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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Monday, December 17th, 2012

laika graphic novelI followed My Darling B to the library again today and, while she was working on her resume, I wandered past the stack of graphic novels in the young adult section near the computer printers. Most of them were collections of comic books, old and new, from the Marvel and DC lines, with all the familiar names that reminded me of the good old days when I had a seemingly infinite amount of free time to lay on the floor reading stuff like this.

But the name on the spine of one hardbound graphic novel, “Laika,” stood out from the rest because, so far as I knew, there had never been a comic book character who went by that name but, more than that, I was pretty sure there had been just one soul by that name whose celebrity might have resulted in a book about her life. Prying the book out of the tightly-packed shelf, I flipped through the pages and found the story of the first living creature to orbit the Earth.

B was still working on her resume, so I settled into an overstuffed chair and read the first third of the book while I waited for her. When she came looking for me I couldn’t put it back on the shelf, so I checked it out and finished it in just over an hour in the recliner with Bonkers snoring quietly in my lap.

It’s a sentimental story, but I like sentimental stories, and the author and writer Nick Abadzis didn’t try too hard to tug at my heartstrings. He didn’t have to; his leading lady was a pretty little dog with a curly tail and a deep-seated desire to please everyone she met. Who doesn’t like a doggie like that? And even though I knew how Laika’s story ended, I was genuinely surprised to feel a little lump in my throat as I turned the final pages.

Thumbs up. Look for it in the YA section of your local library.

Laika | 6:22 pm CST
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Monday, June 25th, 2012

Want some books? I’ve been in the basement lair this morning weeding books from our collection. Lots of the books have got to go. We’ve been hanging on to so many books that we don’t read and, so far as I know, have no sentimental attachment to, and I’ve collected – no, a more accurate word would be hoarded way too many novelty books over the years from thrift stores. They were fun to bring home and riff through, but they’re just taking up too much space now and we don’t have any place for them except in heaps on the floor, which I just can’t abide any longer.

So I’m piling them up in two different heaps on one side of the room now: One heap of books that I think I can take to Half Price Books and exchange for a little gelt, and books that I’ll have to either toss or haul to the thrift store to get them out of our house. The second pile is a lot bigger that the first.

weeds | 12:49 pm CST
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Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Moving books again. I love books, but I’m getting just a little tired of moving them around all the time.

I built a set of book shelves in my basement lair, which means I had to move the 400 or so books that were stacked up on the cheap-ass book shelves I was using in the meantime. I heaped them up in piles around the edges of the lair, weeding out copies of books I had duplicates of, or hadn’t touched in years. or were about subject I didn’t even know I had once been interested in. I also threw away anything printed on cheap pulp. I had more of those than I ever would have thought.

The new book shelves are made from raw plywood wedged between two by fours and work surprisingly well, given that I made them up out of my own head. The top three shelves are actually the only ones made with books in mind. They’re just eight inches deep and spaced so that mass-market paperbacks would fit perfectly between. The bottom three shelves are much deeper than necessary for plain old books. They’re made for the growing horde of typewriters I’ve been gathering over the years. What’s the point of having all those books, or typewriters, if you don’t put them on display, right?

Putting up the shelves took longer than I thought it would, about two days longer. I cut grooves in the two by fours with a router so the plywood shelves would slide between them. I thought that would take about an hour. That took all afternoon on a Saturday several weeks ago. When I finally got up the steam to get the project going again, I spent a couple hours moving all the books and dragging the bookshelves out to the curb where, if my luck holds, someone will pick them up and stuff them into the back of their van. Then, I cut the two by fours to length, worked out a way to fix them to the floor and ceiling, and wedged the shelves between them. I was very pleasantly surprised at how well it worked, but I wasn’t finished until almost five o’clock this evening. Took me all friggen day.

shelf life | 9:15 pm CST
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Friday, April 27th, 2012

I’ve been wandering through Saint Vinnie’s for weeks without finding a single thing I considered for a moment worth purchasing. Then, today, I wandered in, not expecting to find anything, yet within five short minutes of walking in the front door, I was cradling a copy of the Jules Verne Omnibus, a big, thick, old-looking book that included From The Earth To The Moon, a book I haven’t read to this day, although I promise to rectify that oversight this weekend.

Not far from that I found a memoir of Franklin Roosevelt by Rexford Tugwell. Who names their kid Rexford Tugwell? Well, the Tugwell part of the naming is already done for you, but really, Rexford? If you’re going to name your kid Rexford, you’ve got to be pretty damned confident he’s going to grow up to attend Columbia and become a close personal friend and confidant of the President of the United States.

But the catch of the day, I have to say, was the two-disk special edition DVD release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail! Zow. The second disk includes, among other things, the complete movie dubbed into Japanese, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Lego!

Happy Friday.

score | 10:01 pm CST
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Monday, March 12th, 2012

Still makes as much sense today as it did then:

[An extraterrestrial robot and spaceship has just landed on earth. The robot steps out of the spaceship.]

“I come in peace,” it said, adding after a long moment of further grinding, “take me to your Lizard.”

Ford Prefect, of course, had an explanation for this, as he sat with Arthur and watched the nonstop frenetic news reports on television.

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”

“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”

“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like to straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”

“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”

“I did,” said ford. “It is.”

“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”

“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”

“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”

“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”


“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”

“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”

Ford shrugged again.

“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”

From “So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish,” by Douglas Adams, who would’ve been 60 years old yesterday. Happy birthday, you magnificent bastard, you!

DNA | 6:00 am CST
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Thursday, February 9th, 2012

I was reading a chapter of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 last night and ran across the name “Adrien van der Donck.” Isn’t that fantastic? He was in New York back when the place was lousy with Dutch people and was known as the New Netherlands and, later or earlier (I’m not sure yet), New Amsterdam.

I mentioned this very cool name to My Darling B. Whenever I run across a very cool name, I have to point it out to somebody, or I’ll burst, which is pretty messy, so I try to avoid that. B opined that just about any name would be made way cooler by putting “van der” in the middle and, just then, Bonkers jumped up to sit with me.

So I tried it out. “Hey, it’s Jasper van der Bonkers,” I said.

And there was much tittering from B.

Hm. Every name is way better with a “van der” in the middle.

bonk | 5:42 am CST
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Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

The most frustrating thing about lying awake is having to listen to everybody else sleep. The cats snore, My Darling B purrs, even the house seems to be relaxing as it settles on its foundations, creaking and popping. I’m the only one lying still and quiet.

If insomnia’s good for anything, though, I get plenty of reading done. I knocked off a couple chapters of Promised The Moon, the book about the Mercury 13 I found at St. Vinnie’s last week. Really good stuff, so I didn’t mind so much having all that time to read it.

listening | 6:07 am CST
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Monday, January 2nd, 2012

This is the library of the Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum in Higashi Osaka, Japan. I want to live there for the rest of my life.

Photo from the article in the blog Architect Day about the architect Tadao Ando, who designed the library.

heaven | 11:43 am CST
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Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Edwin Layton was a Japanese linguist and cryptanalyst in the Navy during World War Two. As you might imagine, he has a few interesting stories to tell, and lucky for you and me he wrote them down in a book titled, “And I was there,” which I’m reading right now. Favorite story I read today: Layton went to Japan in 1929 to learn Japanese.

When we had a basic grasp of the language, we went to live away from the capitol for a while. My choice was the isolated town of Beppu. Even in remote Beppu I had a “personal” spy who not only dogged my tracks but also pestered my servant, and became a real nuisance. If I went for a walk, my Japanese shadow followed. After a time I began harassing him by going into bars and leaving before he had finished his beer. Then one day I confronted him: “Stop pestering me, and I’ll not leave the bar until you finish your beer. But don’t hang around my house.” The bargain appealed to him, as a beer drinker, and he was less of a bother after that.

beer | 9:11 pm CST
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Monday, August 8th, 2011

I spent yesterday fixing a book case. I didn’t plan to. It was just one of those things. I happened to walk past it, looked up at the top and noticed that it had walked about an inch from where I wedged it against the ceiling about a year ago.

This was no ordinary book case. I built it out of two by fours and several slabs of rough-cut three quarter inch plywood. It probably weighs at least a hundred pounds empty, maybe three or four hundred pounds after I load it up with books, record albums and an old Underwood cast-iron typewriter. When a monster like that starts to tip over, no matter how slowly, I feel I pretty much have to drop whatever I’m doing and fix it.

I always meant to fix it in place eventually. I thought I had plenty of time to do it. I really thought it was wedged in so tight between the ceiling and floor that it couldn’t possibly fall over any time soon, but I was wrong. I should have realized that, with us walking across the floor above it month after month, and the natural expansion and contraction of the frame of the house through the seasons, there was no chance it wouldn’t fall over in just a year or two. I was awfully lucky to have caught it before it all went crashing to the floor.

So I spent pretty much all afternoon and part of the evening unloading books from the shelves, taking the frame of the book case apart, measuring and cutting, drilling holes, driving screws, and reloading the books so they wouldn’t be sitting on the floor where the bugs and the cold could get into them and wreck havoc of one kind or another. I tried every way I could think of to make repairs without taking all the books out and piling them on the floor, but in the end I realized that would be a half-assed fix and bowed to the inevitable. Also, if there was any chance the whole thing might tip over on top of me, better it was empty than full of books.

fix | 5:36 pm CST
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Sunday, June 19th, 2011

It’s father’s day, a day I can claim entirely as my own to do with however I please. Just waste it doing nothing, or even less than nothing, if I want to. “Less than nothing doesn’t even make sense,” you say. “How can you do less than nothing?” You know how people say, “That’s a half-hour of my life I’ll never get back?” I spent the last half-hour watching videos of Louis C K on YouTube. The only way I can possibly rationalize that I was being productive in any way is that I was taking in oxygen and cranking out carbon dioxide so the green, leafy organisms around me could have lunch. And if modern science is to be believed, not that many people do, there’s already plenty of carbon dioxide in the air, so I’m really reaching, but give me a break, I was just trying to show you how completely and utterly I can waste my time today.

And here I am blogging. There goes another half-hour of my life.

If I had any kind of conscience at all I’d be putting up the book cases I finally brought home from the outlet store last weekend. About six weeks ago I ordered a pair of book cases from one of those stores that orders unfinished furniture from the manufacturer at a discount, sort of. They were still kind of pricey but I was at the point where I realized I was never going to build them myself. I figured, if I bought them already together, then all I’d have to do is fix them to the wall – Done! It’s a good idea. It could have worked.

But the project suffered from inertia almost from the minute I placed my order. First of all, it turned out that the store was on the point of financial collapse. I didn’t find this out under weeks later, when they sent me a “Going Out Of Business” flier in the mail many weeks later. Not that it made any difference to whether or not I got the book cases, it was just sort of a harbinger of things to come. I strolled in, found the book cases I wanted, found a sales person and asked her if I could order a couple. She took me over to the island in the middle of the store where they kept all the paperwork and the catalogs and had a computer set up. Another sales person was sitting in front of the computer surfing the internet while she ate take-out food from one of several boxes she had laid out around the keyboard. Keeping it classy at the furniture store.

When I placed my order, I asked the sales person if they had a delivery service. She said they did not, but she knew a guy with a truck who would deliver it for sixty bucks. She didn’t even blink when she said that, and I didn’t, either. I figured, what the heck? How could some anonymous guy with a truck be worse than any of the dozens of people who have moved my personal effects from one house to the next over the years? We’ve moved house at least a half-dozen times in the twenty-one years we’ve been married, and several of the teams that I’ve welcomed into my home to move our family’s possessions appeared to have been hired that morning, probably not through any formal system of application and interview. I think it was more like, the guy driving the truck spotted a couple of homeless dudes on a park bench while he was waiting for a light to change, rolled down the window and offered them twenty bucks each for a couple hours’ work. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I even wish the guy who showed up alone and told me I’d have to help if we had to be moved out that day had been as enterprising. We did have to be out that day. We all packed and moved a lot of boxes that day.

Where was I? Oh, that’s right: The sales lady at the unfinished furniture store told me she knew a guy, so I told her to please give him a call to find out when he could deliver the book cases, then let me know so we could arrange a date for delivery. A week passed, no call. As a matter of fact, by the end of the first week I’d completely forgotten I’d ordered a pair of book cases and probably would never have remembered if it hadn’t occurred to B to ask me, in the middle of the next week, when we could expect to have those book cases delivered, and I said something very on-the-ball, like, “Uh, yeah … those book cases … I’d better call and ask about that.” Clueless.

And I wasn’t the only one. Nobody answered the phone when I called, so I left a message, something like, “Hi, I ordered a couple of book cases about a week ago and you said you’d call me back to let me know when you could have them delivered. Please give me a call.” When she called me back later that day, she had no memory of ever talking to me about having them delivered. “But I could give him a call right now if you like.” For whatever reason, though, I didn’t feel like waiting for delivery any longer. “No, never mind. I’ll come pick them up myself this weekend.” She apologized for the oversight, I made sure I knew what her hours were, and that was the last time I spoke to her for MORE THAN A WEEK.

I’m a procrastinator. It’s what I do.

When I finally called her back a week and a half later she was still so very sorry about failing to have the book cases delivered to me that she felt she had to apologize again, so I didn’t feel all that bad about my lazy-ass attitude, even though I should have. I rented a van, got T to ride with me to the store and we loaded the book cases up and drove off with them. They were huge book cases, eight feet high. Made of white pine, they weren’t all that heavy but they were so tall that I would never have been able to manhandle them all by myself without dropping them every couple steps and gouging great gashes in the sides by clunking them against corners and other people. When we finally got them in the house they filled up one end of the room, which was just as I wanted it, only I want them at the other end.

I want towering book cases on either side of the window. I’ll have to build up a pedestal for each of them because there’s some duct work that’ll have to run underneath, and they’re so tall that they’ll have to be fixed to the wall so that, when they’re loaded to the rafters, and I imagine each of them will easily hold two-hundred pounds of books, they won’t tip over one random day and squish somebody I love like a worm. I’m putting these book cases up in a spare bedroom where guests stay overnight. It’d be one hell of a way to start the day. Wake up with the sun shining in your face, open your eyes just in time to see a wall of books free-falling toward you. The end.

I figured out how to build a pedestal and even pieced one together earlier this week but haven’t installed it yet. It would be simple, I just have to get off my butt and do it. Same with installing rails across the back to strengthen each book case and make it possible to fix them to the wall. I woke up yesterday morning with a very clear idea how I can do that, but again, I have to actually lift a finger, and I’m currently using said finger to type. But I could stop, I guess.

father’s day | 2:26 pm CST
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Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

A friend at work caught me reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb while I stood outside the main entrance of the office building, read the cover, and said, “Well, this can’t be good. Does it come with blueprints and directions?”

Funnily enough, when I bought the book I had the idea that it was going to be exactly that kind of techno-geek gadget fest, but it turns out to be a long, deep look at the beginnings of modern physics, starting with Leo Szilard, the Hungarian physicist who first realized that it should be possible to release the awesome energies that hold an atom together by starting a chain reaction. Not only that, when he was attending the University of Berlin he solved a problem in thermodynamics that one of his teachers, a certain Albert Einstein, thought was impossible, and took it to him to show him how it was done.

In the second chapter, J.J. Thomson pieces together a cathode ray tube and Ernest Rutherford’s experiments with it lead to the discovery of radioactivity. This little bit of backtracking is a way of explaining how Szilard twigged to the idea of chain reactions in the first place by first explaining how experimenters like Thomson and Rutherford noodled out the structure of the atom. All this was happening back in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. That just kills me. Back when the trains were pulled by steam engines, these guys were learning how to split the atom.

I’ve just started chapter three where Niels Bohr has just made his big entrance, and may have to read it several times, because Bohr is laying the groundwork for quantum physics. Billiard balls smashing against each other I can handle, but there’s so much more to it that that now that I have to think about every single word. Still a great read, though.

smashing | 10:14 pm CST
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Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Here’s what I love about buying the vast majority of the used books I’ve collected over the years from the shelves of the local thift store, Saint Vincent de Paul’s. Each and every day that the weather allows it, I take a walk from the office on East Washington Ave down the Yahara river foot path to Lake Monona, turn south up one of the back streets, usually Spaight or Rutledge, until I get to Baldwin, which I follow back to East Wash to get back to work. Gets me out of the office for about forty minutes to breathe some fresh air and restore my sanity.

St. Vinnie’s just happens to be located at the corner of Baldwin and Williamson street, so I end up stopping there at least once or twice a week. Most of the time I walk out ten minutes later empty-handed, but every once in a while my eye stops on the spine of a book that’s not like any of the other trade paperbacks and I step a little closer to check out the title, author or publisher. Last Thursday I had to squint especially hard to make out the faded gold leaf stamped into the worn binding of a volume titled “Hopkins and Roosevelt.” That could only be Harry Hopkins, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s most trusted and loyal cabinet members, and a man who’d made recurring appearances in the many books about the Great Depression I’ve read in the past two or three years. I’d never run across a book that was principally about him before, but after thumbing through the first few pages I liked it enough to tuck it under my arm and head for the checkout.

When I got home I googled the author, Robert Sherwood, to find out more about him because, I’m ashamed to admit now, his name didn’t ring a bell even though he turned out to be one of the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table, a contributor to Vanity Fair and one of FDR’s speech writers. The book I just happened to pick off the shelf because I was curious to learn more about Harry Hopkins turned out to be a Pulitzer prize-winning for Sherwood. And I took it home on a whim for only a dollar!

prize | 9:34 pm CST
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Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

And so ends a lovely three-day weekend we filled by reading books and watching videos.

I’m still working on A Crack In The Edge Of The World, Simon Winchester’s history of the San Francisco earthquake, only he’s so into geology it’s more like a history of the entire planet’s geological past. Seriously, he goes all the way back to the formation of the earth as a protoplanet to explain plate tectonics. The earthquake doesn’t happen until he’s two hundred pages into the book. He’s a geology nerd right down to the bone. I didn’t get an inkling of this when I read his book about Krakatoa, so he must have kept his nerdiness in check through that book, but he not only let it out for this one, he did it while drinking pots of coffee or snorting crack or something that made him take off at a gallop. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it takes a lot of determination to keep up with that kind of mania.

My Darling B just started Last Call, a book about Prohibition. When I opened the book to flip through it last night, I found a photo of a crowd of hundreds of people carrying signs that said WE WANT BEER in huge block letters. I may have to read that next.

And for video entertainment we finished the first season of The Wire Saturday Night, a series I was not at all sure I would like when we started, because, you know, another cop show? I’ve seen so many cop shows I’m just not that interested any more, but this one turned out to have a few good characters in it and by the time we got to the last disk I was asking B if she’d put in a request for the next season. She had, so I know what we’ll be watching next weekend.

B also brought home a copy of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room because she apparently can’t go a day without making herself even more pissed off about Our Current Economic Crisis. Say what you want about these Enron assholes, you’ve got to admit that anyone who can convince investors to cough up money to buy futures in weather is a salesman’s salesman, the cream of the crop. B doesn’t admire this kind of economic inventiveness. For the rest of the night, she walked around the house, shaking her head while muttering “Bastards!” under her breath. I keep asking her why she watches this kind of stuff when it upsets her so. She doesn’t know. And she keeps on watching.

Weekend Fun | 6:20 am CST
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Friday, January 14th, 2011

I enjoy reading about the turn of the century quite a lot. Not the last turn of the century, that one was a cosmic let-down. I’m talking about the ten or fifteen years on either side of the line dividing the 1800s and the 1900s. It’s easily the most interesting history of modern humankind. On one side you’ve got a steam-powered civilization that still believed disease was caused by marsh gas or loose virtue, and on the other side you’ve got science, electricity and the growing belief that human ingenuity would rid the globe of all pestilence and create a shiny, bright future for everyone.

Unfortunately, the next fifteen years after that is war, revolution, economic ruin and fearing fear itself. That’s why I like to stick to the turn of the century. It was a time in which it seemed as though humankind was poised on the brink of being able to do literally anything we set our most brilliant minds to. The Panama Canal, for instance. The best engineers of the School of Bridges and Roads, a science academy in France that was second to none in all the world, thought nothing of the task when they set out to cut a sea-level canal across the isthmus of Panama. Oh, those mountains? Pay them no mind. We’ll have your canal running straight through them in just a few years.

Too bad the guy who dreamed up the project had dreams bigger than the science of engineering could accommodate at the time. Even more unfortunately, the science of medicine hadn’t advanced as far as engineering had. Twenty thousand dead men later, mostly victims of yellow fever and malaria, the bankrupted French beat a hasty retreat from the isthmus and waited for Teddy Roosevelt to take a poke at the Colombians with a Big Stick.

Maybe Teddy didn’t handle the political situation exactly as it should have been, but he had everything he needed to get the job done. Most importantly, he had a doctor who knew how to eliminate yellow fever by wiping out the mosquitoes that carry it, an idea that most other doctors still thought was batshit crazy. And he had engineers who knew how to literally move mountains. The secret was choo-choo trains. Write that one down in your notebook for the next time you’re on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Once Teddy got these guys down to the isthmus, the completion of the canal, and David McCullough’s six-hundred page book The Path Between The Seas, was almost anticlimactic. Loved every page.

The Path Between The Seas | 5:58 am CST
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Friday, December 31st, 2010

I finished Colonel Roosevelt two and a half weeks after I started, partly because it’s five hundred seventy pages of solidly-written biography, and party because I put it on pause to read three other books. It’s not that the subject was uninteresting (perish the thought!) or the writing was poor (never!), it was me. I get distracted easily. Oooooo, shiny!

I had to read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars because My Darling B put it on hold for me at the library, which I thought would work out just fine. It was a new book and I was way down on the list, so I thought i had plenty of time. I was about a hundred fifty pages into Colonel Roosevelt when it came in. Should’ve known that would happen.

And Griftopia was just sitting there on the coffee table one day and I have such a good time reading Matt Taibbi. I don’t think anybody could fault me for taking a weekend off to read that. The third book was Berlin, a graphic novel that I didn’t finish because it sucked; I read three chapters until I couldn’t motivate myself to pick it up off the bedstand any more and threw myself back into reading Colonel Roosevelt.

My Darling B bought a copy of this last book in Edmund Morris’s three-volume biography of one of the largest personalities that America will ever know after she heard me going gaga over the news that it had just been published. I heard the author on NPR in the wee small hours while making the morning pot of mud and otherwise trying to make myself ready to face another day in cubicle hell (if there was a god, it would not tolerate the existence of office cubicles), and even though I was still swamped in the morning’s miasma I couldn’t help babble about it. A little later in the week we saw Morris on The Daily Show, telling Jon Stewart how Roosevelt learned the most heartbreaking lesson of war when his son Archie was killed in a dogfight over Europe. I put the book on reserve the next time we went to the library. I was number three hundred-something, even though they hadn’t bought a copy yet.

Both Timber and I read the first two volumes of the biography and have passed many an evening at the dining room table debating who was a badder badass, TR or Chuck Norris; TR or John Wayne; TR or zombies. TR always wins. For Christmas I stuffing his stocking with a t-shirt with Teddy’s face on it, cropped down to the pince-nez and teeth that made him so recognizable (the post office famously delivered a letter that was addressed with nothing more than a line sketch of those almond-eyed spectacles over a picket-fence set of choppers.) He’s going to like this last volume as much as I did, when he gets the chance to read it. He’s got as much on his TBR list as I do.

But he’ll read it. I’ll make sure he does. Not that I’ll have to twist his arm much.

Colonel Roosevelt begins with Teddy’s year-long African safari, right after he left office, where he shot something like a million animals, in round numbers. After you kill a couple thousand, you can round up to a million. He loved nature, but he also loved blowing it away. He didn’t seem to have any problem with the conflict that was apparent there. Quite a lot of his life was like that.

He went on a grand tour of Europe after the safari, then went home to find his good friend, Taft, had made a mess of his presidency, so he ran against Taft in the next election and they got into a nearly life-long Adams-Jefferson estrangement that didn’t get patched up until almost the day before Roosevelt died. Besides alienating Taft, he ran as a Progressive party candidate and split the Republican vote, ironically becoming just as responsible for getting Wilson into office as Taft was, although he would hardly admit that to himself or anyone else.

Then, in his mid-fifties he went on an expedition through South America, charting an unknown river and nearly getting eaten alive by sepsis and malaria. He came back just in time to agitate for getting the US into the war. He loved war almost as much as he loved shooting big game, for much the same reasons. When the US finally got into war, all he wanted was to raise a division of cavalry and die gloriously in battle, as if that sort of thing was still done. Wilson wouldn’t hear of it, so he used what influence he still had to make sure his sons all got in and sent to the front lines as quickly as possible. It was so important for him to get into the fight, even vicariously, but he didn’t know how hard losing a son would hit him until it happened. And that was perhaps the greatest life-changing event he had since he was a sickly child.

All by itself, this is a really very amazing book. You wouldn’t have to read the first two volumes to get a feeling for many of the complex facets of Roosevelt’s personality, although it would certainly help. But all by itself, there’s quite a story here, and many chapters that are all but impossible to put down.

Colonel Roosevelt | 12:55 pm CST
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I started Griftopia on Saturday and finished it on Sunday, one book in one weekend. It was that much fun to read. It was also infuriating, but that’s what it was supposed to be, so good on Matt Taibbi.

Griftopia is a collection of articles Taibbi wrote for Rolling Stone magazine about our current economic crisis, and if you think it’s just about over, you won’t after you read this book, so pick your reading material carefully.

Something else to watch out for: Taibbi pulls no punches. When he thinks someone’s acting like an asshole, he calls that guy an asshole. The first chapter of the book, about Alan Greenspan’s rise to power, is titled “The Biggest Asshole in the Universe.” I don’t know how Taibbi avoids being sued six ways from Sunday. Maybe he doesn’t, and all his royalties go straight to his legal defense fund.

I have to admit, the name-calling was just a bit of a turn-off. I don’t mind it when it comes from someone like Lewis Black, but he’s a comedian. Taibbi has a reputation as a gonzo journalist, and as a career that’s supposed to make a little name-calling all right, but to my way of thinking it sends conflicting signals. Name-calling is making fun of people, the way unsophisticated children make fun of people, and a book like this seems to be anything but unsophisticated. I had some trouble reconciling the mean-spirited name-calling with the sophisticated deconstruction of fiduciary malfeasance.

And if Taibbi was not attempting to write to a sophisticated audience, then where the hell did he get off writing a line like this one:

“Almost everyone in America is familiar with the Sherman Antitrust Act, and most people have a fairly good idea of why it was enacted.”

Almost everyone? Really? I live in a college town, and I’ll bet a crisp new fifty-dollar bill I could walk into any coffee shop on State Street and utterly fail to find ten people who could demonstrate their familiarity with the Sherman Antitrust Act or tell me why it was enacted.

But I have to admit Griftopia was still a fun book to read. I can enjoy reading a book I have disagreements with.

Griftopia | 8:23 am CST
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Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Dammit dammit dammit! I promised myself I wasn’t going to check out a book from the library yesterday. I’m only a hundred fifty pages from the end of the Roosevelt biography, I can’t start another book now. When My Darling B asked me to drop her off so she could pick up her hold requests, I told myself, Self, don’t you even go into that library, because you know what’ll happen!

Aw, shut up, I snapped back at myself, it’s not like I have zero self-control. I can walk past a book without picking it up, you know.

So I went inside with B and then, because I was feeling so supremely self-confident about having truckloads of self-control, I mosied over to the new releases bookshelf to see what the library had just acquired. There was the usual pop-culture drek, a few interesting-looking biographies, another history of baseball (is it possible there’s someone or something baseball-related that hasn’t been given five-hundred pages of exposure by now?), and so on. Nothing I couldn’t glance at and walk away from.

But then there was … COLOSSUS! What a BIG book! And what a BIG title! And there’s a photo of a GREAT BIG DAM on the cover! The HOOVER dam! One of the biggest, coolest gadgets on the planet! What kind of self-respecting gadget guy wouldn’t take it home to look it over and possibly spend every spare moment during breaks and lunch and waiting for a ride hom, reading it obsessively from cover to cover? I MUST HAVE IT! AAAAAAAGGGGGHHH!


Colossus | 6:06 am CST
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Friday, December 17th, 2010

Chatting with a coworker this morning, I had one of the strangest experiences of my life. Yes, of my life! We were discussing the busy examination schedule that day and he mentioned that he had been tapped to step in and give the tester a break now and again, and “wouldn’t you know it, I didn’t bring a book with me today.”

I facetiously offered him my copy of the Teddy Roosevelt biography I’m reading, expecting the usually momentary silence, followed by the usual polite thanks and tactful refusal I get whenever I recommend the latest really great book about dead people that I’m currently immersed in. To my stunned surprise he not only said thanks, he said in a perfect deadpan that it was his ambition to read a good biography of every one of the U.S. presidents.

Then it was my turn to respond with silence. When I found my voice again all I could think to say was, “You’re messing with me, aren’t you?”

But no, he was completely sincere, and we had an incredible conversation about our favorite authors and the earliest presidents and who was the most awesome founding father. He was sure it was Alexander Hamilton, and recommended the biography by Ron Chernow, which I think I have stashed away somewhere, still unread. I stuck up for David McCullough, and recommended 1776, his terrifically lucid account of the very iffy landmark year of the American revolution.

I’m absolutely gobsmacked at having finally met another history nerd, after so many years of wondering where all the people were who read the kooky kind of books I do. They live! And now I’ve seen on in nature. Amazing.

History Nerds | 8:35 pm CST
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Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

In last night’s dream I was looking for a science fiction story by wandering through the collected books in somebody’s house, and he had quite a few. Room after room was crammed with book cases crammed with books, in a house so big I remember driving through the hallways at a pretty fast clip in my Toyota.

Apparently I knew this guy although I couldn’t tell you who he was, other than he was wearing the classic nerd uniform: white, button-down shirt and black horn-rim glasses. He knew all the stories I knew … except this one. It was a short story about time-travelers who stole people from the past to repopulate the future. They were on an airplane that was going to crash at the end of its flight, so they beamed aboard it, anesthetized everybody, beamed them into the future and replaced everyone with corpses. I’m pretty sure this is a real story, but no matter how many times I wring my brain for the title or the author I can’t get it to pop out.

In one room, a bunch of this guy’s friends were sitting at tables reading until we came in, and after we all said “Hi, how ya doon?” I asked if any of them had ever read this story. They all said no, and one of them added, “I’m not really into Golden Age science fiction,” referring to stories that were written by the likes of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein. Apparently the story I described sounded a bit wrinkly around the edges, quaint, even. And although I wanted to grab my crotch and tell him, Hey, pal, I got your Golden Age right here, it probably would have been a story that was, to him, what a Jules Verne story is to me. They don’t write them like that any more.

“The story I’m looking for was probably written in the 70s or 80s,” I told them, “and was published in a collection, probably a ‘best of the year’ or a book of Nebula or Hugo award-winners.” Blank stares all around. That didn’t help one bit, so I thanked them and we went on to the next room, where I kept on thumbing through books while talking about my favorite Golden Age authors with my nerd friend.

I’m never going to find that story, am I?

LATER: Yes, as it happens I do get to find out. The story was Air Raid, published in 1977 by science fiction author John Varley, who later expanded it into the novel Millennium and even wrote a screen play for a movie, also called Millennium, starring Kris Kirstofferson and Cheryl Ladd.

Lost In Space | 6:07 am CST
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Friday, November 19th, 2010

image of book The Forgotten Man

The book that I’m currently devouring is The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes, an economist who writes articles for media outlets like Bloomberg. I was a little worried this would turn out to be a great big yawner, even while it has a relevance to contemporary times so intimate that I shouldn’t even say how carnally intimate it could have been. And it probably would be a yawner to people who somehow, don’t ask me how, aren’t the least bit interested in as historic an event as the Great Depression. I know I wasn’t as recently as five years ago, but I sure am now. I used to sit through lectures in history class and wonder why we were bothering with learning about this, because people could not possibly be stupid enough to let it happen again. And now that it’s happening again and I read about the very smart people who not only watched helplessly as it unfolded the last time, but actually made it worse with their tinkering, I nod and think to myself, Yeah, okay, I can see how they could’ve done that, and yeah, I can see how they could be that dumb again. As Shlaes spins the tale, each new wave of economic depression unfolds with such inevitable horror that, even in her very bare-bones style of prose, I’m compelled to turn page after page. Reading The Forgotten Man is like watching a train wreck unfold in real time before your eyes.

Shameless plug | 9:31 pm CST
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Thursday, November 18th, 2010

For months, I’ve been watching the shelves of the local thrift store’s book nook for a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species and getting no joy. Several textbooks on Darwin showed up, and one I even bought because it had excerpts from Origin, but I wanted the real deal. I thought maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place, so one Saturday morning several weeks ago I went to the authority to ask for help.

There’s one guy stocking the shelves who’s obviously the book guru. He not only knows where all the books go, I think he’s a true-blue book-loving geek. When I go in on Saturdays he’s almost always talking with other guys I can only assume are either book collectors that would make me look freakishly amateur, or they’re dealers, because they’re talking about books in such an intensely personal way that it makes me feel I just shouldn’t be listening.

So he’s definitely the go-to guy when it comes to questions about the books. I caught up with him while he was working the stacks and asked, “If you had a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species, where would it be?” And he went straight to the top shelf in the science section, swatted a couple books back and forth, and said whenever he gets a copy in he puts it right there. I’ve been watching that spot ever since.

When it was time for my lunch break today I really had to get out from behind my desk even though it was pretty cold all day, so I wrapped a scarf around my neck, zipped my jacket all the way up and when I got outside I kept the pace moving at an adjutant’s cadence. Following the bike path along the river, I came out on Willy Street at Micky’s Tavern, worked my way up and was going to turn back on Baldwin, but as I passed Saint Vinnie’s I caved in to the compulsion to check out the bookshelves. Just for a minute.

As I took the two steps down into the book nook I passed the book guru on his way out, probably to load up his cart with more books and bring them back. As he passed me he gave me such a funny look, as if he was trying to remember something, but didn’t stop, and neither did I. I went straight to the top shelf in the science section, and there it was: Origin of Species, right where he said it would be. And just a dollar. Thanks, buddy. You did me a favor, even if you couldn’t recall what it was at the time.

Origins | 9:43 pm CST
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Saturday, October 30th, 2010

I was served notice by the book police this week, nothing truly criminal but every bit as determined as a real-life summons. I opened the envelope that came to our mailbox from the Monona Public Library with no small amount of trepidation. They’re so strapped for cash they don’t mail anything unless they’re about to get medieval on your heinie. They won’t send actual jackbooted goons to your door, but they will refuse to check out books to you ever again, a punishment an order of magnitude worse than being hauled away in chains. The notice they sent me turned out to be a charge for a lost book, titled The Greatest Show on Earth, that I was pretty sure I never checked out. (I’ll bet they hear that one a lot.)

I was very, very wrong, though. I had the book, I just didn’t realize it. The title made me think of Barnum & Bailey’s, or something else literally circus-like, but it was nothing of the sort. Well, not to me. It was a book about evolution, which I don’t find circus-like but, it turns out, there are many who do. In either case, I’d checked it out about two months ago and it skipped my mind entirely because, even before I’d finished it, My Darling B started reading it too and it ended up in amongst the gaggle of books at her bedside. She emerged from our room holding it triumphantly over her head while I puzzled over the notice. If I heard her right, I think it may have ended up under the bed, but either way it was well-camouflaged, if not completely out of sight, and that’s how I didn’t know I still had it.

While we were on the hunt for that, I ran across another library book that was at least a month overdue, so I logged on to my on-line library profile to make sure I didn’t have any others checked out that I’d forgotten about, and found what do you know – I had. Once again, I went back on the hunt, but before I did that, I updated my e-mail address so when the library sent messages asking me pretty please to bring their books back, I would actually see them more often than once in a coon’s age. Do coons really get very old? They don’t look grumpy enough to be old.

Book ’em, Danno | 8:43 am CST
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Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

image of a hydrogen bomb explosion

I’ve made it to page five hundred something of The Making of the Atomic Bomb when it finally got really good, and by “really good” I mean I got to the part that guys would like most: The part about how they got the atomic bomb to blow up.

This was not as easy as it sounds. If you have a critical mass of uranium, that means you have a lump of uranium big enough to explode simply because it’s big enough. Uranium is all over the place, common as dirt, really, but it doesn’t blow up because there’s never enough of it in one place to start a self-sustaining chain reaction.

(Also, it’s very dirty. A critical mass of uranium has to be very pure to explode, which is one of the reasons they used plutonium instead. Another good reason: Plutonium makes a bigger bang. Nuclear physics: Don’t try to pretend it’s not cool.)

A critical mass of uranium can be quite small, no bigger than a pineapple, in the almost poetic words of Enrico Fermi. The trouble is, how do you lump together that much uranium? When the lump reaches critical mass, it explodes, and you know what that looks like. So, to employ the simplest visual, you couldn’t lump it together like a mud pie; as you picked up that last handful of uranium and brought it toward the critical mass the chain reaction would begin before you came even close to slapping it into place. The radiation would kill you and anybody near you, and there might be a tiny little kaboom, but nothing like what the Los Alamos guys were hoping for.

One bright guy thought of shooting the key piece into the sub-critical mass with a cannon. That’s pretty good guy thinking, but not quite going the whole nine yards. Try again.

Yes? You in the back?

“Let’s use a couple tons of plastic explosives to crush the pieces together!”

Yes! Blow up the bomb with a bomb! I like the way this guy thinks! What’s your name, son?

Seth Neddermeyer.

Take a bow, Seth. You’re a real guy’s guy.

There’s a right way, and a guy way | 6:00 am CST
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Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

image of sleeping sick guy

I’m still trying to sleep off the effects of this head cold I caught, so this will necessarily be brief before I have to go medicate myself with my hourly fistful of over-the-counter drugs, drink a pint of water and stretch out on the recliner for my early-mid-late-afternoon nap.

My symptoms today are a lot worse than they were the day before, and they were plenty bad yesterday. “You look like shit,” My Darling B observed, gazing across the dinner table at me. “I hope you don’t take that the wrong way.” I was too burned out to take it any way at all.

This morning I had a clear head for about an hour, long enough to make the ceremonial pot of coffee and eat a bowl of granola before I wrapped myself up in quilts and retreated to the recliner with a hot cuppa joe and the Sunday paper. I barely touched either of them before I was drifting in and out of consciousness.

I’d forgotten how much I hate being this sick. For an hour or more I struggled to keep my eyes open as waves of congestion swelled my face up and filled my eyes with tears. I could read three or four paragraphs before I had to put the newspaper down, reel off a yard and a half of toilet paper from the roll I kept at my side, and explosively blow a quart or two of snot from my sinuses. Finally I just gave up, popped a couple decongestants, stretched out with my eyes closed and prayed for death.

When I finally came to again, round about two in the afternoon, I was feeling well enough to make myself a cup of tea, and passed a few hours by reading a few chapters of the book I’m chipping away at, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. It even made some sense, unlike the news stories I was trying to figure out this morning. But I can tell a relapse is coming on quickly and I’ll have to go pop a couple more decongestant capsules before becoming an inert lump on the recliner once again.

The photo’s from yesterday; B snapped it while I was out like a light. She’s been babying me as much as she dares, but mostly she’s trying to keep her distance, and I don’t blame her one bit. The cats, on the other hand, aren’t squeamish at all about my condition. The great thing about cats is they’ll curl up with you whether you’re healthy or sick. All they’re looking for is a warm lap, and once they’ve claimed it they’ll stubbornly stay there no matter how wetly you sneeze on them. They can’t catch your bug, so they don’t care.

Out Go The Lights! | 3:25 pm CST
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Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

image of sick office worker

One of the benefits of working in an office environment is receiving a steady paycheck. I think we can all agree on that.

Maybe another thing we can all agree on is one of the most glaring detriments: Having to acquire a whole new herd immunity. I have no idea if this has ever been studied scientifically, but I can offer my own anecdotal evidence from almost thirty years of moving from one office environment to another at intervals of about two years. Each time I’ve made that move I’ve had to spend several weeks during the first few months sicker than a puking dog. All the antibodies I built up while working in the previous office seemed to be absolutely worthless in the new office.

My latest office environment is no exception. At my previous office I could, and frequently did, sit at a desk surrounded by people hacking up great gobs phlegm as if they were dying of tuberculosis. I worked there five years and I think I got sick once, maybe twice. In my new office, however, I’d been there just three days before I knew I picked up their particular strain of cube farm killer death flu.

“Got any plans for the weekend?” one my coworkers asked me Friday afternoon.

“Yeah,” I answered, ”I think I’m going to spend it sick in bed, using up all the Kleenex.” And that’s what I’m going to do. Luckily, I’m only halfway through an eight-hundred page history of the discovery and development of atomic power, so this will give me a chance to knock off a couple hundred pages a day. Also, I’ve got My Darling B, who says she’ll make me some tomato soup. Atomic physics and some heartfelt pampering ought to make the next couple days bearable, even if I have to spend them half-dead.

I god a ruddy node | 8:32 am CST
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Monday, September 27th, 2010

Hoo-boy, I am beat! A whole day of regulating and licensing Cheeseheads sure does wear me out! My Darling B confirms that feeling like a well-wrung dish rag after laboring mightily all day for the Great State of Wisconsin is pretty common, and I’d better get used to it. Well, hoe-kay! If I gotta, then I gotta.

“So, what did you think?” one of my coworkers asked me as we were headed out the door. “Will you be coming back tomorrow?” I could honestly tell him that no, I wouldn’t. That made him raise his eyebrows, until I explained that I’m scheduled to spend all day tomorrow in a new employee’s orientation course at the Department of Administration downtown. “But I’ll be back on Wednesday,” I added.

I work in a pretty small unit, just four people including me, where we regulate the licensing of professionals such as aestheticians, perfusionists and prevention specialists. I didn’t make up any of those job titles. Check them out for yourself at

I only get forty-five minutes for lunch now, but I get out of work at four-thirty instead of five, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain. I brought my copy of The Making of the Atomic Bomb along with me to read while I was chowing down on leftover sausages and a crusty dinner roll, and the woman who sits at the front desk to answer the phone and buzz visitors through came over to ask what I was reading. I got the bright idea to answer her, “Oh, just a little how-to book,” before flipping the cover over, and when she read the title her eyes popped out, she looked up at me and said, “Oh!” as in, Oh, I think I hear my mother calling, gotta go, bye! I didn’t get a chance to say I was only kidding before she ran off. Wonder if she’ll ever talk to me again?

One immediate down side to being employed by the state is that I work the same hours that My Darling B does, so when she gets off work she has to drive at least twenty minutes across town to pick me up. That ought to give me plenty of time to catch up on my reading.

Back to the Grindstone | 8:30 pm CST
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Saturday, September 11th, 2010

image of book

I’ve been lusting after a hardbound copy of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 ever since I spotted it on the shelves at Paul’s Bookstore on State Street. Alas, it was priced way over the limit of what I’ll spend on any book (five dollars) that isn’t about rockets or choo-choo trains, so I was certain I was damned to pine for it forever …

… until today! Coming back from our weekly trip to the farmer’s market, My Darling B asked if I wanted to stop at Saint Vinnie’s thrift store. I’d been there just the day before but we had the time and she wanted to stop and browse the mind-bogglingly expensive trinkets in the kitchen store across the street anyway, so I said sure, we’ll stop.

Way in the back of the used book section of the store there’s one of those racks that displays books face-front. It’s usually filled with coffee table photo collections, Anne Geddes babies and bound collections of Life magazine covers, stuff like that. I flip through the books anyway because I found a really good large-format book about steam locomotives in there once and I’m under the delusion it could happen again.

Thank goodness I check, because that’s where I found a paperback copy of Gotham today. I snatched it off the shelf without having to think twice about it, then flipped it over to see what the damages to my wallet would be. Three and a half bucks! Finds like this are what make getting out of bed early on a Saturday morning worthwhile.

image of book

And speaking of choo-choo trains and steam locomotives, I also scored a soft cover copy of the Illustrated Book of Steam and Rail! How lucky can one guy be? I already have plenty of encyclopedias and other illustrated guides to choo-choos from around the world, but this one is put together by Colin Garratt and Max Wade-Matthews. I have no idea who the second guy is, but I have several books by Colin Garratt and they all make me drool with delight, so when I saw his name on the cover of this guide I had to add it to my collection. Cost: Just a dollar. Bliss!

Gotham | 12:39 pm CST
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Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

While I was doinking around on the internet yesterday I followed a link to someone’s blog where I found a list of the science fiction novels considered “masterworks” by the publishing house Orion Publishing Group. They consider these novels so important that they “deserve to be in print and kept there, rather than languishing as OP [out of print] titles,” so Orion has done the deserving thing and begun reprinting them.

And good on them … but bad on me. I haven’t read much science fiction lately but when I did, I devoured the stuff. Actually, I read virtually nothing but science fiction for the better part of a decade. I had a closet filled with science fiction paperbacks, and yet, to my great shame, I hardly put a dent in the list of novels considered masterworks by Orion.

For instance, I knew about Phillip K. Dick but, even this late in my life, I’ve read just one of his books, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because, as any science fiction geek can tell you, it was the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner. Yet dozens, nay hundreds, perhaps even zillions of his books (how did that man find time to sleep?) are on this list. (Somebody at Orion really likes Phillip K. Dick.) (I almost wrote, “Somebody at Orion really likes Dick.” I’ve often wondered why everyone refers to him in print by his full name. Now I know.)

I have to confess, I didn’t like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I’ve read critical reviews that claim it’s a ground-breaking thought experiment that shakes the very foundations of what it means to be human, but stories about robots who act human have never managed to sway me from the very self-evident fact that they’re not human. They’re robots. Science fiction authors have dressed them up in skin, made them talk like people, gotten them to seduce other characters in the novel, but no matter how many times the author posed the question in every different way he could think of, it never left my mind that robots are just machines, and always will be. Now if somebody wrote a novel proving that humans were just robots, that would settle the whole thing for me.

But away from this distressing digression and back to the list: As I said, I scanned the titles considered “masterworks” by Orion and found myself wanting. How’s it possible that, in all the years of collecting science fiction novels, I haven’t read as many as half of all the books on this list? Worse than that, I haven’t heard of some of them! A Fall of Moondust is “the story of a lunar sightseeing cruiser which winds up trapped when a shift in the regolith sucks it into the Sea of Thirst.” That sounds like it would be right up my alley, yet I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it anywhere. And it was written by Arthur C. Clark! I loved Arthur C. Clark! How’d I miss that?

I’m not sure what I can do about this now. I suppose I can haunt the thrift stores or, when I’m desperate, visit Half-Price books, but I won’t be able to pick up any of the Orion reprints until they start showing up on the shelves of the aforementioned used-book stores because my cheapskate gene just won’t allow me to pay more than five bucks for a book, so I haven’t bought anything new since about 1990. What’s the retail price of a new paperback book these days? About twenty bucks, isn’t it? I’ve got books in my collection that sold for seventy-five cents when they were new. And back in my day we didn’t have hot water, either! Hey! Get off my lawn, you damn kids!

Book me | 6:15 am CST
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Friday, August 20th, 2010

image of router bit

When I picked her up from work, My Darling B noticed the back seats of the car were folded down. “What were you hauling home today?” she asked. She doesn’t miss a thing.

I made an early-morning visit to the local lumber yard to bring home some plywood to start Phase II of the great big bookcase project going on in our basement, my effort to unpack and organize our insanely huge collection of books. I also managed to navigate my way through the labyrinthine aisles of the warehouse hardware store to the exact spot where I could find a router bit big enough to chew a three-quarter inch divot out of said lumber. That leaves a clean-cut groove almost wide enough to stick your thumb in, the only drawback being that it makes the router about as easy to control as a drag racer. Makes about as much noise, too.

After marking the lumber and making sure everything was lined up the way I wanted it, I chucked the bit and fired up the router to try out my new toy. It barely touched the edge of the wood when BRAAPPP! It chewed a trench almost a half-inch long through good-quality pine. Broke off a nasty sliver from the edge, too. After I took a deep breath and a tighter grip on the router, I tried again. BRAAPPP! It made another half-inch trench that I didn’t see until it was all over. This was going to take a little getting used to. The machine-gun noise was making me a little jumpy, too.

Router bits tend wander across the face of the wood I’m working on if I don’t clamp a stout piece of finished wood in place to use as a guide, and oftentimes they will even if I do. It’ll happen in spite of the fact that I’m anticipating it and think I’ve mustered as tight a grip on the router’s handles as it’s possible for a human being to have. Moving slowly and deliberately, I’ll press the bit into the edge of the wood, concentrating on the router’s path as if willing it to proceed in a straight line, and whoops! There it goes in a crazy curlicue. A router is very headstrong, the adolescent of power tools.

A router with a three-quarter inch bit chucked in the collet, though, transforms a router from a headstrong adolescent into a skinheaded rebel with homicidal tendencies. I had to keep a deathgrip on the handles at all times, press the edge of the router face against the guide fence with all my weight, and move in the tiniest of increments. In response, the bit would grab a handful, so to speak, of pine and pull, and it wasn’t playing this game of tug-of-war to merely win, it wanted to drag me into the mud, jump on my back and roll me around to get me filthy dirty from head to toe. This was not a quiet day of relaxing wood working.

I finally finished up around two o’clock in the afternoon, leaving me just enough time to clean up my mess, shower, and fry a mess of bacon so we could have BLTs when we got back. Actually, they were BLATs: bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomatoes. Bliss!

Digging In | 6:25 am CST
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Saturday, July 24th, 2010

image of cabinet carcase

This, my friend, is possibly the most overbuilt cabinet carcase on the face of the planet. That’s three-quarter inch plywood you’re looking at. Orson Welles, were he still walking this green, effective earth, could perch on that, after it’s put together of course, and it wouldn’t give a fraction of an inch in any direction. We’ll be able to take shelter from tornadoes in it. This will be an indestructible cabinet.

I’m not an engineer, and I don’t build a lot of cabinets, so I wasn’t sure what to use for the carcase. Half-inch plywood seemed too flimsy, and I certainly didn’t want flimsy, because this is going to be a permanent part of our house, so I went up a notch to three-quarter inch plywood to make sure it would be sturdy enough that anybody could sit on it, or jump on it, or set a life-size statue of the Buddha cast in pure, solid lead on it.

It’s meant to be a window seat, you see, a perch to lure the casual visitor, a place to rest, a corner for quiet repose. It’s fairly small, just over three feet wide and about two feet tall, and I can tell already it’s ridiculously overbuilt. I probably could’ve gotten away with using quarter-inch plywood, tacking it together with cleats to stiffen it just enough to bear the weight of a seat cushion, because I doubt anyone will ever sit on it. All we’ll be storing in it is blankets and quilts for the guest bed. And yet I built a bunker we could easily stick two rabid wombats in and let them fight to the death without a care in the world that they’d ever get free to menace either of us.

Now, for the book cases that’ll flank it on either side … I’m thinking steel plate.

Carcase | 11:05 am CST
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Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

image of Twinkies being fed to an industrial-strength shredder

The coolest thing I’ve seen on the internet in the past week is a web page at the site for SSI Shredding Systems, a company in Wilsonville, Oregon, that manufactures custom-built shredding machines. Do you have a shredder? One of those plug-in units that grinds all your personal paperwork to little bits? (If not, you should, partly to protect your personal information but mostly because they’re so friggin much fun!) That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about, except that SSI builds shredders that stand fifteen feet tall, weigh thirty tons, and have teeth as big as truck tires and sharper and more vicious than a Tyrannosaur’s.

The biggest shredder they make, christened “The Monster”, can eat a refrigerator in seconds. Literally. A fridge forklifted into The Monster’s extra-wide mouth is gone nine seconds after its rotating teeth catch hold and inexorably pull the fridge to its doom. I have never wanted a new toy so badly in all my life.

Not that I necessarily need to own one of SSI’s monster shredders to enjoy the fun of seeing one munch on a Volkswagen Beetle. SSI, which incidentally looks like a great place to work, has built a web page called where you can attend a Twinkie-eating contest pitting ten of the company’s employees against one of their shredders (I hope I’m not giving away too much if I reveal the shredder wins). In another video, employees enjoy bowling a few frames on an improvised lane before the balls and pins are rather spectacularly ground to pulp.

I’ve spent way too much time watching too many of these videos. Why? I suppose I could patch together a bullshit excuse that might sound somewhat plausible, but that would be an even bigger waste of my time. I watched them because they were awesome! These guys build shredding machines as big as locomotives that can eat cars! Who wouldn’t want to watch that? Well, okay, My Darling B just rolls her eyes, but Tim and Sean crowd around the screen, point and laugh! They know awesome when they see it.

image of Paul’s Bookstore in Madison, WI

I had a hard time deciding which was the most awesome internet find of the week, shredder porn or bookshelf porn. The shredder porn won, but only just. I went surfing from one web site after another looking at photographs of bookshelves for almost an hour. Is this normal? Some might doubt it, but it would be a pleasant dream to live in a house where every wall was a bookshelf from floor to ceiling, filled with every book I could afford to bring home and squirrel away for the day when I can retire and spend my evenings in a rocking chair beside a reading lamp, picking off each of my prizes one by one. If only, if only.

Geeking Out | 4:59 pm CST
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Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

I took my lunch hour in a coffee shop on State Street, where I could get refill price if I presented my travel mug, and they had a big circle of overstuffed chairs in the front. I slouched back in one, propped a book on my knee and passed the better part of an hour reading about infectious diseases that ravaged the planet at the turn of the century.

“What are you reading?” the guy in the next chair over asked me. I flipped the cover of the book toward him so he could reading the title, The Great Influenza. “What’s that about?” he asked.

“The Spanish flu pandemic,“ I told him.

“Oh, yeah,” he replied, gazing off into the distance as if he were recalling everything about it. Then he turned to look right at me and cackled like a fiend.


“Were you here for the Asian flu epidemic?” he asked, after he was done having his little chuckle at the deaths of millions.

“No, actually,” I said, “I was overseas at the time.”

“Too bad. If you’d been here, you’d be immune to SARS and Swine flu.” And then, like a cat who suddenly remembers he has to be in the next room right friggin now! he jumped up out of his chair and strode out the door. And that was as good a time as any to gather up my things and head back to the office, only not too quickly. I wanted to let Mister Immunity get a good head start on me.

immunity | 6:42 pm CST
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Sunday, May 16th, 2010

I don’t need no stinking reason to put the granola in the refrigerator, do I? I can absentmindedly put it in there without it meaning anything, don’t you think? I put it there before I drank my second cup of coffee, so I wasn’t even hitting on all four cylinders yet (I’m a compact model). So it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m losing my marbles, right? Besides, I’ll bet granola keeps longer if you put it in the fridge. Just sayin’.

bookshelf, books, book porn, basement lair, man caveIt’s been a day of being distracted by things I’ve been planning to do for days, weeks, years, and finally doing them. I didn’t have solid plans to do anything specific today; mostly, I planned to sit on my butt and read. I finally cracked open my copy of Rocketman, a memoir of moonwalker Pete Conrad, last night and gobbled up the first ten chapters even though it kept me up past my bed time. I started right in again where I left off while I made the morning pot o’ java after I looked out the front window and saw the newspaper hadn’t been delivered yet. I’m a little more than halfway through the book already and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it kept me up past my bed time again tonight.

Because I keep getting distracted, right? I took a trip to the hardware store this morning, looking for some pipes to drain the rainwater away from the downspout at the corner of the garage, and came back with some shelving brackets, plywood and four bags of topsoil for the planter out front.

The topsoil was pure inspiration. My Darling B has this yearly ritual of buying a flat of posies in the spring, then leaving them out front on the porch or the sidewalk or, a variation this year, on the back deck and forgetting about them until they die. For whatever reason, the image of a flat of dying posies flashed before my eyes as I passed the gardening supplies and, lucky me, the top soil was on sale. I stuffed as many of the bags as would under my push cart and moved on.

The plywood got ripped into bookshelves for my basement lair because I wasn’t going to pay eighty bucks for a finished bookshelf when I could rip three shelves from a two-by-four foot piece of half-inch plywood I could buy for four dollars. And the bookshelves were a gotta-have. I’ve been carrying home bargain books from Saint Vinnie’s all winter long so they’re falling off the shelves in the basement where they’re doubled up and stacked until every bit of every shelf has been crammed with books. A set of shelves over my desk was long overdue.

A set of shelves which, by the way, somehow emphasized how little direct light I have on my desk. I’d been thinking about repositioning the overhead track lights all winter, when I had plenty of spare time to do that sort of thing, yet never got around to it, somehow. Today being a day of distractions, though, I found myself up on a stool with a power drill, unscrewing the tracks and moving them to a spot on the ceiling over my desk where I could point them so I could see stuff. Zow!

With that all done I finally had time to … wait, I’ve got to re-hang all the photos I took down to put up the book shelves.

distract– SQUIRREL! | 9:31 am CST
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Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Olivetti, typewriter, Studio 44We stopped at the co-op yesterday morning for groceries and at the thrift store to see if there were any books I had to take home (there were; I finally scored a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff).

On my way to the front door of the thrift store I glanced through the window to see if there were any old typewriters on the front counter. It’s a nervous tic I picked up ever since I went home from the thrift store with a cast-iron LC Smith typewriter. I didn’t see any this time, so I was even more surprised when I caught sight of a small portable out of the corner of my eye.

It was an Olivetti Studio 44. My first typewriter was an electric Olivetti Praxis so I already have a soft spot in my heart for Olivettis. This little manual had been well taken care of and was in great shape, except that a tiny metal tab that was meant to hold up the return lever had broken off sometime in the past, so that the return had left a mark where it dragged across the top of the body, and dangled feebly over the side as the carriage advanced.

No big deal to me. I took it home anyway. Fixed the problem of the return lever by sticking a couple of washers in the gap between the lever and the mechanism it screwed onto. Works just great!

Olivetti | 8:08 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, hobby | Tags: ,
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