenger. Perry read the letter to the convention, but made plain that he still favored Roosevelt. This infuriated the rank and file supporting Taft. Pandemonium ensued, with Perry roaring, “Slap Roosevelt in the face if you dare!” over contrary shrieks and howls. A posse of fake Rough Riders invaded the hall. For fifteen minutes they tried to storm the stage, but found it harder to take than the Heights of San Juan. Cigar-smoking Taft forces repelled them. One cavalryman got through on a miniature pony: the young son of Jack “Catch-’em-Alive” Abernathy, a friend of Roosevelt’s famous for seizing wolves by the tongue. The boy shrilled “I want Teddy!” to the crowd, touching off further furor. But then the organization men suppressed him, and the convention endorsed Taft over La Follette by a vote of 118 to 32. Perry, locally known as “Dynamite Ed,” showed his displeasure by going outside and detonating five hundred pounds of high explosives.

I almost hate to admit this, but I’d sign up to be a Republican in a minute if they still had guys like “Dynamite Ed” Perry.

Dynamite Ed | 8:31 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play
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